Back to work: Why hybrid model could become the norm for Britain’s post-Covid workforce

Companies plan mix of home and office days as country eases out of lockdown

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 15: Commuters wear face masks as they pass through Vauxhall underground station on the first day of their mandatory use while travelling on public transport, on June 15, 2020 in London, England. The British government have relaxed coronavirus lockdown laws significantly from Monday June 15, allowing zoos, safari parks and non-essential shops to open to visitors. Places of worship will allow individual prayers and protective facemasks become mandatory on London Transport. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

For British insurance worker Steven Williams, the concept of hybrid working is nothing new.

In the six years before the crisis, Mr Williams, 44, split his working week between his home in Cardiff and his office in Bromley, Kent, where he worked as head of price comparison relationships at Direct Line Group (DLG).

Mr Williams started the three-and-a-half hour commute by train from his home in Wales on a Tuesday morning, returning home to his family on Thursday evenings with the rest of his work carried out at home.

"I normally did that three out of every four weeks and then I had one week where I worked totally from home, just to give myself a break from the travelling," the father-of-two told The National.

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The working model has changed forever.

While Mr Williams' work pattern was not widespread across the company, last week DLG's chief executive Penny James said the company is now pushing towards a hybrid work model for all of its staff post-Covid,

“The working model has changed forever. Even pre-pandemic, we were in discussion about how our working environment needed to change to support the cultural shift towards agility we are seeking," she told journalists on a 2020 financial results call.

DLG is not alone in its decision to switch to a "fully agile operating model", with many other major companies following suit as the country slowly eases its way out of the pandemic.

Global workspace provider IWG said companies are looking to save money by using less office space, as it noted an “accelerating” demand for hybrid working.

The government’s “stay at home” directive will end on March 29, with employees still encouraged to work from home where possible.

A sign for the City of London on a bollard in London, U.K., on Monday, March 8, 2021. Values in the U.K. capital should jump about 25% over the next five years, outpacing other European capitals, according to DWS researchers. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

This leaves employers with the difficult task of deciding whether staff should return to the office full-time, or whether a new style of working – a mix of home and office – is more appropriate.

“The global pandemic has been the biggest disruptor to the UK’s economic model and workplace system for 70 years,” Jeremy Myerson, a professor of design at the Royal College of Art and director at WorkTech academy, said in recent webinar hosted by think tank Chatham House.

The UK is in a “period of re-imagination”, he added, as it rethinks “what our organisations are for” and what our buildings and cities are for.

“Most cities have been built on a 20th century model of central business districts, with large influxes of people arriving in the morning for the working day and leaving in the evening [with] a whole economic ecosystem around that. Now we’re thinking ‘can we make the workplace better for people?'”

Commuters' lives changed radically when the pandemic started

For Steve Holbrook, the managing director of Skanska Building, the pandemic dramatically shifted his working pattern.

Normally based in the company’s head office in Moorgate, Mr Holbrook used to spend more than three hours a day commuting between his home in Lindfield, West Sussex, to the office – catching a 6.30am train from nearby Haywards Heath and returning home at about 8.15pm.

Since the country first went into lockdown 12 months ago, he has only been into the office about 20 times, mainly when restrictions eased last summer.

Mr Holbrook does not expect to fully return to work until after June 21 when all restrictions have been lifted by the government, with the construction company recently unveiling a new “Flex-it” policy to offer employees a “better work-life balance”, where possible.

“If I can do a day a week at home, I will,” said Mr Holbrook, 46, “but it can be difficult serving clients because some of them will prefer face-to-face meetings.”

A number of other large companies are also considering new approaches for office life. Last month, Europe's largest bank HSBC said it would reduce its London office space by 40 per cent in the coming years as it expects a "much greater degree of hybrid working" once the pandemic is brought under control.

Lloyds Banking Group also plans to cut 20 per cent of its office space by 2023 after 77 per cent of its staff said they wanted to work from home for three or more days a week in the future.

Meanwhile, global oil company BP told its 6,000 UK staff, including more than 2,000 based in central London, that office-based employees must work from home for two days a week as part of a post-pandemic shift to flexible working patterns.

BP said the 60-40 split between office and home working will come into effect this summer, with the mix of in-person collaboration and remote work offering staff a “flexible, engaging and dynamic” style of working.

This long-term approach to the post-pandemic workspace is becoming increasingly evident in the UK as companies accept that Covid, once considered a short-term challenge, is here to stay.

In January, City of London lord mayor William Russell said many major companies in the financial district are planning a three-day week in the office post-pandemic.

Not everyone is on board, however.

'Not everyone can work from home'

Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon has rejected remote working as the new normal, calling the trend an "aberration" that needs to end as soon as possible.

Less than 10 per cent of the investment bank’s 34,000 global staff are currently working in company offices, however Mr Solomon said the practice did not suit the company’s work culture.

“That’s a temporary thing. I do think that for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us,” he said.

Applying a hybrid-model to all staff is certainly not possible for all businesses.

Skanska’s “Flex-it” strategy, unveiled in November last year, does not suit everyone in the company, said Mr Holbrook, as 80 per cent of its UK employees work on-site on construction projects.

“Not everyone can work from home. But we are looking at challenging that and saying, ‘well they’ve always got to do an element of paperwork and sit at their desk so what pattern could we come up with, even if they work from home once every couple of weeks?'”

“There won’t be any kind of strategy that says everyone is three days in, two days out. We’ve got to be more flexible hence our approach to more local agreements with the staff, ” he said.

Striking the right balance on the hybrid model

Finding the right back-to-work formula has even been tricky for the Bank of England.

Andy Haldane, the BoE’s chief economist, said the lender was “wrestling” with striking the right balance between an individual's desire for greater flexibility and avoiding the commute, and the collective business need to have people physically together.

A rack of Santader hire bikes outside the Bank of England in the City of London, U.K., on Monday, March 8, 2021. Values in the U.K. capital should jump about 25% over the next five years, outpacing other European capitals, according to DWS researchers. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

The BoE spent nearly £600,000 to support its staff working remotely during the crisis, reimbursing £598,000 ($834,594) to its 4,447-strong workforce for office furniture and work-related equipment between March and October 31 – the equivalent of £135 per employee.

BoE governor Andrew Bailey, who went into the office himself for the first time this year last week, expects a hybrid model of two to three days a week spent in the workplace to become the "new normal" for office workers.

By law, workers have the right to request more flexibility, according to organisational psychologist Cary Cooper. However, employers also have the legal right to tell someone why they can’t have it.

“It's about developing the psychological contract with your employees. So if somebody says they have a legal right to request flexible working, if you have good, socially-skilled line managers … that person can say, I'll tell you why in your role, it's going to be difficult to do that.”

Mr Cooper said people given the autonomy to figure out what works for them in terms of flexible working will enjoy their job more.

“Flexible working not only delivers to the bottom line but also makes people healthier, and more job satisfied,” he said.

This is something DLG's Ms James buys into. The insurer is rewarding its staff for coping with the challenges of remote working by giving them £350 worth of shares and a £400 bonus in their April pay cheque.

“Investing in your people always pays back," said Ms James. "We know that happy people go the extra mile and that is what our customers have needed from us over the last year."

'I want to spend more time with my family'

While the payout is a nice bonus for Mr Williams, he is also pleased to have more choice over how he works in the future.

Since the first lockdown started a year ago, he has not returned to DLG's head office in Bromley at all.

“The only time I’ve left Cardiff in the last year is when I went to our Bristol office a few weeks ago to collect a laptop that needs repairing,” he said.

He plans to go in once a month, or once every two months, once employees return in the second half of the year.

DLG has now bought the lease to the Bromley office – its biggest site – with plans to restructure how it is used.

Mr Williams said the hybrid model works for him because he is at the “stage of life” where he wants to spend time with his wife and two young children, aged 6 and 4, while he was also “growing weary” of tracking back and forth between home and work.

"When they were babies, you are gone and back so quickly in their mind that they're not really missing you as much," he said.

"But when they get to five or six, they're much more aware of the world around them. Every time I was going away, it was making them sad, which made the travelling a bit harder."

The future of the office

However, with more company employees potentially based outside offices, what happens to the rows of desks that used to be occupied by workers?

Mr Myerson said offices could become people-centred working environments rather than the management-focused or design-led workplaces of the past.

A people-centred workplace offers employees choice, he said, with a multi-channel approach to work. 

“People won't have daily attendance at a single building, they will work partially from home, partially in third spaces and client sites and in trading areas. They are going to work in multiple channels,” he said.

“What's interesting is we're going to start treating employees in the way that we've treated customers in a multi-channel world. So, it's not physical versus digital. Everyone's going to have a digital workspace that they can draw down from the cloud and take into a range of places.”

Mr Myerson said legislation will have to catch up with changing workplace trends. In Finland, for example, a new working hours’ act replaces the word ‘workplace’ with ‘working place’.

“It’s very subtle, but that’s where we are going,” Mr Myerson said.

While the concept of hot-desking, where workers lose a fixed desk space and instead share it with multiple colleagues, is nothing new, workers may also lose their fixed office location.

IWG said it is securing new deals with major companies looking to try out new workspace options, with Standard Chartered’s 95,000 staff recently receiving access to IWG’s network of workspaces for the next 12 months. This is also a trend seen by competitor The Office Group.

A man walks along the embankment of the River Thames in south London on March 2, 2021, with the skyline of the City of London in the background. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS

The company’s head of design, Nasim Koerting, said a number of larger corporations have asked for hub spaces to accommodate employees’ increasing desire to stay closer to home.

“A lot of the buildings in the periphery of London were our most occupied buildings during the pandemic,” said Ms Koerting.

“There's a sentiment there that people want to work close to home, they don't want to commute long distance anymore. They don't want to be on the underground, surrounded by lots of people.”

The idea of keeping your work and home life in close proximity falls in line with the 15-minute city concept from French-Colombian professor Carlos Moreno that says every neighbourhood should fulfil six social functions: living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying.

Covid-19 has exacerbated that desire for localisation, with the concept now very much on the agenda for metropolitan urban planners across the globe.

'Some members of the team want to go back'

For Mr Williams, living and working in the same place means he can now take his children to school every day, something he previously only managed twice a week.

Meanwhile, Mr Holbrook, also a father-of-two, said working from home lets him exercise earlier in the evening rather than after a long commute.

Home working has not been easy for all workers, however. Some couples struggled with the demands of home-schooling young children while also holding down two jobs, while younger people living on their own or in smaller spaces felt cut off from society.

“Not everyone has the space to work from home all the time, so there are mental health issues around dealing with the stresses of their partners being in the same room, or them working from a bedroom,” said Mr Holbrook.

“I was lucky enough to be able to take over the lounge, while everyone else was in the house. But for other people, we've recognised they needed to go into the office, so we've kept it open for some people.”

Mr Williams said some members of his team want to go back to an office.

“They miss the camaraderie of being in an office,” he said. “One thing that's been lost is those organic conversations that happened while walking past someone’s desk, which you can’t have in the video-conferencing world."

While Mr Holbrook expects offices of the future to include an element of hot-desking and people working at home, “people still will come together in offices for collaboration meetings and to use the space differently”.

However, for him, the office is also key for social interaction.

“I never came into the construction industry to sit on my own in my room 24/7,” he said. “I like meeting people and I like that diversity.”

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