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The myth of mutual exclusion: why a hybrid working model is the most resilient ‘back-to-office’ solution for SMEs

remote work
(Image credit: Image Credit: Gpointstudio / Shutterstock)

At the very start of Series 1 of The Office UK, David Brent tells the camera, “When people say to me, ‘Oh, would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss?’ My answer's always the same: to me, they're not mutually exclusive.”

While Brent’s assertion in itself might be up for debate, it is neatly transferrable (with a few word changes) to the present moment. When someone says to me, ‘Oh, would you rather work from home or in the office?’ My answer’s always the same: to me, they’re not mutually exclusive.

While it’s tempting for businesses to opt for a one-or-the-other fix when it comes to a back-to-office strategy – either all in or all out – it’s rarely so black-and-white. 

On one hand, it’s unrealistic to expect all employees to go back to being anchored to an office desk once lockdown restrictions have been lifted. According to a recent survey, nearly nine out of ten (89.9 percent) people were working remotely during the pandemic, with 80 percent presently still working from home. Of the 500 SME business leaders we surveyed for our Culture Economy Report, 87 percent of employers say their staff have remained productive while working from home – a large majority, disproving the stigma that many roles cannot be done at home. This jumps to 91 percent of larger SMEs reporting high productivity levels, showing that this size workforce has got to grips with remote working very effectively. 

It’s therefore not surprising that re-instating a 5-day commuter week doesn’t seem to be on the cards. Feelings of the resistance felt by both employees and business leaders are widespread. A report by Slack revealed only 12 percent of workers want to go back into the office full-time.

Personalized patterns

At the same time, it’s unfair to extrapolate from the productivity maintained during Covid-induced lockdowns and suggest employees can keep it up long-term. Additionally, businesses face a growing culture deficit. The prospect of further starvation of in-person interactions could be harmful for workers from learning, socializing and creativity perspective, particularly for the younger cohort.

A hybrid approach will see SMEs safely into the uncertain future of work. The traditional office space will transform into a place to focus on ‘heads up’ work, while home working will be likely used for more ‘heads down’ tasks.

This new generation of hybrid office working will be facilitated by what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called “two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”. The pandemic has undoubtedly fast-forwarded the ‘future of work’, with improved internet connections, a wide variety of project management software, and advanced security systems enabling the vast majority of companies to easily transform their work into a more flexible working environment. 

As workforces try to navigate the new normal, its inevitable people will feel apprehensive about the risks posed by the virus and the return to the office. With this in mind, it’s vital business leaders focus on clear communication between themselves and their employees, taking into consideration how workers individually feel to inform decision making whilst complying with government guidelines around co-working health and safety. In doing so, employers will establish trust and reinforce positive working relationships, laying the foundations for a healthy company culture to be built upon. 

The future of work is still hazy, especially for those in the industry’s most severely affected including, hospitality, care, leisure, retail and entertainment. Recent predictions from the FSB suggest that 250,000 small businesses face closure in 2021, and 48 percent of SMEs believe that maintaining or increasing revenues will be one of their greatest challenges this year, along with adapting business activity (20 percent), managing employee health and wellbeing (20 percent), and keeping teams motivated and productive (19 percent). Similarly, almost one-third (32 percent) of employees surveyed cited staying motivated and productive in the next 12 months as their biggest challenge, while almost a quarter (24 percent) said they aren’t afraid to pursue a different career altogether, signaling potential challenges to staff retention.

Tradition or technology

The mythic four-day week is being thrown around and many are wondering whether we’ll ever return to our traditional working habits. Rather than winning definitive points for either remote or office-based working, or shorter work weeks, the pandemic has shown us that different people work in different ways. Just ask any two of your colleagues how they enjoyed working from home and you will find two completely different experiences. Some have been liberated by the greater flexibility it has enabled in their lives, while others have suffered from culture deficit.

Either way, remote working has highlighted areas in need of improvement in our existing work practices to support the range of employee needs, and it’s undeniable that technology has given us the platform to debate these issues. In a study conducted by Deloitte, a company’s level of digital maturity is a hefty indicator of growth and financial success. Hence, it’s encouraging that one of the top priorities for organizations has been to transform their digital infrastructures which have since adapted to suit the new world of work. 

Hybrid working, which we will likely see as the popular model of choice, relies on cloud – this step change will almost certainly pave the way for innovation to grow and make way for greater automation as a very positive side-effect of the shift. The adoption of cloud infrastructures offers businesses agility when maneuvering through choppy hybrid waters; reducing arduous administrative tasks and freeing up time for employees to focus on what really matters, like improving employee morale and cultivating the next generation of leaders. 

With office restrictions recently ending in July, we are finally starting to see exactly how the pandemic has redefined our working spaces and whether the office is set to bounce back. So far, it’s ambiguous. Businesses will benefit from ignoring the myth of mutual exclusion and designing a ‘back to the office’ plan that incorporates both in-office and remote ways of working.

Jonathan Richards, CEO, Breathe

Jonathan Richards
Jonathan Richards is the CEO and Founder of breatheHR. breatheHR is the software that takes the hard work out of managing your employees and centralises all your employee information in one easy to use system.