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With a seemingly unstoppable tide of support for some with regards to homeworking, what makes a new operating model fit for the future? How do we avoid floating on a sea of outdated working practices or policies?

Hybrid working will mean different things to different people. At a high level we may want to offer choice and provide a great balance of flexible homeworking and collaborative office working. In more detail, however, what are the implications? What have we not yet thought through?

What are your goals and success measures?

Start by asking yourself, why are you doing this? Missing detail and poor implementation could lead to something very different from what we, or our people, hope for. As we know, one-size rarely fits all. The way we blend different opportunities going forwards will have a profound impact on our people and the way we do things, our culture. We recommend that you always consider your strategic goals and success measures for a new way of working. 

The Strategy Pyramid is a great tool to help you with this. Are you just wanting to give options for those who want it? If so, what does this mean for others? How do you balance fairness and engagement? What will this mean for team rostering? Or is this driven by costs, saving office space? Are you looking to stand out to a different profile of new recruits or in new labour markets? If so, what exactly are you looking for in your new people? Some research suggests that ‘workers love it, not so much the bosses’; is that true for you? It is surely vital that we do think about how this will impact culture: teamwork, innovation, and performance.

Individuals and activities

Many of the different hybrid approaches that our members are talking about can be explained by reference to two key factors that determine the choice of when work is at home or face-to-face. Firstly, consider the needs of individuals and the tasks or activities they undertake. For instance, some individuals may need to be in the office, because they don’t have the right space at home or it’s better for their mental health. Some people may be mainly at home because they’ve proven that it works for them. Yet certain activities may work better in the office than at home, and the other way around. Will these normally be in-person or not? You will need to blend these activity-based considerations with the needs of individuals in a suitably flexible way, as you evolve policies and planning methods.

So, you may ask people to come face-to-face for small team socialising or complex collaboration on things you’ve never done before. You may use virtual, digital communication methods for broadcasting key information updates, to be consistent and so that take-up is trackable. To be consistent, this may need to apply for everyone, whether they are in the office or not. You may also want to be able to bring some people back into the office for certain events or in certain situations. This may be driven by data analysis of performance, for example.

Fixed and dynamic choices

Secondly, is the decision to be home or office based a fixed or dynamic choice? For instance, you may guarantee some people certain patterns of days at home. Or you may ask them to book their own days in the office by using automated systems. You probably don’t want to create a new army of manual workforce admin! If work from home is part of your contingency planning, this will be contingent on some trigger, part of a playbook. Will this be just for emergencies or new pandemics? Or could you ask for volunteers to log in for an hour in an evening or weekend when you are short? You will need certain standards and processes in place, exercising these enough to check that all stays in order.

How are your decisions going to be made?

If you want your operation to be agile and flexible, you need some activities which can be fluctuated interval by interval, and perhaps at short notice. On demand learning or comms modules are great for this. Likewise, fixed policies need to be handled sensibly. So, coaching conversations may be mainly virtual if you have lots of home-based or cross-site working. This doesn’t mean two people can’t decide to meet face-to-face if they happen to be in the same office. Equally if certain meetings are held face-to-face and the same person always joins remotely, this may impact team dynamics.

It may seem at first that those working in the office permanently will experience no change, but, this will often be far from the truth. In all this, it is crucial to be clear what you are consulting on and who will make what decisions. Does the employee have choice, or is this decided by the organisation or set by job role or performance? Do we have different rules for new recruits? Are business decisions based on agreed playbooks? The issue is not so much ‘are people working 1, 2 or 3 days in the office?’, but how are these choices being determined.

Workforce strategy and operating models

Once unleashed, hybrid working operating models are like a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle, but they can fulfil many wondrous wishes! Consider what you mean by ‘flexible working’ and engage with colleagues at all levels around this. For instance, ACAS refer to homeworking as “a type of flexible working”, however, if the hours are no different to working in the office, then where is the flexibility? And for whom? If you’ve allowed informal hybrid working arrangements in the past for particular roles, you may need to formalise arrangements now that homeworking has been experimented at a larger scale and proven possible.

It is important to consider the opportunities and implications for different roles fairly. What is possible for field/logistic or branch-based workers, where travel is necessary to complete work? We see a growing number of member organisations, at The Forum, undertaking consultations, some already drafting policies for the future. In moving forwards, as leaders and planners, we need to bring together two seemingly opposite forces: the diverse desires of different people and the need for a unified culture in our business. This is how we create an effective, efficient operating model for hybrid working.

Engaged Homeworking

A really engaging hybrid working environment requires the right habits and behaviours, the right people, and a digital platform that brings it all together. 

Specialist homework operations, like at Sensée, have a purpose-built digital workplace and team environment, linked to their culture and recruitment. For the rest of us, what was possible in the pandemic was much more short term. So now, if you homeworking is still significant going forwards, what new approaches do you need to take on board? 

How do we learn to create an engaging team environment for home workers and understand who will thrive in it? What do we need from systems around knowledge management, floor walking, coaching and support? Can all interactions be tracked? Are people resilient and owning their own development or performance? Is it easy to collaborate on improvement? It’s also important to consider how you schedule time, to make the most of home or hybrid working for your people as well as the business. 

Paul Smedley, Founder and Chair of The Forum Social

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