COVID-19 has radically changed the way we work. Since March of last year, more than half of us have had to get used to carrying out at least some of our work from the comfort of our own homes, meaning that, as we move further into 2021, 'traditional office structures' seem to be nothing but a distant memory. However, while many of us don't mind switching the morning commute for makeshift desks and pixelated zoom meetings, there are fears that continuing to work remotely full-time may prevent us from experiencing the advantages that come alongside working in physical office spaces. So, as business leaders start planning for what a post-Covid reality may look like, an increasing number of companies across the UK are considering introducing 'hybrid' styles of work into their workplaces.

What exactly does this mean? With terms like 'WFH', 'flexi-work', and 'telecommuting' already clogging up our workplace vocabularies, 'hybrid working' might just sound like another example of fashionable millennial jargon- pretty words with little real substance. Yet, with 80% of the population speculating that the future is likely to include some form of hybrid of work, according to a survey conducted by Blind, it looks like this working model may be something to take seriously. So, to prepare you and your business for the future of work post-Covid, we're going to run you through exactly what hybrid work is and explain why it's on the rise, before tossing up its pros and cons so you can determine whether or not it might work for your business.

What is hybrid work?

In simple terms, hybrid working involves a mixture of office-based work and remote working. This means that employees at workplaces who embrace this model often have the option of working on-site, working from home (or at another location), or adopting a combination of the two.

It is not to be confused with flexible working, which refers to non-traditional working arrangements that give employees a degree of flexibility on how long, where, and when they work. The hybrid model typically still requires workers to commit to full-time hours. However, this option allows employers to free up more space in the office by designating certain days where the employee's in-person presence is required. It normally works by management deciding which staff members would benefit most from a more collaborative environment, compared to those whose work requires a more individual focus.

Popularity for the hybrid work model has exploded throughout the past year in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The style of working has proved popular with companies looking to minimise the risk of transmission in the workplace without sacrificing the perks that come from working within a physical office environment. It's proven to be an especially favourable option for large organisations who would struggle to turn all their operations remote. Simply put, due to its versatile nature, hybrid working is able to be tailored to the unique needs of basically any business or team in any field.

The acceleration of a long-standing trend

Despite being forcefully propelled into the mainstream in 2020, hybrid work isn't anything new. Hybrid styles of work have existed long before the unique circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic forced business leaders to come up with adaptive solutions. So, while it's fair to say Covid-19 has accelerated these trends, for businesses that haven't always required a full in-person workforce, allowing employees to carry out part of their work from home has been a long-standing part of their business model.

In fact, in 2016, according to FlexJobs research that studied employees from hundreds of US companies, around half of the respondents held a job that was compatible with some form of remote work. While the employees that partook in these forms of remote work belonged to a wide range of different sectors, the most popular industries for hybrid working were IT, recruiting, and education - with accounting, marketing, health, and law following close behind.

What businesses are thinking of going hybrid?

Despite hybrid styles of work existing for some time now, the term 'hybrid work' has only picked up steam as of late. Previous to Covid-19, 'hybrid' was a term more associated with motor-vehicles than workplace structures, and this is even evidenced in the lack of search attention the concept received before 2020.

Cut to 2021, and countless companies at the top of their fields are considering adopting hybrid working models. Major firms like BP, Twitter, PwC, and Schroders have either begun or publically stated their intentions to move to more flexible working structures. And according to CNBC, following a report that revealed 62% of their employees want to return to the workforce on a part-time basis, the multinational tech company Google is also testing out a scheme that allows employees to work remotely if they desire to do so.

Following suit, a lot of businesses seem to be considering this method over on this side of the pond too. As Xerox's Future of Work poll indicates, 80% of companies surveyed saw their confidence in remote working increase throughout the lockdown. In addition to this, 58% of respondents were planning to change their WFH policies in the next year to support some form of remote working. Employee sentiments also seem to be in favour of this transition too. As data from the British Council for Offices (BCO) reveals, out of the 2,000 office workers questioned, most individuals do not intend to spend five days per week in the office once the coronavirus pandemic is over, and 15% of those questioned maintain they would like to work exclusively from home.

Why are hybrid forms of work on the increase?

With the widespread popularity of remote working, you may be wondering why so many companies are considering switching to hybrid models permanently. So, to explain it's growing popularity, here are some key reasons why an increasing number of workplaces are considering making the switch to hybrid working.

It switches up the monotony of WFH

Since March 2020, around 60% of us have been forced to adapt to working from home. Almost overnight, offices shut their doors; and commuting, water-cooler chit chat, and face-to-face meetings were no longer a part of the average working day. While dodgy internet connections, the juggling of parental responsibilities, and unequal access to technical equipment posed some initial hurdles, after a few months of adjusting to this new normal most employees became accustomed (and even favoured) to the change. This is supported by data from IBM, which revealed that in June, 80% of workers questioned would have liked to continue WFH for at least the following month.

Fast forward to August, and according to the same survey, favourability towards working from home already seemed to be slipping. When asked again, only 65% of American workers said they'd like to continue working remotely for at least some of their time. The number decreased to 50% when asked if they would prefer to work from home on a permanent basis.

This 'work from home fatigue' is likely to stem, at least in part, from the lack of social interaction the remote working model facilitates. It's no secret that face-to-face interactions make collaboration in the workplace more straightforward. Being able to lean across your desk and catch a co-worker's attention encourages the circulation of useful information. However, aside from the obvious corporate benefits of working in a physical office, engaging in in-person chit-chat with your team is understood to significantly improve your working experience, not to mention providing you with the overall feeling of being in a team. So, with 45% of workers preferring office work because it allows them to socialise with colleagues, allowing your workplace to embrace a hybrid model could dramatically improve your team's mental health.

It reduces the risk of transmission in the workplace

Despite many of our best wishes, Covid-19 still hasn't gone away. Due to a new, increasingly transmissible strain of the virus, it continues to circulate across much of the UK, as well as throughout the rest of the world. Because of this, the risk of infection remains very high in workplaces up and down the country. Therefore, one major reason why employers are considering hybrid styles of work in the UK and abroad is because it can be used as part of a long-term strategy to minimise the risk of infection in the workplace. By limiting the number of people allowed in an office at once, it makes it much easier for a company to comply with the social distancing rules that are expected to continue being enforced for many more months to come.

Of course, this isn't just a win for employers. According to Google Community Mobility Reports, nearly half of the workforce prefered WFH and flexible models compared to working in physical offices, because the risk of contamination was much lower. So, aside from helping business owners to follow important government guidelines, introducing hybrid working structures before inviting the whole team back could give your employees much greater peace of mind overall.

It can encourage a healthier work-life balance

Enabling your team to achieve a healthy work-life balance doesn't just keep them happy; it keeps them productive. Overworked and overstressed workers are much more likely to risk burning out, so ensuring your employees have a good work/life balance is paramount to running a successful company. Compared to full-time on-site work, hybrid working cuts down commuting time significantly. Therefore, by giving workers the option to choose this option, it puts the power back in their hands, and gives them more time in the morning and evenings to respectively gear up to and wind down from the workday. In addition to this, hybrid work also allows your staff to work on their own personal schedules. It gives them the autonomy to level out the time between family life and office tasks, especially on the days when they are working remotely.

What may be the drawbacks of hybrid working?

While all of this may sound promising, no workplace model comes without its shortcomings. So, with this in mind, next, we will address the potential drawbacks that may result as companies adopt hybrid styles of working.

It may exclude some employees from the in-office culture

Since most UK companies are used to operating from physical offices, most businesses have established long-standing cultures centred around the in-person experience. Physical perks like after-work socials, networking, collaborative opportunities, and in-house facilities all help to form the typical employee experience. Therefore, if some of the team are excluded from these benefits, this could potentially contribute to unfair advantages and unequal access to opportunities for some members of staff.

It's no secret that working in a social setting like an office space gives workers the chance to build a rapport with one another, which, in turn, helps to boost team morale. So, since it's harder to achieve this from a typical WFH set up, it's essential to consider this when allocating members of the team to work remotely. For instance, if some members of staff may benefit more from collaborative, in-person meetings- bear this in mind if you're responsible for assigning who is able to come into the office. However, for those employees who can conduct their best work independently, make sure to maintain an equal playing field by coming up with other ways to include them and keeping lines of communication as open as possible.

Potential cyber risks

Cyber attacks are most companies' worst nightmare. Not only do they risk customer data, trade secrets, and classified business information being exposed, but they also have the potential to seriously weaken public trust. Unfortunately, due to the lack of centralised security protocols that exist with most forms of remote work, the risk can often be heightened when more members of staff are working from home. For this reason, it's imperative to properly brief remote workers on how to effectively look after their digital footprint. In addition to ensuring your team is educated on data security issues, companies can also downplay cyber risks by scheduling regular software updates, making multi-factor authentication mandatory, and ensuring all passwords are sufficiently protected.

Varying perspectives on what it could entail

With hybrid working models marking out new territory for many companies, expectations of what it will entail are likely to differ among employers and staff members. Since working from home has garnered so much popularity throughout the national lockdowns, it's expected that many workers may want to incorporate more remote into their work schedules than will be offered by employers. According to a report, 63% of UK employees desire a hybrid working arrangement moving forward. However, employers claim that this model is only likely to be available to 40% of staffers. What's more, while employers believe that around one third of workers who can work remotely will soon be brought back into the office full time, only 15% of employees have reported wanting this to happen. So, to manage expectations and to keep your team as happy as possible, it's important to be clear with them about what this hybrid reality may look like, and also to factor in their requests as much as you can.

How can companies overcome these hurdles?

So, although it's possible that hybrid working may bring some challenges to your company, no obstacle is insurmountable. With this in mind, here are four useful tips for businesses who are choosing to embrace the hybrid model.

Place trust in employees

With a Cushman & Wakefield report in June concluding that 90% of employers trust their team to work remotely, it's clear that the WFH climate has forced employers across the country to place much higher levels of trust in their employees. Due to the extra complexities of managing a hybrid workforce, maintaining high levels of trust is also critical to the model's overall success. In addition to managing remote teams, the hybrid model also requires staff members to decide where they are the most productive. If employers want their employees to have autonomy in the workplace, it's crucial that they fully trust their team's decision-making abilities. When a workforce feels trusted by their management, they become empowered and are subsequently able to make confident choices that benefit both themselves and the rest of the company. So, by trusting employees to work where they choose, it doesn't only improve employee satisfaction- it's likely to drastically increase productivity levels, too.

Prioritise output over time spent working

Another benefit from lots of companies turning their operations remote is that an increasing amount of managers are prioritising results over time spent working. Result-orientated systems measure success in terms of output and end results, in comparison to typical models that measure it in terms of hours worked. By focusing on output instead, it allows employees to prioritise their most important tasks, to work in shorter and more productive bursts, and to work at their own pace without inducing work-related fatigue or burnouts. Additionally, with hybrid working models making it harder for managers to accurately measure how many hours their employees work, it makes much more sense to focus on work output instead.

As this case study shows, since companies like Best Buy and Gap introduced systems like ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), their levels of output were seen to increase by 20%. So, in addition to possibly improving your team's mental health, prioritising output over time spent working is also understood to significantly improve your team's productivity levels.

Facilitate collaboration where possible

As we touched on when discussing the potential cons of hybrid working, allowing people to work from home if they choose to is likely to limit workplace collaboration. Since 70% of communication is made up of nonverbal queues, such as eye contact, facial expressions, and a person's tone of voice, when members of the workforce aren't sharing the same physical space, this can make it harder for ideas to naturally bounce off each other. For this reason, many managers who are considering implementing hybrid work in their companies, are looking to increase the social use of their workplaces.

From converting personal desk space into shared spaces that encourage collaboration and engagement, to creating more opportunities for members of staff to interact and engage with each other, since hybrid models are likely to reduce in-person contact, it's important to make the most of the time that will be spent in the office. Not only will this encourage more people to come into the physical workspace, but it may also encourage members of the team to feel less isolated.

Give regular feedback

Since it can be more challenging to effectively communicate with individuals who opt to work from home, it can be hard for them to know if their work is producing its desired impact. This is significant, because if employees don't receive adequate feedback, it's harder for them to feel encouraged or to know where to improve. So, to breach this issue and to make sure that your entire team is receiving the same treatment, irrespective of where they chose to work, it's important to design a structure for regular individual feedback. Whether this feedback is given bi-weekly or monthly, or even if it's awarded after each deadline or submission, giving all your employees regular constructive feedback is crucial in assisting the development of your team.

Final thoughts

So, with the limitations of Covid-19 expected to slowly dissipate within the next year, hybrid working gives businesses the opportunity to harness their physical office spaces while catering to employees personal safety requirements and changing desires. While this workplace structure isn't likely to work with every business in the UK, giving employees the flexibility to work where they feel the most comfortable is likely to considerably improve staff satisfaction while at the same time increasing productivity levels. However, despite the clear benefits of hybrid working, employers shouldn't be oblivious to its potential shortcomings. Managing a workforce that is split between a physical office and various remote locations isn't destined to be a walk in the park. Therefore, to glean the most favourable results possible, it's recommended to utilise and potentially change the functions of your shared office space, maintain clear and constant communication channels with your whole team, update them with regular feedback, and implement result-oriented systems. If you bear at least some of these things in mind, it's very likely that hybrid work could be a successful model for your company. With Covid-19 expected to permanently change the working landscape, the sooner businesses figure out their game plan, the more prepared they will be for the future.