Is hybrid working damaging productivity?

Research suggests fears that homeworking is less efficient are unfounded – using this arrangement sensibly will help firms retain engaged and high-performing staff, argues Louise Attrup

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A recent Microsoft survey has revealed that 80 per cent of bosses think workers are less efficient when working from home; this is in stark contrast to 87 per cent of their line reports, who believe they are more so. 

Objective data militates against any such management concerns. A 2020 Office for National Statistics survey demonstrated that those who worked from home to any degree actually worked more hours (32.3 on average per week) than those who never worked from home (27.7) and had a lower sickness absence rate. 

So how do HR professionals best manage possible hybrid ‘push back’ from senior management, in the face of what the Microsoft CEO describes as ‘productivity paranoia’? 

Terminating a hybrid working arrangement brings legal challenges, even if there is an express contractual term entitling the employer to do so. This could result in disability or sex discrimination claims, particularly where the policy reversal amounts to indirect discrimination. For example, if hybrid working benefits disabled workers (who can more easily manage a medical condition) or female employees (who can more easily manage childcare responsibilities), when that policy is taken away, these groups are put at a disadvantage.

It may also give rise to constructive unfair dismissal claims (namely a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence), especially if not handled sensitively in terms of mitigating both group and individual impacts with due notice and consultation. These risks can be minimised if the reversal comes at the end of a hybrid working trial period, with appropriate notice periods for ending the trial having clearly been communicated. 

Recruiters will also be only too aware of the impact a hybrid policy reversal will have on attrition in an ever-tightening labour market. Bloomberg reported research this year that attrition rates for hybrid workers were 35 per cent lower than those who did not work from home, as well as improved employee satisfaction. 

Employers will want their hybrid policies and procedures to mitigate many of the potential downsides of this working arrangement:

  • Incorporate mechanisms to measure productivity by way of output: presenteeism and ‘management by walking about’ are no longer effective productivity monitoring tools in a hybrid world. Think about what output-based measurement tools will work for your organisation, and be clear to employees within your policies about the consequences of failing to meet these performance measures, which could include bringing them back into the workplace until performance improves.

  • Introduce structured opportunities for collaboration: it is a frequent complaint, especially from the creative sector, that remote working stifles innovation. Technology and regular in-person engagement routines will help to keep communication fluid and creative juices flowing

  • Upskill management: some managers may need support and training in how best to monitor, manage and support workers while their team works remotely. Equally, employers should be clear about their expectation that staff will continue to engage constructively with managers while remote, and of the consequences of not doing so.

  • Set boundaries: policies will need to be clear about whether the hybrid arrangements are default or must be requested, which ‘anchor’ days employees will be expected to work in-person, at what point an employee will be expected to submit a formal flexible working request for changes to their working pattern, and if/how the arrangement can be terminated on either side.

While there are vocal critics of home/hybrid working, including Elon Musk and Lord Sugar, the data appears to clearly demonstrate that for the majority of sectors the previous ‘normal’ way of working is unlikely to return; instead, the ‘new normal’ is likely to evolve, with employers facing other pressures to change, such as to adopt a four-day working week. Businesses should, where appropriate, seek to use new ways of working, including hybrid working, in a sensible way that best meets their needs and retains happy, engaged and high-performing staff.

Louise Attrup is a partner and head of the employment team at Debenhams Ottaway