In 2019, the ONS reported that fewer than 7% of the UK workforce worked flexibly, meaning employees sometimes worked from home and sometimes from the office. So, not that many!
Despite this figure, over the last decade, several UK studies found that employees who had the flexibility to choose where to work had better well-being and were more motivated.
Yet few employers were inspired to extend this offering. The option to choose where to work generally remained the preserve of senior leaders, seemingly more trusted to work remotely.
It was certainly easy to critique or even dismiss the original studies. They were often conducted on high-performing volunteers, motivated to try a new way of working that enabled their autonomy and met their individual need for flexibility.
Yet the big elephant in the room – whether such flexibility enhanced performance was understudied. I was drawn to focus on this gap in late 2019, little knowing that the largest experiment into remote/home working was about to commence!
From early 2020, organisational survival was predicated on an ability to pivot and enable employees to remain connected and work remotely; whether from their kitchen worktops, their dining tables or their bedrooms.
Most would agree this was not a newfound trust in employees but pure business survival.
Since then, news headlines have argued that working remotely works. Over the last two years, employees have demonstrated that work delivery could continue, and they might even be happier, now able to spend more time at home, drop off and collect children, work closer to home or reduce commute time.
We have all seen the headlines about this ‘new normal’. Termed agile or ‘hybrid’ working, the flexibility to sometimes work from home and attend the office throughout the week is said to be on offer to 35% of the UK workforce.
But to what long-term effect?
What might be the enduring effects of disconnecting from a central workplace and relocating work into our homes, even when we separate that time and space during the week?
There is an alternative viewpoint I argue must be considered.
Studies are emerging showing the shift to working from home has increased the potential for working longer hours, termed work intensification. Work/family conflict appears to be on the increase as the boundary between work and home no longer exists. Feelings of isolation are increasing as is the potential for disrupted relationships with our colleagues and our organisation. Creating a cultural identity has become more challenging and leadership practices are not adapting.
Not all existing work can be undertaken efficiently and safely from home, and yet the hybrid arrangement appears to have been offered to many knowledge workers without any modification of the job design.
New employees are no longer inducted into organisation ways of work or easily able to laugh and learn with their colleagues. Knowledge sharing becomes a formal, online process, no longer enabled through role modelling, watching and learning or observing colleagues. Organisations are relinquishing space in favour of hotdesking.
Lest we forget, work provides us with a sense of purpose. It offers social connections and community. Connecting and building relationships with colleagues enables us to grow, share and learn – all the more complicated when unable to oversee, overhear or connect naturally through informal exchanges.
The last three years have seen a monumental shift in where and how we work. The leap from negligible opportunities for remote working to an almost universal offer to knowledge workers of hybrid flexibility has been swift and overwhelming.
Yet this behavioural change is only just bedding in, and we have yet to fully see the impact and implications of this new ‘default’ way of working.
Just because some demand it, may not make it the right approach to work. The employee experience of a boundaryless arrangement requires significant trade-offs, and the negotiations on these trade-offs have not yet begun.
How many organisations have reimagined the work design or the leadership skills required for hybrid arrangements? Or have many just allowed pandemic work arrangements to continue, offering hybrid work as a compromise to retain key employees? How many employees are still working at kitchen tables in exchange for the freedom to collect their child from school or reduce their commute?
So, we must ask:
Is any employee likely to admit that this way of working may be impacting adversely? Who will admit that the quality of what they do and how they do it may have diminished? Who is prepared to acknowledge the quality of their work relationships has deteriorated?
Work should enable us to thrive and flourish; it should never be (or have been) organised in a way that creates adverse well-being or damages our mental health. So, ensuring that we are not jumping from the 2019 frying pan into a 2023 fire requires a mature conversation about what work should offer and how it is best constructed in this increasingly disconnected world.
Prof Stephen Wood suggested recently that hybrid working could be an ‘imperfectly perfect’ working solution. I’m yet to be convinced it is in any way perfect.
The contradictions are stark. Hybrid doesn’t necessarily blend the best of office work with the best of home working. Indeed it could combine the worst of both and create a new epidemic of poor workplace wellbeing created through hybrid working.
Two wrongs don’t always make a right.
[The narrative that ‘office work is bad’ and ‘home working is good’ is escalating, so I am excited to research this area as a Doctoral student in Organisational Health and Wellbeing at Lancaster University. If you would like to know more, be involved in the research or can share insights or studies that you are working on, I would love to hear from you.]
#wellbeing #organisations #hybrid work # remotework #virtual work #telework