Urban Dynamics

Hybrid working: tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen

Published on 1st Jul 2021

Businesses planning for the 'new normal' of flexible work will need to focus on workforce wellbeing, structures for agile working, encouraging collaboration and employee engagement


With many businesses implementing new ways of working, it is no longer the case, to paraphrase Dolly Parton, that "working 9-5" is the only way to make a living. However, the rise of new and flexible working arrangements and shift in working patterns during the pandemic poses legal and practical challenges as well as opportunities for businesses.

Paul Matthews, a partner in Osborne Clarke's pensions team, and Olivia Sinfield, a partner in the employment team, recently explored issues raised by hybrid working with webinar panellists Emily Plotkin, director of legal and employment at software specialist GitLab, Sue Rains, the people transformation lead at of energy group OVO, John Nurthen, an executive director at workforce specialist Staffing Industry Analysts and Paul Allsopp, managing director of consultancy The Agile Organisation, who also discussed what the "new normal" may look like for their businesses.

High time for hybrid

Hybrid working has become mainstream. A recent McKinsey survey found that nine out of 10 organisations surveyed intended to combine remote and onsite working. Olivia detailed a wide range of legal issues that need to be "front and centre" for businesses adopting agile working models, such as employee wellbeing and global mobility and the need to assess whether restrictive covenants remain fit for purpose.

Olivia said: "In anticipation of further slackening of the strings tying people to jobs, employers are now looking at tightening up restrictions and making them relevant to a hybrid working world." She also highlighted the importance of formalising arrangements with employees, even if that means formalising flexibility.

From Nashville, Tennessee

Speaking from Nashville, Tennessee. Emily of GitLab Inc. was well placed to share insights on the practicalities around remote working, as the software specialist is one of the largest intentionally all-remote companies – and this pre-dates the Covid-19 pandemic – with no offices and no preferred time zones. Emily stressed the need for employee wellbeing and the importance of formalising arrangements with employees. She commented: "If you are going to be all remote or hybrid, you do need to be intentional about it."

At GitLab, this intentional approach takes the form of the GitLab team handbook, which acts as the "single source of truth" for the workforce. On the wellbeing side, GitLab works to combat burnout through a company shutdown every 4-6 weeks for friends and family day, "focus Fridays", and the requirement for each meeting to have an agenda.

OVO and flexibility

The approach to flexible working across OVO's diverse workforce involves choice-based working and making sure teams retain the ability to work collaboratively. Following a recent acquisition by the Bristol-headquartered energy group that quadrupled the size of its workforce, rolling out flexible working arrangements across the expanded workforce was set to be an even greater challenge for OVO.

"We wanted to give people the control of how and when they work as much as possible". This has resulted in a reduced need for smaller offices spaces, while larger offices have shifted to becoming "collaborative spaces". She explained that giving people a choice of how they work and refreshing the approach on a team-by-team basis resulted in success for OVO with positive feedback – and employee engagement scores have continued to grow.

Remote pioneers

Hybrid working is not a new feature of the workforce at Staffing Industry Analysts, with some analysts already working entirely remotely and internationally before the pandemic. John of Nurthern also drew on the importance of collaboration. He said: "It's important not to underestimate the value of unplanned informal interactions … those only really happen in person".

Discussing the "remote world" of work, John cited developments such as online socials for staff, or "kitchen chats", and regular organised quizzes as successes that underline the social role that work also plays. Recent Staffing Industry Analysts research found that the firms with an advantage at the outset of the pandemic were those that had migrated technology to The Cloud, implemented tested disaster-recovery business continuity plans and those that had a written working policy covering equipment, communication channels and secure technology set up.

Structure is essential

Paul of the Agile Organisation highlighted the importance of adopting a structured approach towards hybrid working and of the need for businesses need to establish the purpose of their change in working patterns. He added: "Agile without some form of structure is potentially chaos".

Paul emphasised that the purpose of a change in working model should be evidence based, following consideration around the impact of change on the business's people, customers, supply chain and the environment, as hybrid working drives home the importance of factoring sustainability into decision making.

Osborne Clarke comment

Hybrid working raises a range of challenges for businesses, which also include how to maintain company culture, the use of digital tools in hiring remotely, health and safety in the office, and sustainability. When planning for the new normal of work, businesses will need to focus on employee wellbeing, implementing a structure around agile working, encouraging collaboration and the importance of employee engagement on all of these points.

Click here to listen to the full session – Dolly Parton fan or not!

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* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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