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What have the previous three years taught us about hybrid working? | Working from residence

March 10, 2023
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Almost three years have passed since the first “work from home” mandate was introduced – and many people’s working lives have never been the same since. Some employees have never returned to a physical office, while others are adjusting to hybrid working. So what lessons can recent research teach us about how to make flexible arrangements work better?

Don’t fixate on the number of days

Many companies are still fixated on the number of days that employees should be in the office, with blanket policies for all staff. More appropriate would be to examine the type of tasks employees do and work from there, said Prof Jonathan Trevor at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

Based on interviews with managers from 20 global companies, Trevor and his colleague Prof Matthias Holweg have developed a framework to help businesses navigate these tensions. They found that workplace tasks tend to fall into four general categories: focused creative tasks, such as designing a brochure; individual procedural tasks, such as data entry; coordinated group tasks, such as routine project work; and collaborative creative tasks, such as product development.

Focused creative tasks are the easiest to transition to virtual work, because they require little teamwork and are easily supported by technology, while collaborative creative tasks are the hardest because they require access to the collective “hive mind”. “If you are in that mode of work, then maybe it is appropriate you should have more time in the office, whereas if you’re doing individual focused work, the balance may be more weighted towards virtual working,” Trevor said.

Find new ways to build corporate culture and identity

Weaker workplace ties could result in lower levels of staff loyalty and engagement. If staff rarely see senior leaders or socialise with colleagues, it can be difficult to establish a strong organisational culture – the collection of traits that make a company what it is. Weak organisational cultures tend to be associated with higher levels of conflict and mistrust.

Spending some time in the physical workplace is therefore desirable – for everybody – but better orchestration of the virtual community is also necessary, Trevor said. “Managers need to develop skills to manage people in a virtual way that still keeps them engaged and helps them to identify with the organisation they are working for,” he added.

… and spot stress

Individuals tend to express stress or unhappiness differently, and managers or teammates may be less able to provide support if they rarely see each other in person.

Hybrid working also creates new sources of stress, such as remembering to bring crucial documents or equipment into the office, and not having a straightforward daily routine. Also, while working from home removes the stress of the daily commute, work days can be more intense. “Remote working is often a highly productive way of working,’ said Prof Christine Grant, an occupational psychologist at the University of Coventry’s Centre for Healthcare Research. “People may feel a pressure to keep on working, or want to keep on working, which impacts on their wellbeing.”

Encouraging staff to complete a “wellness action plan” could help. “Basically, people write down the signs they’re likely to show if they’re struggling, the type of things that may cause them difficulty, and the type of support they’d like,” said Prof Gail Kinman, an occupational health psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London.

Avoid unnecessary virtual meetings

Back-to-back virtual meetings can be stressful. Photograph: Fly View Productions/Getty Images

“Virtual meetings are very different to meeting people in person – they are often quite focused; you get the meeting done, then move on to the next thing. It’s a very intense way of working,” said Grant.

The temptation to multitask can leach further brainpower, and video-call participants must work harder to send and respond to non-verbal signals compared with meeting face-to-face. It is also unnatural – and somewhat stressful – to watch a recording of your own face, or to hold such prolonged eye-contact with other people, research suggests. “It has been said that there are only two types of situation where you would be so close to other people’s faces: One is if you were going to hit them, the other is if you were going to kiss them,” said Kinman.

Recognise that not everyone benefits from working at home

Very junior staff often do not have the space at home to make work comfortable. “They also benefit a lot from the kind of on-the-ground learning from colleagues, and the socialisation that happens in the office,” said Prof Kerstin Sailer, an expert in the sociology of architecture at University College London. “Senior people often like being in the office and getting that kind of cross-functional overview between different roles and teams, or managing by presenteeism.”

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There are also staff for whom online meetings may be immensely challenging, such as those with sensory impairments or neurodiversity. Yet home working might help some neurodivergent individuals, by limiting social interactions and providing greater control over their environment, said Grant, who has been studying this issue.

Create a virtual commute

A significant problem with home working is the blurring of people’s work and personal life. “Although a lot of people don’t like commuting, it does provide a kind of physical buffer zone between work and home,” said Kinman. Finding alternative ways to separate the workday from home life, and switch off the brain, is therefore important – whether that’s cycling around the block, doing a meditation exercise or dancing around your kitchen.

Rest if you’re ill

A designer drawing on drafting paperWorking while sick can intensify feelings of detachment from your job. Photograph: imtmphoto/Alamy

“Working while sick is something we’ve found has become much more common during the pandemic,” said Kinman. “In some ways it can be beneficial, because if your colleagues know you’re ill, you may be able to push out some of the unnecessary stuff and be more productive.”

But there are definite downsides: by not allowing yourself time to switch off, you are more likely to take longer to recover, and be at higher risk of future ill health – including mental health problems. Working while sick can also intensify feelings of detachment from your job, research suggests.

Rethink office design

If your workplace is now predominantly a site for team-building and creative group meetings, there may be less need for individual desks, and a greater need for additional meeting rooms and break-out spaces. “Organisations are increasingly viewing their offices as social and collaborative hubs,” said Sailer, who recently published a hybrid office how-to guide. “It is possible that with hybrid working, companies may need less office space than before the pandemic, but this office space needs to be of premium quality and designed in a way that encourages attendance.”

Rather than reverting to the default “office equals desks, and everyone in five days a week”, Sailer believes organisations should see the Covid pandemic as an opportunity to rebuild the workplace from the bottom up, so every day spent in the office is worth it.

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