READ Hybrid working does not always work for everyone. From cries of ‘not fair’ to allocation of work, how can HR and line managers ensure they are even handed?
As organisations continue to feel their way towards their hybrid working normal, HR leaders frequently face two different but hybrid-related complaints.
- “It’s not fair that other colleagues can work from home but my role means I have to be on-site all the time.”
- “It’s not fair that you require me to come to the office, when I have met all my targets working from home since lockdown.”
Both came up frequently in conversations I had with employers for my new report, How we work now: the enduring impact of Covid lockdown on flexible working, published last month by Flexibility Works.
Managers in many organisations struggle to work out an appropriate response, even when they may sympathise with the person complaining. Or indeed, and often, when they experience the unfairness personally.
None of the organisations I spoke to would claim to have all the solutions. But between them, their experiences offer practical and, crucially, equitable ways forward.
Me-ism and the lessening of collective engagement
Pandemic lockdowns fragmented our workforces. Some moved overnight to homeworking, others were furloughed, still others had to continue to work on-site, with their employers using staggered shifts and other working patterns to preserve safe social distancing as far as possible.
One legacy of that period is what I term ‘me-ism’ and it can be hard to counter. It’s easy for the employee to point to the tangibles and the deliverables that are required of them, and often to point to their continuing satisfactory performance while working from home much or all of the time. It can be much harder for the manager to provide convincing evidence of the individual staff member’s in-person contribution to their team, or ‘collective’. As one of my interviewees said: “We’ve realised there is nothing that we can’t do from home, but there are an awful lot of things that are much better done face to face.”
Tasks that are generally agreed as ‘better in person’ include meetings of larger groups, when interaction by team members is important. Or for presentations to clients, which can feel more like lectures if they’re delivered online. Induction and onboarding new recruits is another area that’s being rethought by many organisations but still definitely needs real human contact.
Many organisations have also tussled with how some people’s desire to work from home impacts others who want to recapture the social aspects of office life as it was before, and who together with the minority who cannot work from home, find the hybrid office empty and isolating. One employer told me: “We’ve tried to focus on what suits the service, what suits the team and what suits the individual. And actually they should all be balanced.”
Employee choice and control
Across the board interviewees described new ways of working in which employee choice and control had increased, regardless of employer size or sector. Attitudes had changed: staff expected more choice and control, and managers not only felt they had to provide it, many actively wanted to. This went beyond the office and hybrid working. There was increased choice not just around where staff worked (broadly, hybrid for the office) but more choice now around when and how long, for office staff and also, although not yet as extensively, for frontline staff.
Extending employee choice and control beyond the office was key to answering the complaint about fairness from on-site staff. I found several employers had rethought and redesigned shift patterns. For example, a construction company had introduced a very popular pattern of 48 hours across four days. A small manufacturer had introduced a 36-hour four-day week, reserving Friday for overtime in response to customer demand. Both noted a reduction in overtime costs and increased employee satisfaction. Another example is an organisation providing leisure services to a large urban authority, which couldn’t do much about fixed opening hours of parks and pools, and so had developed a new ‘pathway into management’ option for staff in lower paid, more routine roles.
Fairness and rebuilding collective engagement
Such fresh thinking about on-site flexibility had enabled several of the employers in my study to begin rebuilding a shared sense of the collective, with flexible working available in roles that, before the pandemic, were not just tied to place but inflexible in time too.
This new thinking establishes a greater sense of fairness across the organisation. Not everyone may be able to work from home, but some form of flexibility is likely to be available in most roles, with staff understanding that both the opportunity and the process are fair and equitable.
In other words, to tackle the two questions of fairness, employers should make equity around offering choice and control to all kinds of staff the starting point, even if the resulting flexibility looks different in different roles. It’s then perfectly ‘fair’ for employers to talk about individuals’ responsibility to their team and the wider organisation, so that individual choices don’t cause detriment to others. People who say they can’t do something because ‘that’s my working from home day’ is the kiss of death to collective, responsible flexible working.
The necessary response to this is for employers to better support managers in consistently delivering collective fairness to the individual. One employer told me: “We’ve given a lot of guidance around teams … having another chat about what everyone’s needs are, and trying to formulate solutions that meet the majority rather than one or two individuals. For some areas that’s meant that business rules have had to become more stringent, and for others that they’re much looser.”
Investing in line managers
The employers in this study were all very different but they shared a view that work as we knew it had been upended and won’t return to how it used to be. They also shared an understanding that adapting to the upheaval of lockdown will take time. How work is delivered today may not be the appropriate model long-term. The important thing will be to keep options open, and to carry your people with you through future changes.
All the employers I spoke to were in investing in their line managers in different ways, to build their confidence and capability in managing hybrid and remote workers, and in keeping an open mind about on-site flexibility across the organisation. They understood that their line managers were dealing with a completely new issue, caught in the middle between many staff who vocally want to work from home, others who miss human contact and team spirit, and organisations that are still finding their way towards longer term policies and processes.
Ultimately, confident line managers, well supported by clearly thought through and objectively justifiable policies, is what will see off the current cries of ‘not fair’ around hybrid.
First published in Personnel Today 30th November 2023