September 2021 – Hybrid working: how to plan for the return to office

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Business should take a long term, planned approach to flexible working and not get caught up simply thinking about the end-of-lockdown return to office in Australia’s biggest cities, according to hybrid working experts.

Great Place to Work® asked two experts in flexible working to help businesses plan for the return to work over the next few months as pandemic lockdowns end.

The key message: a hybrid of in-office and at-home working is here to stay for the long term – and business leaders must take a considered approach to making it work in their organisations.

“The very definition of flexible working has changed in the past 18 months,” says John Hopkins, an associate professor of management at Swinburne University of Technology.

“Before COVID, flexible working for most people was probably no more than the ability to come in a bit late if they had a doctor’s appointment or work from home the odd day now and again.

“It was really the exception to the norm, the norm being working from the office full time, and quite often they would need to seek approval every time they did it.”

Flexibility has become the norm

Hopkins, who is also the founder of a Melbourne-based company that helps organisations successfully transition to hybrid work arrangements, says his own research shows that before COVID-19, 75% of Australian office workers rarely or never worked from home.

“Now, it’s almost as if flexibility has become the norm, and I predict that more office roles will have greater flexibility in the future than they did before the pandemic.”

But not all businesses will offer flexible working options – and some will offer lesser levels of flexibility than others, freeing up opportunities for businesses to differentiate, says Hopkins.

“It will remain an important feature for attracting the best talent.”

Don’t let hybrid working ‘just happen’

Brad Krauskopf, the CEO and founder of office space provider Hub Australia – which was named one of Australia’s Best Workplaces™ in 2021 – says carefully planning for the success of hybrid working can ensure it enhances performance and business outcomes.

“Don’t let hybrid working just happen without a plan for long-term success,” he says, urging businesses to look beyond the immediate return to work post-lockdowns.

“Some guidelines, expectations and investment will be required to create a solution that works not only for January 2022, but in January 2023 and beyond.

“Leadership and communication will be essential to align your organisation to whatever model of hybrid work and flexibility you implement.”

A long-term plan will allow businesses to stand out in the war for talent in a hybrid-working world.

“To support a thriving cultural environment, it is essential to equip your people with three things: the right tools, leadership and processes,” says Krauskopf.

“Your tools at the office, including technology, may not be fit-for-purpose in a hybrid work world and you may find you need to update them.

“Additionally, many processes may need to be rewritten and key leaders may need further training to adapt to hybrid work.

“If you don’t provide your people with these three key factors, they will likely find another organisation that can.”

The expert advice echoes the best practices for hybrid working developed by Great Place to Work:

  • Take care of employees whose jobs can only be done on site
  • Be open about pandemic challenges
  • Give employees a sense of purpose
  • Ask your people what they need
  • Meet your people where they are
  • Hire based on skills, not on location
  • Don’t pursue an arbitrary office reopening date
 Advice for employees

And what about advice for employees themselves?

One criticism of hybrid working is that it may make it harder for employees – especially new and young workers – to get noticed and get promoted.

Krauskopf says the concern is misplaced and that remote working is a great leveller that can put young people on the same stage as their more experienced colleagues.

“The ‘new normal’ levels the playing field,” he says.

“It means that it’s not just the loudest people that get noticed, but also the people getting the job done.”

His advice? “Participate in as many events as you can, whether they are virtual or in person, professional or social. And unless you are one of the world’s best programmers that can demand to work from anywhere, get back to the office when you can – you’ll likely love it.”

Hopkins concurs, saying it is important for people to invest time and energy in building their online brand and expanding their networks.

“It’s probably never been as easy as it is now to approach professionals from interstate or overseas, set up a Zoom call, and share knowledge and experiences. That’s probably one of the positives to come from the pandemic, that fact that video calls are now so widely accepted, making it easier to reach out to others.”

But Hopkins also reminds employees that the future of hybrid working might not look like the past.

“It’s important to remember that many of us are currently working from home due to pandemic restrictions, not through choice.

“Most organisations will return to the office when it is safe to do so.

“Employees might not be there for 40 hours a week like they were in the past, but they will certainly be there and be able to engage with colleagues offline again.”

Great Place to Work® is the global authority on workplace culture. We have spent decades studying what makes a workplace great. Our Trust Model© shows that trust and communication are central to the employee experience of workplaces around the globe. As you plan the return to work and the future of hybrid working in your organisation, please feel free to contact me to learn more about how you can apply our insights to create a great workplace today.

Samantha Huddle is the General Manager of Great Place to Work® in Australia and NZ. Sam has more than two decades of experience from the grassroots to the C-suite and helps businesses build high-trust, inclusive cultures that deliver tangible results. With experience across the government, philanthropic and corporate sectors, Sam brings a collaborative, values-driven approach and a passion for achieving social impact through business. Sam publishes a well-read monthly newsletter which can be read **here.**