t’s Monday morning and you commute to your office where you have in-person meetings with your team, coffee and ideas flowing freely before bumping into a colleague in the corridor who asks for your input on a project. After drinks with a work friend you head back home, where you’re based for the next two days. You use the time you would’ve spent commuting to go for a run or make a leisurely breakfast, and then settle into the quiet of your home office, able to plough through a task without distractions. Come Thursday, you feel eager to head back to the office again. This is hybrid working — what many people are calling the future of work.
“The hybrid model is here to stay and it’s actually a bit bonkers that it’s taken us this long to start doing it,” says Tony Crabbe, business psychologist and author of Busy@Home: How To Thrive Through The Covid Crisis. As has become clear during lockdowns, we have the technology that allows many of us to work well from home. “We’ve been chained to this old idea of the factory model where everyone has to be in the same place for the nine to five. The pandemic has exploded the idea that we can’t be productive at home, but at the same time there’s emerged a real pent-up need for the human connection and ‘micro-collisions’ that we get from the workplace.”
For everyone who has enjoyed the flexibility that working from home brings, there are those who have missed the office. At first it seemed that most people were itching to get back to their desk — at the end of April, nearly 66 per cent of respondents to a poll said they wanted to return to the office as soon as possible. And yet in the same poll, 84 per cent said they enjoyed remote work and found it more productive.
Into these contradictions steps hybrid working. Whether we’re a home-worker at heart or a die-hard desk jockey, one thing we all want is the power to choose. A recent study from Microsoft found that 70 per cent of people want a more flexible way of working in the future and that 88 per cent of leaders are convinced that hybrid working is here to stay. This is good news for the wider economy — a blend of home and office working will benefit London too. With the Government advising people to work from home where possible for more than a year, the exodus from the centre of the capital has been disastrous for the businesses which rely on office workers to survive. A move to hybrid working patterns will help restore some trade.
David Morel, 44, from Kensington, is the chief executive of Tiger Recruitment. He says that giving employees the power to design their working week has become a key perk. “We have a young workforce who gain more from working in the office some of the time than they do from being based permanently at home. They enjoy meeting and collaborating face-to-face in a way that simply isn’t possible when they’re working remotely,” he says. “But equally, the pandemic has shown that a more flexible way of working is possible and many people are reluctant to give that up.”
If candidates aren’t offered the flexible working options they’re looking for, they’re voting with their feet. “We are now seeing candidates turn down jobs that require them to work in the office five days a week,” says Morel. “It’s so important for employers to get the work from home/work from the office balance right.” Research from Tiger Recruitment found that sacrificing flexibility is something that 40 per cent of people fear most about returning to the office. While some influential companies were early to adopt the hybrid approach — take Facebook and Twitter’s remote-work policies — others are insisting that it is not the new normal. Goldman Sachs, whose chief executive David Solomon called working from home an “aberration”, is being joined by more supposedly forward-thinking organisations. Google raised eyebrows when it said it expected staff back on-site from September and that anyone wishing to work remotely for more than 14 days a year would have to request it. “In-person, being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new, so we don’t see that changing,” said chief executive Sundar Pichai.
Whether you are open to hybrid working may depend on who you are. A survey by Totem found that women are more in favour of hybrid working than men, as are high earners. What’s clear is that across many industries, employers and employees will be negotiating what their post-pandemic workplaces will look like. “Even those who previously worked from home full-time are now looking at renting part-time co-working desk space to get a bit of balance back,” says Crabbe.
Lucy Wightwick, 36, from Crystal Palace, is Womenswear Designer for Urban Outfitters and has been spending two or three days in the office and the rest of the week at home since last summer. “I’ve never been more productive in my professional career than I have with hybrid working,” she says. “For a few days in the office I have meetings with my team where we bounce ideas off each other and then when I’m at home I can fully focus on my admin and sketches without being pulled into various unscheduled meetings.” The benefits of hybrid working seem clear. Employees feel more fulfilled and empowered at work and employers get to reduce their office costs and provide a sought-after benefit. But what are the potential downsides to going hybrid?
“We’re exhausted and burnt out because we don’t have breaks when we’re doing back-to-back Zoom calls,” says Crabbe. “Covid put the always-on culture into overdrive and the danger with hybrid working is that your work and home life just bleed into one.”
Indeed, forget the old joke about “shirking from home”, a Harvard study that analysed the emails and meetings of 3.1 million people in 16 cities found remote staff work 48.5 minutes more per day. Research published this month found employees working from home in the UK, Austria, Canada and the US are at their computer an extra two hours a day. Clearly being able to disconnect on your working from home days is vital to sustaining the hybrid model.
Professor Anna Cox, a computing and work-life balance expert at University College London, says that deterioration in work-life balance is mostly down to pressure and insecurity created by employers’ use of tracking software. “It’s left employees feeling like they’re being watched every minute,” she says. “They feel like there is an expectation to always be on call. It has such an impact on workers, particularly those who are not high-status managers.”
Crabbe says that we could see problems arise in perceptions of presenteeism with hybrid working. “Every manager has a different view on how much their people should be in the office,” he says. “Even within teams you could have some people who want to come in and some who want to do things virtually, and that can quickly create a feeling of an ‘in group’ and an ‘out group’.”
“For hybrid working to work, we need to have flexibility and autonomy around time and not just geography,” says Annie Auerbach, author of Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life and founder of Starling trends agency. “Otherwise employees are still tied to rigid ways of working, presenteeism and overwork but just doing it from home as well as the workplace.”
Auerbach believes that employers will need to be more explicit about their out-of-hours email policies and their attitudes towards switching off. “Enlightened companies will help by providing hard edges and having specific tempos during the day or week which allow for deeper, uninterrupted work,” says Auerbach. “For example, Channel 4 has instigated ‘no Zoom Fridays’.”
Clearly technology, and knowing when to turn it off, plays a key role in productive hybrid working. We all dream of a soundproofed home office with warp-speed wi-fi and a standing desk, but the reality might be more ageing laptop on a messy kitchen table. “The Covid lockdown experience gave time to reflect on issues like living environment, office space, the commute to work and work-life balance,” says Jeremy Thompson, Huawei executive vice president, Europe. “But ... not everyone moved seamlessly from office to home working during the pandemic or has the facilities to move to hybrid working now. We shouldn’t delay the roll-out of the telecoms and technologies that make the new ways of working possible and allow us to be securely connected.”
Whether you are more in favour of the office or home, it’s inconceivable that we’ll go back to working the way we were. “People will ask themselves why they’re getting on the Tube every day, inches from someone’s armpit, when they could go in to the office at 11am and leave at 3pm and work from home around that,” says Crabbe. “I think the ideal balance for most people is 60 per cent office and 40 per cent home. It’s the laughter and the chats and the seemingly inconsequential moments that build social fabric at work and boost creativity and innovation. We can do a lot virtually, but we can’t do that.”