The future of the workplace: how HR is dealing with hybrid working challenges and reluctant returners

Author: Noelle Murphy

After 18 or more months of employees working at home, XpertHR research finds that the introduction of hybrid working is revealing challenges around collaboration, consistency, engagement, wellbeing and - in some cases - how to manage those who remain reluctant to return to the workplace, even on a hybrid basis.

XpertHR's hybrid working pulse survey details where organisations are currently with rolling out hybrid working models, including the specifics of arrangements, how roles are identified for hybrid working and any training required for line managers to upskill them to manage in a hybrid working landscape. Below we cover the challenges HR has identified and how respondents have, where possible, been dealing with them.

The Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales continue to advise employers to support employees to work from home if possible. However, in England, the Government is recommending "a gradual return [to workplaces]", which is driving the rollout of hybrid working.

Hybrid working challenges

Introducing and implementing a hybrid working model has highlighted a wide array of challenges for HR, from ensuring consistency in application across the organisation, to creating a culture that supports, encourages and facilitates effective hybrid working and dealing with dissatisfaction among employees who are in roles that cannot be done on a hybrid basis. There is also a key challenge around getting all relevant employees back to the workplace, even on a hybrid basis.

Consistency of approach is key

One of the biggest challenges identified by our respondents centres around consistency, both in the design and application of hybrid working models. Not all people managers or business leaders feel that hybrid working is the correct approach for their organisation, which can lead to the personal preferences of managers overriding or affecting the implementation of hybrid working models.

While there is general agreement that productivity held up well during the pandemic when people were mandated to work from home where they could, some respondents report that people managers have been keen to revert to employees attending the workplace for the majority of their time.

One public sector respondent told us that "pockets of the organisation still believe employees need to be in the office, even where it has been proven that remote working can work. This goes right up to senior leadership level and the concern is that it could lead to some departments missing out on the benefits of hybrid working."

Avoiding a two-tier workforce

HR has faced challenges dealing with employees whose roles do not qualify them for hybrid working. In some cases, these employees feel dissatisfied that they have been expected to turn up to the workplace - perhaps through the pandemic - while colleagues have been able to work from home. With the introduction of hybrid working, this dissatisfaction has worsened in some organisations and has raised the issue of fairness among colleagues.

Some respondents told us they have been engaging with these employees to understand the scale of the dissatisfaction. To address this they are looking at other ways they can introduce or offer some flexibility in working patterns.

The other potential two-tier workforce issue is around those who do remain remote or those who are working on a hybrid basis and not in the workplace on a daily basis. HR is concerned that this could lead to a culture where only those who attend the workplace are recognised for the work that they do, that communication may dwindle with those who are hybrid workers and that engagement and inclusion may dissipate. To help prevent this, HR is looking to create a sound foundation in the form of policies and procedures that recognise and reflect the needs of the business and the needs of all employees.

Getting the culture right

An HR practitioner in a private-sector services organisation told us: "COVID meant that the change to remote working was forced and accelerated, and the trust developed during that time needs to be retained. Training and communication is important to make sure that the expectations of the new normal are understood and support a culture of trust and automatic flexibility where possible."

Implementing hybrid working touches on every area of an organisation's culture and many respondents told us they are looking at existing policies and procedures to ensure they are fit for purpose in a hybrid setting. They also believe there is more work to be done with business leaders to ensure they play their part in setting and maintaining a culture that facilitates and supports productive, fair and inclusive working for all employees, irrespective of where they are based. HR is gathering feedback on a regular basis from all employees and feeding that into the ongoing review process of all hybrid working models.

Defining what collaboration means for your business

Ensuring hybrid working allow for collaboration has been a key driver for HR when developing models. Respondents are looking to technology to create virtual collaborative spaces and reconfiguring office space to create physical ones. Having a clear idea of what collaboration looks like will ensure that hybrid working plans can take this into account in a practical sense, which can then be communicated in a transparent manner to all employees. For some teams, collaboration may mean a need for face-to-face meetings, for others it may mean ensuring all those who need to attend do so using the same medium, for example all on a virtual basis.

Maintaining engagement and wellbeing

With employees not having as much face-to-face time with line managers or colleagues in a hybrid working model, HR is concerned about maintaining employee engagement and ensuring positive employee wellbeing. Respondents are keen to build on the lessons learned during lockdown, including tailoring communications to focus on engagement and employees being empowered to focus on their wellbeing. Respondents know that getting the culture right to support all employees and their working styles while focusing on trust and outcomes rather than presenteeism can promote positive engagement and employee experience. They know that key to this is upskilling line managers to be confident and competent in having high-quality conversations with employees to ensure clarity around expectations in terms of communication methods, working patterns and collaboration will also help to maintain and drive positive engagement.

Employees who are reluctant to return to the workplace

Alongside the challenges HR practitioners have identified around hybrid working, we asked respondents about their experience of employees who are reluctant to return to the workplace. Three in four (74.9%) of the 375 respondents to our survey told us they were aware of employees within their organisation who were currently reluctant to return to the office, even on a hybrid basis. While more than half (54.4%) quoted ongoing concern around the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the community, more than four in five (84.3%) believe the reluctance stems from personal preference.

HR is approaching this reluctance in a few ways, while trying to keep employee engagement and wellbeing at the centre of its approach. Respondents told us that they are aware that the pandemic has affected people in different ways and that the return to the workplace - in whatever form - while welcomed by the majority of employees is causing anxiety and genuine concern for others. Alongside this, some employees have benefitted from working remotely, finding that it fits better with their lifestyle or commitments.

Retaining COVID-19 mitigations

While most requirements around mitigating coronavirus (COVID-19) are no longer legally required, the majority of our respondents told us that they are instead retaining measures to facilitate a "COVID-19 secure" workplace. Many are also staggering start and finish times to avoid peak travel as well as overcrowding of high footfall areas of the workplace. They are being clear in their communications about all the measures in place in an effort to reassure employees that the workplace is as safe as it can be to return to. Many have offered occupational health support and specific health and safety information.

Encourage rather than mandate

Overwhelmingly, HR is clear that employees should be encouraged to try returning to the workplace rather than mandating it at this point.

One private-sector services respondent sums up the approach of many: "We are not forcing anyone to return, we are taking a slow approach. We have started with team days back in the office to get people used to going in and to see the benefits of catching up in person. We are hoping that this will naturally lead to more people going in over the next few months before needing one-to-ones with people to talk further and understand concerns and change of circumstance."

Many of our respondents told us that they are simply delaying the return of reluctant returners at this point, focussing their attention instead on those who are returning and dealing with emerging issues among this group. They feel that this will benefit both the reluctant returner and the business. Having the space to review and amend, if necessary, hybrid working models with less than a full workforce returning is advantageous and can help ensure early troubleshooting.

Some of our respondents have told us they are keenly aware that not all business leaders and people managers within the business see the need to take a less stringent approach to the messaging around returning to the workplace - to this end, HR has been proactive in managing communication to ensure consistency in approach.

A small minority of employers are looking to contracts of employment to facilitate a return to the workplace. While employers may have the right to require employees to return to the place of work set out in their contract, they should be cautious about doing so without considering the employee's individual circumstances. There could be a risk of constructive dismissal if the employee acts unreasonably in requiring the employee to attend the workplace. There could also be a risk of discrimination, for example on the grounds of disability or sex, depending on the employee's circumstances - see What should the employer do if an employee is reluctant to return to work as the coronavirus restrictions are lifted?.

Understanding the reasons around the reluctance

Part of the learning for HR since returning to the workplace became an option has been around the need to understand the full set of reasons or circumstances behind employees reluctance to return. Respondents report having employees who are living with or have family members who are clinically extremely vulnerable and while the vaccination may have been administered, there is still legitimate concern over contracting coronavirus.

For others, the past 18 months may have caused anxiety around their health or a certain level of social anxiety. While the workplace may be seen as "COVID-19 secure", public transport may feel less so. Pregnant employees are also reported as feeling uncomfortable attending the workplace.

There are also employees for whom the need to attend the workplace in order to carry out their work seems no longer necessary.

Respondents told us that taking the time to engage with individual employees to get a clear idea about their intentions and creating a dialogue that allows for open and honest discussion ensured that individual concerns could be heard and where possible, dealt with. HR see these conversations as ongoing to be clear on how any reluctance on the part of employees evolves over time, with the expectation being that it will lessen.

Empowering line managers

HR recognises that line managers play a key role in assuaging reluctance around returning to the workplace. HR professionals are often seen as the face of the organisation, and so need to acknowledge and interpret the nuances around such reluctance, ensure that they deal with all employees consistently and tread the fine line between meeting the needs of the business and ensuring employees remain engaged and feel that they are being heard. Our respondents are taking particular care with all communications to people managers around this topic, ensuring clarity and regularity around messaging. HR are also keen for people managers to feel empowered to agree to a more gradual return, and in many cases, where there is no business need at the current time, to allow them to agree for some employees to remain remote at this time.

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