It’s been two-and-a-half years since the pandemic forced businesses the world over to adapt their working practices, thrusting every one of us into the same home-working boat. And ever since, HR directors and business leaders have been battling the eternal conundrum of hybrid working, trying to establish a system that works best for their individual operation while balancing that with the expectations of employees and competing with the noise from competitors who are doing it differently.
So why is this a problem we, as a professional collective, are still trying to work out? I believe it’s because we are erroneously seeking a one size fits all solution. Just as the Monday-Friday nine- to-five-with-an-hour-for-lunch was an arrangement we all adhered to – with some gentle refinement according to our individual quirks – the modern way of working is far less linear. And there is no single, right answer.
And that’s largely because we have two very different demands to satisfy: that of our teams – the life blood of our organisation, the fuel in our engine and the wonderful gaggle of disparate individuals who, together, make up our corporate family – and that of our clients, who are the reason we all get up in the morning, the people who keep the grey matter ticking over, and (crucially) the ones who pay the bills.
While both elements are vital to every business, each requires a different approach. While our staff – particularly in a business like We Are Social, which has an average age of 32 and is 88 per cent millennials and Gen Z – seek flexibility, home working and more agency to work to a schedule that suits them, our clients want and need a greater level of consistency. They want those face-to-face meetings and those days working alongside their agency teams that not only ensures a better level of service to their business, but reassures them they remain the absolute priority. Which begs the question, how do we resolve this quandary?
I believe the time has come for businesses to make some tough decisions. They can no longer do what everyone wants, bending this way and that to accommodate the various preferences of every individual employee. Instead, we need to see flexibility from both sides of the business: from the leaders offering a degree of home working but also from the employees themselves accepting that they must be fluid with their time.
Now of course for backroom staff regular home working is far more realistic – indeed the only real reason for them to come into the office is for them to touch base with their colleagues and HQ, and to maintain that crucial element of community on which successful teams of any kind will thrive. But for those teams that are client facing, it is more of an unknown quantity. Some weeks will be heavy with pitch work or onboarding a hefty new account. For that, it’s all hands on deck and there must be an acceptance that greater office time is required. But another week, when it’s a little more business as usual, the agreed minimum of two or three days in the office will be fine.
Given the current recruitment market I wonder if we have become too frightened to specify different approaches for different teams because of the internal warfare it might create. But, simply put, it cannot be the role of HR to mandate a hybrid working policy. Instead, we need to treat people like adults and expect them to make the right decisions. They may not like it, but they will – we hope – understand it. While as businesses we strive to be progressive, there comes a time when you have to ask whether you are more intent on being progressive, or doing the right thing.
Flexibility is a two-way street: the only way organisations can successfully offer hybrid working is to expect some flexibility in return. It’s not good enough to say ‘I was in last Tuesday and Thursday so that’s me done’ – we don’t run the business based on whether you’ve got a dog sitter or not. We need to be bolder with those conversations and not be afraid to do what is right for our business.
Now, as challenging as thrashing out hybrid working patterns is, I welcome the focus on this issue, because I think the opportunity to redress the work-life balance is much needed. The workplace in general was falling perilously behind where it should have been before the pandemic and this reboot is no bad thing. And this is why we need to move from a presenteeism approach to an output review. A good employer should reassure you that family and work commitments are achievable together, but a good employee should make sure their output is being met or, if necessary, that they are flagging it to their line manager.
It is only with this mutual level of flexibility, a willingness to make it work from both sides and an understanding that one size fits all never works, that we can move beyond the hybrid working debate and start focusing on the next big issue.
Kate Herbert is head of people and culture at We Are Social