How to build a healthy hybrid workplace

With only 16 per cent of people wanting to return to the office full time, Judy Parfitt explains why employee wellbeing will be key to effective flexible working

The Covid-19 crisis has changed work as we know it forever. As we cautiously emerge from the pandemic and look to the future, it’s clear that the relationship between employer and employee has shifted, bringing with it a host of challenges and opportunities. Key among them is managing employee health and wellbeing.

New research by Vitality, in partnership with the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), has highlighted the crippling impact of successive lockdowns on employee health and wellbeing, and the clear need for businesses and HR leaders to make this a strategic priority as restrictions ease.

While some employees have benefited from working from home – for example, many have found it easier to manage their mental health – home working has also led to more sedentary lifestyles and an increase in musculoskeletal issues, like shoulder and back pain.

Navigating the hybrid working world in a way that supports physical and mental health won’t be easy, but it is possible. The research by Vitality and the RSA yielded 10 recommendations that address three key areas: culture, interventions and measurement. 

As HR leaders draw up their post-lockdown plans, there is the potential to create a genuine ‘best of both’ hybrid model that delivers for businesses, employees and society. 

Top-down inclusive engagement

  • Only 16 per cent of home workers would prefer to be in a physical work location full time, yet one in three anticipate this will be their employer’s expectation. Close this expectation gap with new mandates on health and wellbeing that are integrated into company risk registers and prioritised at board level.
  • Ensure senior leaders practise, reinforce and normalise healthy hybrid behaviours to show they are taken seriously at the top.
  • Create ‘healthy hybrid’ feedback loops between employees and leaders with regular forums for questions to be raised or concerns to be aired and addressed.

Drive behaviour change through interventions

  • Promote inclusive productivity gains by assessing performance based on outcomes, not hours. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but senior leaders drafting policies in collaboration with their teams, with clear guidelines that apply to all team members, will help establish social norms.
  • Introduce mandatory breaks and a ‘right to disconnect’ policy to protect hybrid employees from burnout.
  • Ensure that new health and wellbeing policies include everyone, everywhere – in the office, at home, in co-working spaces or the local coffee shop.
  • Schedule 30 minutes a day for all employees to protect musculoskeletal health. There is growing evidence that home working has created an ergonomic time bomb. Managers and leaders should develop preventative strategies that promote good posture, health and safety when working at home.

Commit to consistent reporting and accountability

  • Ensure effective and consistent wellbeing measurement to sustain ‘healthy hybrid’ behaviours and culture. Better data collection is key, but employees must be consulted to avoid perceptions of policing.
  • Organisational structures must make it clear who is accountable for new health and wellbeing mandates, and this must be reflected in management training.
  • Ensure those who work from home are not overlooked and disadvantaged when it comes to promotion, pay and career progression. Tracking and publishing data on hybrid workers’ pay and progression will help prevent digital disadvantage.

As hybrid working becomes the norm for millions, there is an urgent need and a rare opportunity for businesses to reset their approach to employee health and wellbeing.  Wellbeing and productivity are two sides of the same coin. Promoting healthy hybrid practices will be good for employees, for businesses and for society.

Judy Parfitt is chief people officer at Vitality