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By Top Employers Institute
By Top Employers Institute

Home Truths

What has the Covid-19 pandemic taught employers about the possibilities and pitfalls of working from home? And what does this mean for the hybrid workforces of the future?

The wholesale relocation of employees from office to home during the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the most fundamental and sudden changes that the world of work has ever seen. Created from the short-term imperative of employee health and safety, it nevertheless seems set to create long-term changes for the future workforce.

In the UK, which marks a “National Work from Home Day” every May, 43 of the 50 biggest employers questioned by the BBC said earlier this month that they did not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time, with many encouraged to work from home 2 or 3 days a week. Employers worldwide are considering similar long-term changes, thinking through how to harness the possibilities and pitfalls for a future hybrid workforce.

Pandemic Preparation

When the Covid-19 outbreak began, Top Employer organisations were as well prepared for what was to come as it was possible to be. Our latest research with 1 691 certified Top Employers worldwide showed that many of them had, amongst other things, already:

  • Helped employees to be productive by empowering them to manage their work hours and location.
  • Designed both physical and virtual workplaces to support collaboration and inclusivity.
  • Used technology to drive both, as well as enabling an obvious need for improved communication.

There are many areas of learning for all employers from pandemic-induced global “experiment” of working from home. Even so, many hopes and fears for employers and employees are linked to the three broad areas outlined below.

Working from home and …

… The impact on productivity

It is far clearer today than a year ago that working from home need not harm organisational productivity and in some respects can enhance it. Some employees clearly feel working from home has improved their productivity, not least through the absence of commuting, fewer workplace distractions and the freedom to work hours that suit them. There are others who will disagree, particularly those caring for younger children during long periods of school closures and lockdown.

For many employers, meanwhile, working from home has produced some short-term savings, although long-term productivity gains need to be thought through carefully to be realised. As hybrid workforces take shape during 2021, with some in the office and some at home, there is a clearly a danger of creating two quite different types of employee experience. How to unify and motivate a largely disparate workforce to similarly high levels of performance and accountability, while ensuring fairness and equity, is now a major challenge for organisations.

To deliver productivity for the organisation, HR leaders must champion a “human centric” culture, one which genuinely puts people at the forefront of every decision. They should anticipate and welcome a hybrid working model with this in mind, to create a workforce bound together by purpose, rather than location. One of our Top Employers, BIP, has worked hard to redefine its humanity, agility and respect for wellbeing by introducing the concept of continuous dialogue around performance, in which employees inspire one another to adopt new behaviours.

… The impact on collaboration and inclusion

Working from home has presented obvious challenges to collaboration and inclusion. Many employers have built cultures, until recently, around from face-to-face interaction in the office, or by traveling to meet customer, partners or suppliers. On the one hand, social isolation is a clear risk for those working at home. While the extreme conditions presented by lockdowns will hopefully subside across the working world, the challenge including co-workers who are forced or choose to continue to do so is very real. On the other hand, working from home has arguably created new inclusivity for others, with more scope for those with physical disabilities to flourish away from the traditional workplace.

There are many things that HR leaders can do to help inclusion to flourish if many of their employees continue to work from home. These include a commitment to:

  • Encourage all employees to use all tools that help inclusivity. Employees can become especially isolated when they feel they can’t access the same materials or information as colleagues, or feel their achievements aren’t recognised in the same way.
  • Place more emphasis on a clear meeting structure. This is so important when a team is split between the office and online worlds. The great global working from home “experiment” has shown employers that to getting the most from everyone means going further in involving everyone in key decisions and actions.
  • Master informal decision-making as well. It’s easy for those in the office to make informal decisions outside of meetings. Any hybrid workforce culture therefore needs to go the extra mile here as well, otherwise those working at home will understandably feel that that there is an “in-crowd” of office workers, of which they don’t feel part. 

… The impact on digital HR

The mass relocation to working from home has greatly accelerated the introduction of digital HR. The pandemic has produced a tectonic shift in the power of technology. Employees working from home understandably want to feel that they have the same access to HR technology as everybody else.

Our research among our Top Employers worldwide also shows us that most organisations are also now using internal social technology organisation-wide in their key communications. And encouragingly, many business leaders in our Top Employers play an active role in “promoting social platforms and supporting those who make significant contributions”.

Even so, the pandemic has also shown us that, for all the best intentions of leaders, workplace systems and processes in all organisations inevitably have a “location legacy” that needs to shift further if those working at home are to realise their full potential. It is down to HR leaders to become the champions for digital technology.

Conclusion

Among our Top Employers and other organisations alike, the pandemic has greatly accelerated the move to working from home and other flexible working arrangements. In the process, it has clarified many pros and cons of working from home and has opened a wider debate on the long-term future of the workforce. It is now incumbent on all HR leaders to meet these longer-term challenges and help employees, wherever they are based, to flourish.