Making remote and hybrid workplace models work is challenging

Firms must align commercial imperatives with possible conflicting employee preferences

Last summer, JP Morgan Chase's chief executive Jamie Dimon grabbed the headlines when he told staff in a memo that he expected them back in the office by early July. Explaining why at an event at the time, Dimon said remote working, "doesn't work for people who want to hustle, doesn't work for culture, doesn't work for idea generation . . . We are getting blowback about coming back internally, but that's life."

There was more to Dimon’s memo than first appeared. The bank wanted people back quickly in order to test the effectiveness of piloting different types of working patterns, including hybrid and on-site options. That said, Dimon voiced what a lot of people were thinking privately: we know that office-based commerce works, so why mess with a proven formula?

And, even if the model could be easily flipped, is hybrid working all it’s cracked up to be? Two years on, a lot of organisations are about to find out.

What’s rapidly dawning on those managing the transition is that the decision to go hybrid was the easy bit. Still to come are potentially divisive discussions around losing/preserving organisational culture, maintaining effective collaboration in a distributed environment, dealing with concerns about career progression, balancing workloads and being aware of how customers might view any changes to structure and working patterns that affect them.

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Enthusiasm for hybrid working is at an all-time high. However, with a very long list of things still to do, managers are going to need superior diplomatic skills to align commercial imperatives with potentially conflicting employee preferences.

If they fail, then the great hybrid working experiment could come crashing down and those who already think it’s destined to founder are predicting a creeping return to the office.

"We have a way to go in implementing good hybrid working practices, and there is still resistance and different expectations as to what it will look like," says Mary Connaughton, director of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.. "Team working, collaboration and innovation suffered during the pandemic and must be improved to sustain organisations."

Pressure

Recent research from the School of Business at Maynooth University emphasises the importance of planning and training to successful hybrid working. The research also highlighted how hybrid [models] can put employees under pressure because of the volume of work they have to get through, the perceived drop in their visibility with their manager and typically lower performance evaluations.

"Both line managers and employees require training on how to exploit the opportunities of remote and hybrid work and deal with the challenges," says associate professor Dr Tatiana Andreeva.

“Line managers must be trained on supervising from a distance and ensuring all their subordinates have fair and equal access to resources and opportunities irrespective of their work arrangement. Also, a discussion is very much needed on the best parameters for performance appraisal when employees differ in their working arrangements.”

Aligning tasks to suit people’s working structure and having the same structure for all members of a team where possible were also identified as contributing to a smooth hybrid transition as was ensuring that managers know how to handle conflict from a distance.

The researchers also flagged that a commitment to regularly revisit policies and processes is essential if increases in imbalances in power within the workplace are to be avoided.

Struggle

“What we’re hearing from members is the struggle to accommodate the variety of different requests from individuals,” Connaughton says. “Even at senior level, there’s varying interpretations of hybrid working and a lot of internal opinions to be streamlined. The process is not clean. It’s messy, murky and muddy with the potential for conflict.

“Employers are still at the point of establishing the principles of hybrid or remote working for their organisations, putting the systems in place for managing people and risk, and trying to work out when teams need to be together and when they can work apart.

“We’ve recently completed our 2022 survey and the big issues emerging are wellbeing, mental health, sustaining culture, induction and team working, with pressure points around how people will work together, support each other and sustain the culture.

“Another issue is the longer-term health and safety discussion. How safe are people working from home? A lot of companies are now doing assessments around that, but it needs to be addressed in more detail to give employers peace of mind,” Connaughton says.

What may yet cause the biggest headache for employers is the “soft stuff” around how employees’ experience and expectations of hybrid working change over time. Some organisations are already experiencing push-back from those who don’t ever want to go into the office again (even though their role may need them there). Younger employees who were mad keen to get back are expressing disappointment that the anticipated buzz and social interaction is missing because the office is sparsely populated.

Connaughton adds that what should not be overlooked as all the attention is heaped on the hybrid agenda is what happens to employees for whom hybrid or remote working is a non-starter?

In her view it’s only a matter of time before, “we start seeing some pressure around job design and people asking if they need to be on site five days a week”, she says. “We really need to start thinking about how we can increase flexibility in traditional roles to give people better options.”