Although we often describe the shift to remote working in March 2020 as an overnight phenomenon, a host of factors fed into how organisations responded. In an extract from his new book, HR for Hybrid Working, Gary Cookson considers how we got to where we are today.
The world’s journey to hybrid working is not one that began in 2020, even if the pandemic accelerated things and brought more people into such ways of working. The sometimes-painful lessons learnt in 2020-2021 were, in many cases, already there to be learnt from those people’s experiences.
To begin looking at what the present and future holds for people professionals and the services we deliver, it is worth reflecting on where we came from and the journey we took getting to this point. The past establishes a good context for many of the issues we now face – they are not entirely new. It is easy to imagine that our delivery of hybrid people practices, and services began with the pandemic in early 2020, but for many, myself included, it began much earlier than that.
Remote working in the early 2000s from my and many other perspectives was largely done offline and using technology with minimal connection to the rest of the organisation. Working mostly offline can appear strange now in our ultra-connected world, and often appeared strange then too. It took time and effort for individuals and organisations to create work that could be delivered remotely, and only a limited number of (mostly white-collar) employees were working even partially from home by 2019 despite technology improving to the extent that it became easy to do so.
Despite the positive experiences many people had and the significant benefits that were being evidenced from delivering people services remotely, the growth of remote delivery of work and people services was slow up to 2020. The equally significant number of barriers – though few were technological ones – often took priority for organisations. There was little, if any, guidance about what to do and how organisations and employees could make their practices work remotely.
There was also doubt about what remote employees were doing and a feeling of guilt from many about what they should and should not do. For many, it was becoming apparent that changing the way services were delivered was having implications for organisational culture, inclusion, and real estate too.
Lessons to learn
Research conducted in the 2010s on the impact of remote working on individuals noted many lessons that few would heed before the pandemic. These included the impact of social isolation, and the blurring of work and personal lives. It also explored many of the cultural barriers in place – the attitudes of leaders and managers prime among these.
Remote delivery of people services was something different up to 2020 than it is now – then, it was a chance to work quietly and alone on things, away from contact with other people. Now, with the prevalence of video meetings, remote working has become something different – but there were lessons in these early years that we needed to heed.
Those who can manage the divisions between their work and personal lives fared better, and those who can address the perception of remote working from line managers tend to be more engaged and more productive. Social isolation is an issue, but not one that is impossible to overcome with the right processes and technology.
In the years leading up to 2020, I made a number of observations:
- Not enough was being done to empower people to make small, but significant changes to their work (and working patterns)
- Not enough people policies were flexible enough to address the very different employee experiences that were starting to happen
- Culturally, not enough organisations were challenging inappropriate views and working practices, or giving employees chances to voice their own ideas
- Blurred divisions between personal and working lives were there to see, but not enough people professionals noticed this and acted on it
- The physical set-up of remote working was largely left to chance, creating, or exacerbating exclusion for some groups
- The whole concept of the working day is something that needed to evolve, and largely did not
- Not enough was done to look at team dynamics and individual relationships and how to foster these in the right way to allow remote working to be effective.
We now know that letting people make small adjustments to their working patterns, working locations and more can reap huge rewards for all concerned. However, not enough people professionals were actively doing so before the pandemic hit, despite us being in a great position to influence others.
Organisations that tell their staff how, when, and where to work are not able to unlock the engagement and discretionary effort they want from those staff. Too many judge people by the inputs – how many hours they sit at an office desk for example, and not by the quality of the output and results they deliver. Too many HR policies were too inflexible on this up to the pandemic.
People often have a very good idea of how they can perform better, and how they can achieve better work-life balance. For some this may be pausing work for a few hours in the afternoon and then working when children are asleep – though there are lots of examples and everyone’s needs, and perceptions are different. Not enough HR teams had asked people what their ideas were or encouraged them and their managers to work towards such ideas, ahead of the pandemic.
Just because technology enables people to work in evenings or at weekends, doesn’t mean they should. Doing such things are a personal choice and not to be encouraged or expected by organisations, yet too many managers were, prior to the pandemic, setting bad examples by sending emails late at night or at weekends and being lauded as some kind of workplace hero. Not enough of us challenged this.
If people are to work remotely, we need to help them with the equipment and physical set-up they need. If people are to spend most of their time, or all their time, working remotely, people professionals need to be assessing the health implications of this and ensuring that – ergonomically as well as technologically – things are ‘right’.
Despite being effectively isolated when working remotely and not necessarily as exposed to chit-chat and informal discussions, staff in my organisations found themselves more productive, and so did I. At the same time, people working remotely become more keenly aware that work, and indeed life, is about relationships, and staying connected with people socially and emotionally. Do we do enough of that?
Reflect and act
So if you are looking to introduce or increase the amount of remote and hybrid working in your organisation, the following questions are worth considering as you develop your plan:
- What experience have you got in your organisation of remote or hybrid working from before the pandemic? How can you capture the lessons learnt from this?
- Which roles in your organisation could work on a remote or hybrid basis and which could not? How will you manage the different employee experience of both?
- How can you ensure that the people professionals in your organisation have got the skills to be able to guide managers and remote workers on the implications for intra-team communication, developing strong relationships, handling informal conflict and more?
- How can you best work alongside other teams who impact on the employee experience, such as IT, premises, health and safety?
- How much will you need to look at job design and crafting to ensure that individuals can get to optimum productivity levels while not encountering unnecessary barriers?
- What will you do to ensure your people policies have the necessary flexibility and links between them to make this work?
- How clear is your understanding of how to help people manage the divide between their personal and working lives?
- How can you help your organisation develop a solid ‘why’ about remote and hybrid working? What would happen if you did nothing?
- What is your best advice to senior leaders in your organisation to convince them to actively sponsor and support your planning for a remote and hybrid future?
This extract from HR for Hybrid Working by Gary Cookson ©2022 is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.