Last reviewed 21 January 2022

As of 19 January 2022, the UK Government Plan B requirement for working from home where possible was lifted. Many employers acted quickly in getting staff back into the office, with increased traffic and rail service use seen in the immediate days after. But is this the start of a return to pre-pandemic ways of working, when only around 5% of the UK workforce worked mainly from home and 65% of employers did not even offer this as an option, or will the lessons taken from the pandemic continue and flexibility become the norm?

What is hybrid working?

Hybrid working is a form of flexible working. Typically, flexible working is seen as adjusted hours of work, but in reality, it can be so much more. With hybrid working, a flexible arrangement is made allowing for work to be performed both in and out of the office, subject to what work is being performed at the time, and the employer and/or employees preference.

Recent research suggests 57% of the workforce would prefer this approach, and therefore employers are likely to want to explore this idea.

The benefits

There are numerous benefits to hybrid working. It can lead to reduced costs, as less office space is needed, saving on rent, utilities and refreshments. It can also save time, as less time is spent travelling to and from various locations.

There are also advantages for the work/life balance of employees, and it can lead to better motivation and job satisfaction, whilst at the same time reducing absence rates. Perhaps less obvious, it can also increase inclusion and diversity rates in the business by making work opportunities more accessible, and removing location barriers (for example, where the workplace is located in an area where affordable housing is limited). It can also lead to significant upskilling of IT skills as employees learn to be more independent with their technology and are exposed to more diverse working tools and software.

Finally, hybrid working can increase creativity and collaboration. A trend emerging from many businesses is that time spent in the office is no longer used for day-to-day tasks, but instead are opportunities to come together and work in a collaborative way. Sharing ideas as a group, being encouraged by each other, will allow for better idea generation and encourage more effective working.

The disadvantages

Whilst cost savings will be seen in terms of facilities, there will be initial technological investments that will need to be made to make hybrid working work. When the first lockdown was ordered, employers had to act fast in providing employees with the necessary IT equipment, which may not always have been fit for purpose. Employers looking to adopt a permanent hybrid model will need to assess employees’ home working equipment and spaces to ensure they are sufficient to meet their needs and do not put their health and safety at risk.

A further disadvantage of hybrid working is the additional organisation it will need, certainly at least when it is first introduced. Managers will have to be trained in how to manage in this way and will need to become adept at organising calendars to ensure those who need to be in the office on particular days are.

There will also be legal implications of these changes, as terms and conditions must state where the employee will be based. This may involve getting employee agreement to changes and potentially new contracts will need to be issued. There may also be issues for insurance that the employee needs to consider, and work will have to be undertaken to ensure the security of work-related information to prevent it from being accessed by unauthorised users.

What must employers consider when introducing a hybrid model of working?

Consultation with employees about introducing this is going to be important. Their views should be sought on how the organisation will define hybrid working, decisions made on the balance between home and office time, and special consideration given to those who may be particularly vulnerable and how this many affect them (vulnerability from Covid, of course, but also for those whom their physical or mental health has been impacted by working from home, such as those with mental health conditions or who are at risk of domestic violence).

Communication is essential to effective hybrid working. Organisations should therefore ensure they have plans in place to manage this, including opportunities for informal communication between employees, to foster better working relationships and engagement. Teams should be encouraged to find their own means of communication, such as Teams messages, that works best for them.

As with most things in HR, a new (or adapted) flexible working/hybrid working policy will be needed. This should set out the organisation’s definition of hybrid working, identify which roles are best suited to hybrid working and explain the process for requesting it. Other policies such as expenses and homeworking may also need to be reviewed and updated at the same time.

Future changes

Many employers will already be proactively arranging for hybrid working, using the lessons learned from the pandemic to shape the future model. This is also something on the Government’s legislative agenda. Consultation into the effectiveness of current flexible working regulations closed in December 2021. The outcome of this is likely to be a move towards flexible working becoming the norm for all employees and the ability to request it widened and simplified. The government response and proposed changes to the regulations are expected in 2022.

Conclusion

Employers in England especially, where the advice to work from home has changed a number of times during the pandemic, are well used to having staff come back to the office only to be sent home again. This experience can now be applied to make hybrid working work for them, enabling organisations and employees alike to enjoy the benefits of this model and the improved employee satisfaction it brings.