Future of Work and Agility

HRD Summary Notes: Revisiting The New Working Environment

  • March 1, 2024

On 21st February, CRF hosted an HR Director roundtable discussion on the new working environment. Chaired by CRF Associate Peter Blausten and CRF Associate Director John Whelan, the discussion focused on recent trends regarding the new work environment, challenges and successes in implementing new working practices (particularly hybrid and remote working) and ways of measuring productivity and performance in this new context.  These summary notes share key insights from the discussion.

Revisiting CRF’s 2022 Research – The Realities of the New Working Environment
Peter Blausten shared the key conclusions from CRF’s 2022 paper, The Realities of the New Working Environment:

  • There has been a shift away from prescriptive policies towards principles-based guidelines implemented at the line managers’ discretion. HR should monitor and address any unintended consequences, with fairness and manager capability to effectively interpret and manage guidance highlighted as two areas of vulnerability
  • Organisations are still working out technology-enabled hybrid working.
  • There is increased emphasis on psychological safety, greater acceptance of discussing formerly taboo topics, ongoing monitoring of employee wellbeing, and a need for relevant training for managers.
  • Employers are concerned about fairness between employee groups who can work remotely and those whose work requires them to be onsite. Organisations are adapting their employee value propositions to meet the needs of different workforce groups.
  • While collaboration and fairness are top of mind, less attention is being paid to the impact that hybrid working might have on innovation and learning.
  • Although companies have claimed that productivity has improved due to hybrid or remote working, there are questions concerning how this can be measured.

Participants also noted the following recent trends regarding the new working environment:  

  • Society is more polarised and it is more difficult to find common ground, including regarding reaching agreement on the new ways of working.
  • Women have left the workplace since the Covid-19 pandemic and organisations are struggling to entice them back.
  • Employees increasingly view their work as a partnership, rather than as working ‘for’ an employer.  
  • There has been a proliferation of different types of technology used in the workplace (particularly for communication), leading to overwhelm. Teams should have a conversation to decide what tools they want to use.

Remote and Hybrid Working: Benefits
Attendees shared the following benefits they had experienced from implementing hybrid or remote ways of working:

  • Allows organisations to hire or progress staff with critical skills from a wider and more diverse pool (though this can create challenges if requirements to come into the office change). The increased flexibility has also supported people with caring responsibilities (who are disproportionately female).
  • Employee burnout is at an all-time high, as highlighted in Mercer’s Talent Trends for 2024. Offering flexible working could help alleviate this.
  • Reduced office space costs.
  • Reducing an organisation’s carbon footprint – employee travel can be a primary contributor to this. One participant shared that they are also considering introducing free public transport for employees under 30 to reduce carbon emissions when office attendance is required.   
  • One participant shared that their internal data showed that their populations with the highest degree of work flexibility had the greatest productivity and engagement.

Remote and Hybrid Working: Implementation and Overcoming Challenges

ChallengesInternal Disagreements
Respondents shared they are experiencing internal disagreements or discussions about remote and hybrid working. This is occurring at various levels of the organisation and includes:

  • Disagreement at leadership level regarding the content of remote working policies and how strictly these should be enforced. There will need to be trade-offs between prioritising different areas (e.g. balancing the number of days people come together in person, culture and belonging, and psychological safety).
  • Divergence in how different line managers approach hybrid working. Participants noted that managers who struggle to manage outputs may advocate for workers to spend more time in the office, and managers who lack the leadership skills to have difficult conversations may request prescriptive policies that cover every scenario.  
  • Several respondents reported pushback from employees after asking them to spend more days in the office (either through changing policies or more strictly enforcing existing policies). Flexible working arrangements and/or the ability to work from home is often expected by employees – incorporating remote or flexible working into overall rewards packages could help to address this. 

Addressing Internal Unalignment

  • One participant recommended implementing broad brush guidelines that provide managers with some freedom, acknowledging that every team is different and has different needs (e.g. customer facing vs non-customer facing). However, over time this could see larger divides emerge in how different internal teams operate, which may present a problem and lead to accusations of unfairness.  
  • Organisations should support line managers to have better conversations, giving them the tools to present the business case of coming into the office where necessary.
  • Another highlighted that successful hybrid working isn’t about policies – it’s about employees feeling like they are trusted and given ownership. 
  • Overall, determining work from home policies involves trade-offs and balancing multiple factors. Several participants noted that flexibility and the option to work from home is the number one factor people look for when applying for jobs (particularly amongst younger generations). However, they also noted that being in the office less often is negatively impacting early careers development and culture.
  • Another participant shared the importance of first determining the nature of the work your organisation does, then discussing the best way of getting it done. This also gives people space to talk about an emotive topic in a constructive way.

Measuring Productivity and Performance

  • Participants shared their approaches to scenarios where employees don’t come into the office as often as required, and their internal discussions around whether this should be a performance issue. Several participants shared that approaching this from a performance lens is not the right approach when they are already struggling for talent skills (this is applying ‘old thinking’ to a new reality), and recommended adult-to-adult conversations.
  • Others noted that they are returning to 5-point ratings system as they are struggling to manage performance in a hybrid setting – they are seeing lower productivity and are struggling to distribute reward.
  • One participant shared that they don’t look at ‘productivity’ per se, but look at whether people are delivering against outcomes and how to retain them.

Other challenges mentioned by participants included:

  • The potential legal challenges that might arise from asking employees who have been working remotely for years (i.e. since 2020) to return to the office.
  • One participant noted that engagement for new joiners has been lower since their organisation adopted hybrid working practices. One way of addressing this could be focusing on supporting employees and developing relationships during ‘moments that matter’ (e.g. when new recruits start).
  • The purpose of the office environment has changed; it is now based around more creative, collaborative or innovative work. However, the physical setup of the office has not changed to support this, with space usually still dominated by desks and meeting rooms.  Organisations can address this through first asking  what they want to achieve from bringing  employees together in the office, and then creating an environment that supports this. Large companies may find that this looks different at their different sites.

Further Resources
CRF. 2022. The Realities of the New Working Environment
CRF. 2023. HRD Briefing 2024: Navigating Change in an Uncertain World
Ipsos Karian and Box. 2023. Making the Case for the Office
Mercer. 2024. Global Talent Trends. Sign up here to receive a copy of the upcoming publication

The next HRD community event will take place on May 15th, with further details to be shared in due course.

To register your interest, or if you have any further questions, please contact Melissa Bull, Commercial Director melissa@crforum.co.uk



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