HeartfeltHR - Jill Aburrow - HR Consultant
Passion for people

Hybrid working or remote working or workplace based.  Which is the best option?


One of the big issues for employers at the moment is where work should actually be done.

Many businesses want their employees physically in the workplace – at least for some of the time.  There are many reasons for this.  Some employers fear that teams don’t function well if they are remote from each other.  Others believe that new employees, especially those in their first job, need to mix with other workers and be mentored by a more experienced employee.  Sometimes the work just cannot be done anywhere other than in the workplace.  Some companies have expensive premises which they want to use to the best advantage.  Some bosses feel the need to be in control of their workers and believe this means having the worker physically in the same place. All of these reasons may have some validity, but are the really a bar to working remotely, at least for some of the time?

What are the options – and how can they be made to work?

Being in the workplace fulltime

Some would like work to return to the pre-pandemic days when everyone was expected to be present in the business premises.  For businesses which provide something in-person – such as a hairdresser or a dentist, a café or a shop – then this might seem to be the only way forward.  But if this is enforced, then it might be counter-productive and lead to resignations and recruitment difficulties.  There are some (usually vulnerable) employees who still fear being in close contact with others. Others have caring responsibilities.  Some find working at home makes it easier to manage a health issue or disability.  Some don’t want to face a regular commute. Some have environmental concerns and want to avoid travel, where possible. Some are just more productive at home and don’t want to go to an office.

Forcing these people back into the workplace full time may lead to them resigning. It might impact on your ability to recruit new employees.  At least, it may cause resentment and affect productivity and engagement.  

But is there another way?  Is your business really tied to people being in the workplace?  Any business can be creative and find a different way to offer a service – perhaps a home-visit or home-delivery service.    If you could offer them a home service, some of your clients might jump at it – and be prepared to pay extra for the advantage. 

Some parts of any job might be able to be done remotely and so you could offer this work on a rota basis, so that employees only have to be in the workplace for some of the working week.  Or, if being in the workplace is the only option, you might offer flexibility in other ways – flexible working hours to fit round personal needs.  Or part-time working or job share.

Is it really true that people need to see each other in person regularly to build rapport?  I don’t believe that it is.  I have worked remotely for years now.  When I was still working in the corporate world, I had rapport and team feeling with my fellow team-members. Many of them became friends and we are still friends now.  Some of them I have never even met in person – they live at different ends of the country from me and so we have only ever communicated over video calls or telephone or by email.  Yet I don’t think the team suffered because of it.   Recruitment and onboarding can be done remotely.  Team members can build great working relationships with each other and with the wider organisation.  It works for large corporate organisations (and has done for years).  So why would it not work for small business too?

Hybrid working

What is hybrid working?   This is where employees can work from home (or elsewhere) for some days and come into the workplace for other days.  It can be worked on any basis – 1, 2, 3 or 4 days  per week (or month) at home and the rest in the workplace.  Or it could even be one week at home, one week in the office – or any variation which works for your workplace.  For many, this is seen as the best of both worlds.  It cuts down on commuting time, traffic, train fares, etc.  It can help people fit around home and family responsibilities.  It can help business keep costs down. It means there is no need for bigger premises when your workforce expands.  Many businesses deliberately provide fewer desks than are needed to house all of their staff. This works as  they use a booking system for deskspace and there are always some people who are not in work for a number of reasons such as holiday, sickness, working remotely, visiting clients.

I managed a large team for years on this basis and it was very successful. It meant that there were fewer empty desks.  This was more inviting for visitors and for the people who worked there too.   We had regular team meetings via video, so that everyone could join in.  We did appraisals and 121s in person or over video, as appropriate.  Some people did not want to come into work as often as they were expected to do.  They were more productive and less restricted at home and so could not see the need to attend the workplace.  Some people wanted to come in every day – and there was always workspace for them, as some others would not be in the office.   Productivity levels remained the same, or even improved.  There was less sickness absence.  There was a better staff retention rate, as people appreciated being trusted to work remotely and did not want to leave. There were fewer clashes and conflicts between employees and there was very good collaboration.  Sometimes people would work from home, but choose to meet a colleague for a coffee to discuss a particular project.  Learning and development was often delivered online – or sometimes at a remote venue where everyone met up.

Fully remote

Fewer people want to work from home on a permanent basis.  I have seen statistics from surveys showing between 10% and 23% of workers would like to work from home on an indefinite basis.  But that is still a large percentage of the workforce.  Technology moves on all the time and new options become available.  Many businesses used to believe that they could not function with their staff all working at home, but now some are embracing that as the way forward and not having a central base at all. 

The advantages for business are predominantly that there is no longer any need to rent or buy expensive premises.  There is an environmental advantage as well – fewer people commuting is beneficial, especially as we face increased travel costs and rapid climate change.   But there are major disadvantages as well.  The huge reliance on technology can be expensive.  And some parts of the country still have poor coverage for technology and online working becomes difficult or impossible.  There is a huge training need for managers to enable them to manage remote teams effectively. 

What will work best?

This is the million dollar question, of course.  Each individual business will need to make their own decision, based on their own circumstances, environment and workforce. 

My advice – as always – is to consult with your workforce.  Find out what people really want.  I imagine that in most cases there will be a variety of answers, between all three of the above options.  But these can all be accommodated.  Why can’t some of your people work remotely all the time if they want to?  And for those who choose to come to the workplace some days or every day, there will be more desk space, more parking, an easier journey, smaller numbers of other people around. 

Ultimately, it comes down to you as the business owner.  But you need to think carefully about the best way forward for your business.

Things to think about

Where people work is less important than how they work.  If your concern is that your team is fractured, or there is a loss of rapport, then you need to ask why that is.  How can teamwork be fostered and relationships be built by using technology to connect everyone (and not leave anyone out)?  These things are not magically produced just because people are working in the same place.  They take management intervention; individual input; a clear vision for everyone to work towards.  In short – they need careful management and nurturing – wherever people are working.

It is also useful to remember that this is not where the flexible working question ends.  It is not just about where we work.  It is also about when we work and how we work best and balancing with our other commitments. It is about flexible working times; part time hours; compressed hours; zero hours; term-time working; job-sharing. 

And if you are concerned about building rapport, strong teams, productivity and hours worked, ask yourself why.  It is really about whether or not you truly trust your workers?  Is it about your need for to feel in control?  Is it about your desire to look around at all the people busy working and feeling proud of what you have achieved?  These are all very natural concerns – and ones we all share.  But in my experience, the more you trust people, the more trustworthy they prove to be.  If you loosen the reins a little and let your workers decide what is best for them, you might have a pleasant surprise ahead.

Or maybe you are worried about whether people will work the right number of hours.  But does that really matter? If they are getting the right results, then working the exact number of hours is not important. People will sometimes sign off a little early, but in most cases they will more than make that up by working longer hours another day.  If we are not clockwatching, we can be more creative and productive. Some people, of course, want to take advantage of the opportunity to live in a different part of the country, or even a different country.  Employers need to be careful before they agree to employees working outside UK – there are financial, tax and other implications and you need to understand all of these before you agree to this.

One final word

Nothing lasts forever.  You can always implement some of these things on a trial basis and see how they work out.  There will always be some people who think they want to work one way and then find it doesn’t work for them.  Or you may be very willing to try out something for your workers and then find it doesn’t bring the desired results.  So why not talk to your team and find a way which works for everyone?  My belief is that allowing a variety of all the above options will be the best way forward for the majority of businesses.

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Jill Aburrow - HR Consultant

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