Is WFH a perk or a curse?

For years HR has been worried about denying requests for flexible working. Parents and carers have been pushing for more acceptance of their routines as the norm. And with the pandemic, there’s been a new question: why shouldn’t everyone have the same chance to work remotely?

Now these issues don’t look like the problem at all. The majority of what were formerly office-based employees are having the option of working from home for at least part of the week. Employers are embracing a future of cost-savings from flexi-spaces and the potential increases in engagement and productivity. A BBC survey of the UK’s 50 biggest employers earlier this year found that 43 planned to encourage working from home for two to three days a week going forward. Leadership IQ research has suggested that 91% of employees want at least some element of home-working in their routines.

So instead, it’s hybrid working itself that’s under scrutiny. When employees are working from home, out of sight, in less contact with managers and team members, do they become forgotten and less likely to be given promotion? In other words, subject to yet another form of workplace discrimination.

It’s a concern with some hard evidence behind it. Office for National Statistics data shows that between 2013 and 2020, people who worked from home were on average 38% less likely to have received a bonus compared to those who never worked from home. A new survey of 2,000 hybrid workers suggested 57% had fears they would be discriminated against: 46% that remote working would have a negative effect on their career progression; 54% that they would miss out on learning from their peers and bosses. Around half thought WFH had damaged their communication skills — they had “lost the art of small talk”.

Has hybrid working already shifted from being a welcome perk to a curse? A National Centre for Social Research study among homeworkers last year found a picture of increased loneliness and mental ill-health. There have been problems with ‘always on’ working, an inability to switch off; isolation from organisational culture and its element of spontaneity; the creation of new digital cliques among colleagues.

From a legal perspective and the potential for discrimination claims, the biggest dangers to employers comes from groups who might appear to have been ‘sidelined’ by home working: working mums, disabled or older employees. Are they getting the same access to opportunities for training, development and promotions? And if WFH arrangements have been trialled for a period and don’t work out, what are the implications of trying to ‘force’ staff back into office working, especially those who have picked up on caring responsibilities in the meantime?

There’s a great deal of complexity around hybrid working. No single HR initiative around ‘good’ WFH or wellbeing is going to be the solution. People with certain personalities and with particular circumstances will adapt well, others less so. And those circumstances will change. The closer mix of home and working lives is always going to lead to more instability. What might look on the surface to be an ideal work/life balance will often be anything but simple; it’s a new way of working and sets of relationships with the potential to lead to all kinds of grievances, accumulating over time.

What’s needed from HR is attention to workplace relationships. How do they work in a hybrid age? Making sure no-one feels cut-off from their employer, peers and managers. That there are new webs of healthy communications, a mix of digital and face-to-face, that still manage to constitute a sense of belonging and purpose. More fundamentally, making sure people are listening to each other, are self-aware and conscious of their impact on others. Higher levels of conversation skills — what we call Conversational Integrity — will be more important than ever. And with hybrid working there has to be even stronger culture of encouraging open conversations, with more obvious opportunities to talk through problems, if organisations aren’t going to become atomised by technology. A slick operation of digital connections on the surface, seething with discontent underneath.

Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP


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