Hybrid working can be best of both worlds – but also the worst

Cantillon: Employers should stop thinking of hybrid work in terms of ‘X’ days a week

The past two years have not been lacking for surveys in which previously office-based employees express a preference for hybrid working after the pandemic. This is understandable. People want to keep the advantages of remote working while reclaiming those of their former office lives.

It seems reasonable to think mixing up the week to sample a bit of both is the optimum way to go about it.

Contrary to the image of remote working perpetuated by the UK’s Daily Mail – which on Wednesday suggested the Bank of England was “helpless” to stem inflation because its staff “only” had to go into the office one day a week – for many the experience of working from home has been one of increased productivity and fewer distractions.

Apart from people with unsuitable home set-ups, the biggest enthusiasts for full-time office working are the most overt of extroverts who have felt isolated throughout the pandemic and/or status-chasers whose jobs largely involve throwing their weight about at meetings.

But there is absolutely no reason why their needs and preferences should be treated as the default standard for everybody. It has always been a bad idea to do so.

Human resources professional body CIPD Ireland, citing a study conducted with UL's Kemmy Business School, says 46 per cent of organisations are planning to increase their hybrid working options, while two-thirds say they expect staff will work on site two or three days a week in future.

Their openness to new practices has been buoyed by findings that absences fall and productivity climbs when staff can work remotely.

Bargaining power

In a red-hot labour market, meanwhile, job candidates with in-demand skills have "more choice and bargaining power than ever before", according to ManpowerGroup Ireland, further highlighting the wisdom of offering "candidate-friendly" benefits such as hybrid working and flexible hours.

For sure, rigid, top-down approaches will likely backfire. Anecdotes have abounded recently of employees being instructed to commute to near-deserted, semi-equipped offices on fixed days only to find themselves speaking to nobody in person and logging into virtual meetings with home-based colleagues whose “turn” it is to physically clock in the next day. This defeats multiple purposes at once.

Employees can and should be trusted to make hybrid working the best of both worlds. The most important thing HR professionals can do is get out of the way and not make it the worst.