The elephant in the room - hybrid working doesn’t work for everyone

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The move to hybrid/agile working is much documented and has meant a seismic shift in working practices, possibly the greatest we have seen in the past 20 years! But what are local government colleagues from across the North West doing in their own organisations and what are they seeing?

We recently hosted a webinar in collaboration with North West Employers, and it was great to hear and share stories from HR professionals across the sector on how they are addressing the challenge. One resounding feature was the challenge of promoting the sense, need or desire to want to return to the office, and see the value of being together, but also ensuring there is added value of being together and working together above working from home; it is clear amongst colleagues in the sector, and from my own experience, that the office, for most people, is no longer the place you go to work, but a place we go to collaborate, share, exchange ideas and catch-up on both a professional and personal level. 

However, as a group, we recognised that agile/hybrid working does not work for, or is not accessible, to everyone. Those delivering street scene or waste services for example, cannot work in a hybrid way – the demands of their role mean that they work around set working patterns out in the community and neighbourhoods. During the webinar one of the talking points was around the risk that this could result in creating a ‘two tier workforce’ in local authorities, those that are agile/hybrid and those that aren’t. But what is clear is that there is still great value for everyone to understand how they balance their work and life, and what we are at work to do.       

There is also somewhat of an elephant in the room: that hybrid working doesn’t work for everyone. Some people may not have an environment at home from which to work, or may struggle working from home for other reasons including motivation and mental health – some people do like the office!      

Kath O’Dwyer, Chief Executive of St Helens Council, commented:

“every person and every team will have its own rhythm for how, when and where they work”.

Kath went on to explain that in children’s services, for example, some social workers were starting their day later, and gaining personal time in the morning with their own families, but working in the evening, which enabled them to have better contact time with the children and families they were supporting professionally. Additionally, some teams were coming together virtually on an almost daily basis to share progress on cases, seek advice and to feel part of a team, but then had more formal arrangements in place to meet as a group in person in the office and collaborate on tasks that would progress the wider service.     

How do we measure the benefits of hybrid/agile working?      

Should the measurement be an external outcome reflected in the services being delivered, or should the measure of success/benefit be something internal, such as staff wellbeing and retention?        

As Kath O’Dwyer phrased it:

“we don’t make widgets therefore it is not just a case of measuring whether we are making more”.

How do we measure the value of the social worker who is now spending the same amount of time with a family, but the quality of time spent is much better because they are visit at a different time of day? 

Whilst there are clearly many advantages to working in an agile/hybrid way, there are many pitfalls, some of which are becoming an increasing concern. Wellbeing of colleagues is a challenge for several reasons, fundamental to this is the fact that if we don’t see people as often in person, so it can be harder to spot if something is wrong with a colleague.

There is also a great risk of ‘burn out’ if we are working from home – we have all seen that it is too easy to continue working in an evening or first thing on a morning because our office is extremely accessible – it is in our home – it can be more difficult to switch off!

There is also much debate about people being more productive because they are working agile – however, productivity is a very specific measurement, working longer hours does not mean you are more productive.       

Ultimately, agile/hybrid working will be the future for the vast majority of us – particularly those who historically worked in offices.  Many of us are still coming to terms with what that means and, with restrictions eased and the frequency of spending time with other people increasing, we will likely be working this out for the next year or so.

However, what is clear is the importance of leaders being proactive now and investing in the development of a new agile/hybrid culture, to ensure it reflects their organisational mission and values, otherwise there is a danger that there will be consequences and outcomes that were not anticipcated.

Phil Emms, Associate Consultant in our Local Government team