What has 2021 taught HR about hybrid working?

People Management asked employment experts what they have learnt about changes to working practices over the last 12 months, and how businesses should manage moving into 2022

The world of work has had a bumpy 2021, from ‘Freedom Day’ and calls to return to the office (and its watercooler moments), to an introduction of the government’s Plan B restrictions and the ‘Great Resignation’. And that’s meant remote working and, for those organisations for which it’s possible, a potential long-term move to hybrid has been firmly on their radars.

Indeed, a YouGov survey of 2,046 workers, published by Microsoft UK earlier this month, found that half (51 per cent) of respondents who had the choice to mix remote and office working would consider leaving their company if this flexibility was removed.

Most recently, the government encouraged people in England to work from home where possible as cases of the Omicron variant skyrocketed.

Following these ups and downs, People Management spoke to a panel of HR and employment experts about what they’ve learnt from the last 12 months – and what businesses should take into 2022. 

Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University

“Most people only really began to work in a hybrid way from the summer, before it was interrupted with new home working guidance in December,” says Dale, who added that hybrid working is about more than a simple shift of location for part of the week. 

One emerging issue, she notices, is employee reluctance to return to offices. This is partially because of ongoing anxiety about the pandemic, but also because the pandemic has moved on and it appears that employees are questioning why they need to return to offices.  

“This is a key challenge for HR when the current work-from-home period ends; how do we create meaningful face-time in offices, helping people to be more intentional about their time in physical workspace?” she explains. 

Another key lesson is companies have not always embraced time flexibility with the same level of focus, Dale says. “Both employers and employees will get the maximum benefit from hybrid work if it is combined with other forms of flexibility,” she explains, such as asynchronous work time flexibility which can free employees from old ways of working that aren’t suitable for everyone.  

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD

Willmott agrees with Dale that, alongside hybrid working, employers should consider the different flexible working arrangements they offer as a whole, ensuring everyone can benefit from flexibility and not just those who can work from home.

“Over the course of the year, many businesses have been able to test and develop effective home and hybrid working practices”, he says, but warns the continued changes to restrictions mean “organisations will need to ensure they consult with staff as they go, to figure out arrangements that work best for both the business and employees”.

Looking beyond the pandemic, Willmott adds, CIPD research shows that the majority of employers are planning to expand the use of hybrid working and that there is a “clear appetite for this way of working” among employees.

Daisy Hooper, head of policy at the Chartered Management Institute

"One of the key things we've all learned in 2021 has been the value of trust in our working relationships,” Hooper said, adding that adopting a hybrid or remote working policy requires a strong level of trust between employer and employee, without which the models aren't going to work.

However, she warns that not everyone is good at managing teams remotely and cites how “we've also seen a realisation that some managers will need training and guidance on how best to handle their teams who are working in a hybrid or home-based model”.  

Another lesson is the need to avoid sweeping HR statements, with Hooper identifying that “making big decisions about when people need to return to the office, for example, has left some with egg on their faces” as Covid events have overtaken them and they have had to backtrack.  

Instead, she advises firms to keep plans “fluid” and communicate routinely and clearly with employees.

Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law

“Some employers have said they do not expect to go back to having staff in the workplace full time,” says Lewis, echoing Willmott’s observations about workplace attitudes. 

From an employment law perspective, Lewis says he had also observed learning curves among firms amid the need to take appropriate measures to protect confidential information and personal data. 

“The employer has little control over who is viewing data where staff work remotely,” he says, explaining that the importance of training about confidentiality “cannot be emphasised enough”, as well as being prepared to take disciplinary action where appropriate.

Having paperwork has also been a necessary lesson, Lewis suggests, whether that is the inclusion of working-from-home provisions for contracts of employment, data policies and insurance arrangements, or addressing the tax consequence of hybrid and home working. 

He also advises that “health and safety implications have to be addressed effectively, including carrying out risk assessments… [alongside] providing the right type of equipment, perhaps even a special kit to enable remote working”.