The Economist named “hybrid work” as the word of 2022. That’s hardly a surprising choice. By now, to anyone who has an “office job,” it will be an extremely familiar concept — with most employees in this group now working under the model if they weren’t already, albeit in more loosely defined terms.
Despite its emergence as a daily part of lexicon, however, it’s striking how many organisations have yet to develop formal hybrid working policies based on what their teams require to work most effectively within a hybrid environment, along with the technology-based systems that bring it all together.
Research by global worktech provider Eptura, which canvassed the views of 2,000 UK employees in 2022, found that just over half (54 per cent) were in a workplace that had bothered to update their remote or hybrid policy since early 2020. The rest either had a policy that remained unchanged since before the pandemic (20 per cent), didn’t have a policy at all (12 per cent), or were not aware of one (14 per cent).
THE MIDWEEK MOUNTAIN
The lack of clear guidelines is driving a growing problem for facilities managers. In its ‘2023 Workplace Predictions’ report, Eptura described it as the “midweek mountain”. As ever, the British media has come up with a slightly more tongue-in-cheek name: ‘TWaT’, short for ‘Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday’. When employees have the freedom to choose their office days, most are heading in during the middle of the week and staying at home on Mondays and Fridays to stretch their weekends as far as they can.
TWaT is a headache for several reasons, especially if an organisation has used the reduction in overall occupancy to rationalise real estate. It increases the likelihood of employees not finding the space they need when they go in, dissuading them from returning even if it’s by mandate, and organisations wasting energy by heating and cooling rooms on dead days.
Andrew Hulbert, CEO of Pareto FM, says that developing hybrid work policies is necessary because it removes ambiguity. In recent times, he has seen a mixture of policies that ask people to go to the office either on specific days or a percentage of the week. However, Hulbert warns this can drive some unwanted behaviours. “We’ve seen some workspaces ask people to complete at least 40 per cent of their working in the office per quarter. This leads to some working in the office 100 per cent of the time for six weeks just to meet their quota, only to stay away for the rest of that period,” he explains. “This sporadic use of the office poses utilisation challenges for workplace and FM professionals around resourcing and availability.”
THE ROLE OF THE OFFICE
Hybrid isn’t just raising questions about how often people use the office but also why they do. As Esme Banks Marr, Strategy Director of work + place for BVN Architecture explains: “The workplace’s purpose in 2023 is to find its way out of its existential crisis. We’re constantly trying to find concrete answers, which is ludicrous because there aren’t any. The way we live constantly changes, so why wouldn’t work? And why wouldn’t the spaces we do work in also evolve?”
Global workplace management consultancy AWA’s second Hybrid Index, a study of 220 offices in 33 countries last November, found that employees are going into the office just 1.5 days a week on average. These findings tell an increasingly common story: most people want to spend a large part of their week working from home, but they don’t want to lose the office completely.
Why? Because the office provides what the home can’t and for many that’s collaboration — meeting colleagues and customers to work together, share ideas and socialise. But it’s also important to remember there are lots of employees whose circumstances at home — maybe they don’t have enough room or are surrounded by other noisy flatmates —mean they still need the office to do focused work.
“A larger percentage of space will likely be allocated to supporting things that remote working can’t, such as social interactions and informal catch ups in a clubhouse-like way,” Banks Marr says. “But we can’t disregard focused work, and employees will always need to collaborate both virtually and in-person when they’re in the office, so the workplace will need to support a range of tasks and do this through a variety of spatial settings.”
THE DIGITAL WORKPLACE
Technology is the great enabler when it comes to hybrid working and the policies that give it structure. Hulbert sees several systems and platforms as crucial to its development. The first is a huge increase in demand for desk booking systems, which are forcing employees to book desks further in advance and driving competition for space among colleagues. The second is HR systems linked to swipe cards, a simple way to measure how often people are attending site. In some of the more tech-led environments, employers are asking their staff to tap in and out at the start and end of the day — though Hulbert points out that this request feels more akin to Adam Smith’s pin factory than modern-day flexible working. Thirdly, there are the social messaging apps that can help create a buzz to get people back into the office by promoting town halls, talks, puppy days and other initiatives.
Integrating those social messaging or video communication apps with workplace scheduling software makes hybrid models work by providing transparency in a largely asynchronous system. Eptura recently launched a solution that leverages Microsoft Teams to show users exactly who will be in the office on which days and trigger automated notifications alerting employees when their entire team will be present.
This is perhaps an example of what Banks Marr refers to as “organisational network mapping” (ONM). She explains: “Using ONM to understand information flow through an organisation is also a great way of determining who is in the office and when, as well as who collaborates with whom, on what sort of tasks, and what informal communities exist, making it easier to plan your future workplace needs from a spatial perspective. There’s a slew of data that’s rarely being tapped into and considered when thinking about how hybrid working works.”
The challenge is not to get bogged down in the details that won’t move the needle. Chris Moriarty is the former Director of insights for the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management and the Co-Founder of workplace experience analytics platform Audiem. Part of Audiem’s mission is to understand not just what matters at work but also why and he carries that lesson over to his analysis of hybrid working. “Hybrid is just an approach,” he says. “We shouldn’t be measuring utilisation on its own. Instead, we should seek to understand how the approach is affecting our business goals and change it should we need to.”
The goal shouldn’t be to collect data on how many people are using a meeting room and for how long. The focus should be on which employees are using it, what they are trying to achieve, and if it is the best space and set-up for them to do it.
Firstly, however, Moriarty says that the workplace and FM industry needs a more holistic view of the workplace. Work doesn’t just happen in a physical space. It also occurs online and in the intangible relationships between people.
As ever, work is what you do not somewhere you go.
Simon Iatrou, Communications Director at Magenta Associates says the popularity of hybrid working requires technology-based systems that enable workers to come together in both the physical and digital space
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