Hybrid working is here to stay. But have organisational policies and management practices kept pace to support new ways of working? Without addressing policy-to-practice gaps, organisational culture, and the role of the manager to get the best out of disparate teams, there is a risk that pre-Covid-19 workplace inequalities will be exacerbated, and new inequalities may emerge.
Government has recognised the importance of good management and leadership to deliver high quality, productive and inclusive work, through initiatives such as Help to Grow. But as the world of work is changing rapidly, employers need a coherent offer of support and a commitment to continual improvement of management and leadership practice.
The shift to a hybrid model of work creates both challenges and opportunities for managers and their teams.
In January 2020, approximately 6% of UK workers worked remotely, which rose to 43% during the first national lockdown. An ONS survey found that nearly a fifth of businesses (19%) want to use remote working permanently, most likely combining a mix of on site and remote working. Even if hybrid working does not become a feature of all workplaces, the scale of this shift for those organisations that do adopt these new practices should not be underestimated. It will require a new approach to leadership and management, which must seek to take advantage of the benefits and at the same time mitigate the risks associated with managing an increasingly complex array of working arrangements, for example affording more of the workforce the opportunity to balance caring commitments with work, while mitigating the risk that those working remotely becoming disconnected with decision making processes or wider team culture.
A majority of managers reported that their organisation has a flexible working policy in place, but these are grounded in pre-pandemic working patterns.
The recent joint CMI and Work Foundation survey of 1,036 CMI members in office-based organisations, conducted between 14th and 19th May 2021, shows that a large majority of managers (73%) report that their organisation has a remote working policy in place. However, the coverage of these policies is not well defined: half of managers (48%) report that decisions around remote working are determined informally between the line manager and direct report.
While there are benefits to a personalised approach, this could lead to inconsistent decision-making within organisations. Over recent years, we have seen a policy-to-practice gap emerging, where options for flexible working were nominally provided, but take-up too often remained stigmatised and penalised. Without a purposeful approach to adapting management practices to this new context, the shift to hybrid working could worsen existing inequalities, or even lead to the emergence of new barriers to inclusion.
This new way of working could create a two-tier workforce, benefiting those who work on site and disadvantaging remote workers.
From open-ended questions in our latest survey, it appears that managers expect post-Covid take-up of remote working may be higher among workers with disabilities, and those with caring responsibilities, which often still fall on women. This is supported by wider evidence regarding remote working preferences prior to the pandemic. If female workers and those with disabilities or long-term health conditions spend more time working from home even as pandemic restrictions ease, while predominantly male and non-disabled workers return to the office, there is a risk that they may become less visible to managers and employers, less involved in decisions that affect them, and less able to engage in organisational life more widely.
This is supported by the findings of our survey, which found that hybrid working could cause some workers to miss out on valuable opportunities to foster relationships and develop the skills and experience that on-site working would provide.
Nearly a fifth of managers reported that access to networks and opportunities to represent the organisation at external events may have been lower for workers who were female, disabled, or had a diverse ethnic background prior to the pandemic.
This is supported by evidence indicating that access to workplace networks has historically been unequal, with workers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, women and workers with disabilities being less likely to benefit from the opportunities that both informal and formal networks offer including mentoring, sponsorship and shadowing. Concerningly, more than half (55%) of managers expect increased remote working will exacerbate these inequalities.
Furthermore, 23% thought access to stretch projects would decrease through hybrid working. If access to such opportunities is lower for remote workers than for those working on site, this could potentially create a two-tier workplace.
Figure 1: Percentage of managers expecting remote working to decrease access to development opportunities
Source: CMI/Work Foundation Pulse Point Poll conducted between 14th and 19th May 2021 (N=1,036).
While managers reported very high levels of trust towards their employees regardless of where they work, negative perceptions towards those who choose to work from home persist.
95% of the managers that we surveyed agreed that they trust staff to do their work well when they work remotely, with some managers noting that they are using output focussed performance measures, rather than ‘input’ or time-based monitoring. Despite high levels of trust, 1 in 3 managers (33%) believe that people use remote working as an opportunity to put in less effort. Indeed, responses to open-ended answers showed that some managers feel that staff must ‘show’ that they are working when away from the workplace.
With employees and managers working apart, a new culture of online presenteeism has taken root in some organisations.
Responding quickly to messages and communication when working remotely is important to managers, with 89% saying that a quick response is fairly or very important. Some managers told us that they have set core hours or are “being strict with hours” to deal with slow response times.
Making hybrid work inclusive: Next steps
Government should focus on providing employers with a coherent offer of support and a commitment to continual improvement of management and leadership practice. Our research found that two thirds of managers report they have not received training on how to manage remote working staff. We need a system that ensures managers and employers commit to their ongoing development to ensure they can deliver the best outcomes for their business and those they work with.
A key priority for organisations going forward will be taking the time to understand what the impacts of this shift to a hybrid model means for the different groups of people that they employ. Being proactive in supporting them to adapt and reap the benefits that this new way of working can bring, while minimising potential disadvantages, will be paramount.
Go for quality rather than quantity when it comes to communication and engagement
Although frequent communication might be good to maintain a sense of engagement, commitment and worker wellbeing, it is important to see remote working as an opportunity not just to provide employees with flexibility in the place they work, but also in how they work.
- Use communication tools to offer support, rather than to monitor attendance or performance.
- Give staff autonomy to organise their working time, and enable protected time for concentration on tasks.
Focus on outcomes rather than hours
Some survey respondents indicated they had shifted focus to the quality of output, rather than the visibility of the input. This makes it essential to agree appropriate individual and collective objectives, and putting progress towards them at the centre of management.
Take a purposeful approach to using time together at the office
In a permanent hybrid model, in-person meetings are a good way to foster positive culture and enhance creativity and collaboration. It is important that managers ensure face-to-face time is inclusive, by choosing accessible locations, and avoiding peak times on public transport and school drop-off and pick-up times. Managers should reflect on how best to make the most of in-person time going forward, with a focus on supporting collaboration, learning and development.
Embed a focus on inclusion within hybrid working arrangements
Managers should ensure that networking, engagement opportunities and stretch projects are facilitated for all staff, ensuring there is equitable access for onsite and remote workers.
In line with this, organisations should prioritise the development of Diverse ethnic backgrounds, Disability and Women’s Networks and consult with them regularly on key issues, such as working practices, recruitment and progression.
Staff should be encouraged to develop informal networks or social groups that involve remote workers, such as virtual book clubs or exercise classes.
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