The Irish Times – Hybrid working will be a compromise not a utopia

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From The Irish Times, Olive Keogh’s take on the World of Work and how ‘Flexible’ working can quickly become completely inflexible with new routines.  Features insights from many closest to what’s happening now, including our very own CEO Ciaran Rowsome. 

By autumn of last year organisations with their finger on the pulse had already recognised that Covid-19 would change how people worked forever. They began surveying their employees to get feedback about the experience of remote working and a healthy majority showed a preference for continuing to work from home however things panned out.

Just over a year on, sentiment surveys are showing less clear cut results.

“We surveyed people in April and will do so again in July because attitudes seem to be changing so quickly,” says Ruairi Conroy, site lead for Diligent Corporation in Galway which has hired 150 employees since the beginning of this year.

“Having everyone together five days a week does not fit into our thinking about returning to the office. We want to get back into a routine of sorts, but what that might look like is still evolving. We recognise that coming back may be very difficult for some so we want to be sure that whatever we decide on is inclusive and flexible.”

Asked what practical steps Diligent is taking to ease the transition back to the office Conroy mentions installing desk booking software and introducing touchless technology for doors and coffee machines. The company is also designing a layout with around 30 desks per floor: pre-Covid, it might have been twice that.

Diligent is in the happy position of being able to customise its floor plans for the post-pandemic era as its new offices in Galway city are still under construction. But while some companies are reducing the amount of space they occupy as they introduce a blended working week, Diligent is doing the opposite. It is spreading itself over six floors and a rooftop terrace.

The pace at which companies are looking at going hybrid has really picked up in the last two months

“It will be early next year when we move in and, by then, we will have around 200 people,” Conroy says.

“We definitely want people to be together at times because we collaborate better when we’re around each other, but we are making sure we can do it safely by providing more breakout areas and more space in meeting rooms.”

Ciaran Rowsome is chief executive of FlexTime which has been providing time management solutions for flexible working models since 1983. Over the last year, his company has turned its attention to helping customers manage remote working and, more recently, it has begun adding new tools to support hybrid working patterns.

“With the correct infrastructure, we can move successfully to the hybrid model that seems to be emerging as the most popular option with workers,” he says. “The pace at which companies are looking at going hybrid has really picked up in the last two months and we’re rolling out features that can show people’s availability in real time or give light touch feedback about what task an employee is working on.

“When we surveyed our customers last year about hybrid working, it wasn’t on their radar mainly because people were too stressed to think about something that might happen in the future. That future is now here and organisations are asking themselves how do we manage it to maintain our productivity and competitiveness?”

There is a perception in some quarters that hybrid working is like a super hero that will free workers from the drudgery of 9-5 in one bound, but this freedom will come at a price. Businesses will still need systematic ways of managing people and processes to avoid chaos. And there may well be choppy waters ahead when the reality of what’s lost as well as gained starts sinking in.

Employers and employees alike may find themselves grappling with questions of fairness if the hybrid option cannot be extended to all staff and it may come as a shock when people realise that current perks, such as subsidised canteens or on-site gyms, will no longer be viable with reduced numbers.

When we asked managers what hybrid working meant to them, we got more interpretations than you could shake a stick at

Also likely to change are simple things employees now take for granted, such as having a personal desk. In organisations that already operate hot desking (something that’s likely to go hand in hand with hybrid working), the stories of people staying up until midnight to bag their favourite spot when desk bookings open for the new month are more than urban legend.

“Now that companies are exploring what hybrid working might look like for them the cracks are starting to appear in the rosy picture,” says one HR manager.

“It sounds great in theory, but when we asked managers what hybrid working meant to them, we got more interpretations than you could shake a stick at. It seems highly unlikely that it will be workable without clear ground rules, including properly defined and respected working hours.

“Some people are not going to like the new rules because they will involve compromise.

“We’re already mediating turf wars over window seats and parking spaces with those who want to work full-time in the office assuming they have a ‘right’ to a designated place and shouldn’t have to compete for space. We’ve also had people taken aback at the idea that ‘their’ desk/coat hanger/shelf in the fridge will no longer be ‘theirs’ if they’re only going to use it two days a week.

“What’s also interesting is how quickly ‘flexible’ working becomes completely inflexible once people start building their childcare and other responsibilities around being at home or in the office on designated days.”