A woman sits at home working on her laptop

Hybrid working: the highs and lows

Hybrid working is now a part of many of our working lives and brings certain benefits with it. But how healthy is this style of working really? Pam Loch, Solicitor and Managing Director of Loch Associates, and Amy White, Head of Loch Training and Wellbeing, investigate the health and safety issues that have arisen since this new way of working took hold.

Think back to the world before Covid-19. The good ole days if you will. Yes, the world of work was changing, but the pace of progress was somewhat slower and gradual. While the technology needed to work from home, co-working spaces and even cafes were available, utilisation wasn’t widespread. In general, the office remained the workplace for many, many people.

Cue Covid-19, however, and the pace of hybrid working adoption accelerated beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Attitudes changed overnight – organisations embraced the business continuity benefit provided by remote working and employees’ eyes were opened to the lifestyle advantages working from home presented. During the pandemic, almost half of working adults worked from home at some point (ONS) and, post-pandemic, 60% of employers have reported an increase in the rates of hybrid working (Acas).

Three years on, and the dust is only now beginning to settle. What appears clear now though is there’s no putting the genie back in the box – hybrid working is here to stay. What’s less clear, however, is how ‘healthy’ hybrid working really is. Now the days of mask-wearing and social distancing are, thankfully, a somewhat distant memory, perhaps it’s time to consider the highs and lows of hybrid working and how we might forge a future which works for everyone.

The high points
Hybrid working undoubtedly brings with it a number of benefits, both for employers and their employees.

From the employer perspective, it reduces the need for physical workspace, which can help cut costs including commercial rents, utilities and maintenance services. This, in turn, allows resources to be redirected in new, perhaps more innovative and creative directions.

It’s also brilliant where the tricky issue of recruitment is concerned. If you don’t need your staff in the office all day every day, you can widen the net and access a much larger talent pool. Many people also now see the option to work from home as a non-negotiable piece of the employment package. Incorporating it into your offering can help you attract new, and retain existing, talent.

Finally, it’s been shown that hybrid working actually increases productivity and performance. We’ve known for some time that staff perform better when given autonomy over where, when and how they work, so giving them the opportunity to determine their work environment could help boost staff engagement and motivation. This is in addition to the practical benefits staff speak of, including fewer distractions, reduced interruptions and the ability to fully focus. 

From the employee perspective, there are numerous benefits. Key amongst them is the improvement in work-life balance a hybrid model provides. The ability to choose to work from home on a particular day and avoid a long commute to accommodate childcare or eldercare commitments, participate in a social activity or attend a sporting event or class, can be game-changing for an employee. According to a LinkedIn study, 86% of professionals believe that hybrid working is essential for a better work-life balance, with around half attributing this to spending equal time on personal and professional goals.

Hybrid workers also benefit from greater flexibility. There are days when attending the office, collaborating with colleagues and embracing the hubbub of an office environment is exactly what’s called for. On the other hand, there are times when quiet solitude is the order of the day, meaning working from home will be more suitable. Hybrid workers get the best of both worlds and can utilise both sides of the coin to suit their needs.

Finally, but very importantly, hybrid working is good, in many ways, for employee wellbeing. The work-life balance improvements referred to above, which afford employees the ability to spend more time with loved ones or undertaking personally stimulating activities, whilst at the same time avoiding a draining commute and wasted time spent in traffic, are hugely beneficial where employee wellbeing is concerned. In addition, hybrid workers who are given a high degree of autonomy benefit from knowing their employer trusts them and, in turn, feel more valued, empowered and engaged.

The low points
You might, by now, be thinking it all sounds fairly rosy on the hybrid working front. However, as with most things in life, there’s more to the picture than might initially meet the eye.

From a health and safety perspective, hybrid working presents a number of challenges. Remote working setups may be unsafe and unhealthy as they do not meet the ergonomic standards of an office environment – how many of us have heard of people working from their beds or the sofa, for example? This, in turn, results in an increased risk of musculoskeletal issues amongst our workforces and the potential for increased rates of absence and perhaps even personal injury claims.

In addition, while for many work-life balance is improved by allowing work into the home, for others, a blurring of work life and personal life can occur leading to extended working hours and, potentially, burnout. This is a particular risk with junior members of staff, who may be more eager to impress and keep working into the small hours. 

It’s also important to remember the significant risk of isolation working from home brings with it. While hybrid working is perhaps less problematic than fully remote, it’s not risk-free from the isolation perspective. Imagine you live alone and work from home three days a week - that’s a huge chunk of alone-time that can leave workers feeling extremely disconnected and impact negatively on their mental health and wellbeing.

The future?
Given how beneficial hybrid working is for many people, it’s not something we necessarily want to retreat from, in spite of the negative aspects to it. Instead, we need to consider adjustments we can make and assistance we can provide to alleviate the downsides and benefit from the upsides.

From a practical point of view, treating a home office like any other workspace is a good starting point. That means carrying out appropriate DSE assessments on home workstations and equipment to reduce the risk of physical injuries and keep staff physically healthy in the long term. It might also include checking that staff have taken a lunch break or some time away from the computer – we might do this without thinking when we’re in the office, watching our team working on instead of taking a break, so perhaps we can build this into our remote working regime as well.

In addition, much of our focus needs to be on how we communicate with our team and how they communicate with one another when working in a hybrid fashion. From a managerial perspective, giving consideration to creating an ‘open door policy’ when working from home is a worthwhile exercise as it ensures communication channels are available and accessible to homeworkers. In practice, that might include scheduling time in your diary for ‘Catch-Up Calls’, taking your status off ‘busy’ to allow for ‘talking time’ or setting up a calendaring app, allowing others to book your time. Equally, prioritising social interactions amongst teams and colleagues is essential when staff are spending a significant portion of their time working solo. Could a work committee be set up to consider options and opportunities for social gatherings and channels for interaction for instance?

Finally, it’s worth critically examining your workplace culture. Does it value hours worked and effort expended? If so, you might be encouraging an ‘always-on’ culture that sees high rates of presenteeism (and resultant absenteeism), stress and burnout. A better approach might involve an outcomes-focused mindset which prioritises results and discourages long, but often ineffective, working hours. Key to achieving such a culture shift is providing your managers with appropriate training so they know how to effectively support hybrid teams and be able to spot and manage the signs of burn-out. Cultural change is only possible if your people managers are on board and bought-in.  

Hybrid working isn’t going anywhere – as a model it presents benefits and opportunities for employees and employers that none of us want to lose. However, while those benefits and opportunities are to be celebrated and embraced, we must not overlook the challenges the model can also present. Whether they are as basic as sorting out an employee’s desk space or as complex as redefining your organisational culture, they are challenges which need to be tackled and addressed if hybrid working is going to keep hitting the mark.