In early 2022, when the UK was emerging from a pandemic, Kindred embarked on a piece of research to understand how organisations were tackling the big questions around returning (or not returning) to the office.
We spoke to HR and people leaders across a range of sectors, who represented historically office-based workforces ranging from around 500 to more than 100,000, in both UK-only and multinational organisations and found something extremely interesting: While all the leaders we spoke with had adopted hybrid working as the model for their organisation, there was a high variability in what that looked like in practice.
Since then, we have compared people’s attitudes then in 2022 to their attitudes today.
Here’s what we found:
● The conversations have shifted from productivity to cost
● The focus has shifted from weathering the storm to long-term performance
● The approaches have shifted away from being centred on individuals to being centred on the collective
Let’s take a look at each theme in turn.
From conversations about productivity…to conversations about cost
When the pandemic started, discussions were mostly about how we must try to maintain productivity with hybrid working. Before then, hybrid working was considered best for work that required periods of intense focus and periods of collaboration face-to-face. No one was certain that it could be applied at scale.
But now the conversation has shifted. Fast-forward to today and many are considering hybrid or remote working as a way to cut costs during an economic lull. With office maintenance costs at a high, HR has been under pressure to re-conceptualise the need for office space altogether and provide resolute systems that either reduce or make use of underused office space. This runs the risk of creating tension between optimising productive social time and reducing utility costs.
A common finding of our research was to find offices crowded on Tuesdays and Wednesdays but nearly empty on Fridays. While this may be conducive to productivity, it’s antithetical to cost- reduction.
From a focus on weathering a storm… to a focus on long term performance
After 2022, there was a consensus among those surveyed that we, as a society, had undergone a period of significant change due to the pandemic. The general attitude was that the changes to the working environment were a temporary solution that had to be tolerated.
In 2023, we see less about handling the temporary shock and more about dealing with the tighter long term economic conditions. With increased distance between team members, both metaphorically and literally, new focus has been placed by leadership on rallying people under one vision for the business to optimise for both individual and collective performance.
Lack of data on hybrid working has made this difficult though. Because of this, HR are struggling to recommend hybrid, remote, or neither in the interest of overall effectiveness.
From approaches centred on individuals… to approaches centred on the collective
In early 2022, many organisations grounded their approach to hybrid working in individual autonomy, claiming that if people were left to work when and where it made sense to them, this would lead to collective productivity.
However, a year later in 2023, we found that this had created some disharmony among organisations who took this approach due in part to differing priorities between individuals on meeting times, locations and scheduling.
Leaders have since responded by setting clear expectations on remote working versus hybrid/office working. Particular focus was placed on ensuring middle and senior management kept to these standards as role models for the organisation in hopes this image would ‘trickle-down’.
The shifting context around hybrid working has kept it high on the agenda for organisational leaders. Hybrid working can no longer be considered as simply a component of the ‘people strategy’, but instead plays directly into (and sometimes comes into tension with) commercial, organisational, and technology strategies as well.
Defining the future role of the office, renewing the social contract so that there are clear expectations on how work gets done, reshaping the working week to become more efficient and effective, and embedding self-management practices to manage complexity are some ways that business leaders can be more deliberate in managing their hybrid working approaches.