Q3 Magazine 2023
The Hybrid Working Cul-de-Sac
Moderator: Maurice Evlyn-Bufton, CEO, Armstrong Wolfe
Co-host: Suneeta Shetty, Group Head of Transaction Monitoring Operations and Board Member & Center Director, HSBC
Co-host: George Nunn, Former COO Global Markets BNP Paribas, AW Industry Advisor
Co-host: lain Heeps, COO and Deputy CEO, BNP Paribas Asset Management
The Hybrid Working cul-de-sac
The debate around Hybrid working practices remains contentious, with strong beliefs abounding on both sides of the discussion.
The initial shift towards hybrid work was necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in the wake of the pandemic, the question is now how to establish Hybrid working in a format that works for employees and employers, bringing the benefits of flexibility and productivity in a sustainable way. The suitability of hybrid work varies for different roles, and there’s a recognition that certain cultural aspects are better fostered in an office setting.
Employee attitudes have also altered in the years following the pandemic. While remote work was initially embraced for its flexibility, there is now some pushback from individuals who resist returning to the office full-time.
This is sometimes met with little resistance from employers, indicating a growing dependence on employee flexibility and willingness to acquiesce to employee pressure.
Where insistences are made and employees are asked to commit to a set amount of time in office, this is not always policed, and there may be no consequences when these agreements are not met on the employee side.
The question now is whether organisations truly need their employees in the office five days a week and equally whether these individuals are delivering optimal value on the two days they do work from home. Increases in the numbers of those practising remote working leads to a chain reaction, as more employees choose to work remotely and on different days.
As a result, the utility of coming into the office may diminish, leading to even less desire to work in the office, and thus a further increase in those choosing to work remotely.
Another notable observation is that there appears to be less distinction between the buy and sell sides of the industry concerning hybrid work practices. The majority of companies seem to have settled into a comfortable 50-60% in-office work model. Some firms have embraced hybrid working wholeheartedly and see it as a successful approach, especially for roles like that of the COO that spans multiple departments. The centralisation and streamlining created by the Pandemic arguably assisted the COO in fulfilling their sometimes-nebulous duties and responsibility and helped to create a degree of order.
However, there are challenges in getting certain groups, particularly younger workers in sectors like tech, to be more amenable to in-office work. Contractors, especially those engaged in short-term projects (for example with tech), often feel less compelled to come into the office as they don’t require the same level of interface with their team. Their time in the company is temporary and they will not benefit from the networking and interfacing that time in the office provides, and any insistences on greater officer attendance are likely to be met with heavy attrition, bringing with it disruption and reputational risk.
Additionally, there is a growing concern about retention as companies offering more remote work options become increasingly attractive to employees. Demographic factors, such as employees with child support responsibilities or those in single-parent families, can be limited in their choice of workplace, and enforcing in-office work may prove detrimental. Inequality is also a concern in the context of hybrid work.
Employees working from home might face tax issues and policy disparities depending on their location. Addressing these disparities and ensuring fair treatment across the workforce is essential. The accessibility and convenience of commuting to work, the cost and time involved, and environmental considerations, such as emissions caused by commuting, influence employee preferences for remote or in-office work.
This issue is compounded by the tendency during the pandemic of people to move away from downtown areas and into the suburbs to improve their cost of living. Now that Hybrid models are being pushed to include greater office time, that relocation shift makes commuting longer, more arduous, and less environmentally friendly, as more people tend to live further from their offices. Furthermore, public transport in certain regions has declined after the pandemic, making it less useful or available, especially in cities like London and New York, and even more so in regional centres outside the major cities.
Questions surrounding remote work often touch on the balance of power between employee and organisation, as this is often a bone of contention between the two. Employees may prioritise their own agendas, leading to potential conflicts of interest with organisational goals. Incentivising employees to come into the office can be achieved through community-building efforts, rather than just providing minor perks or fancy facilities. In a Hybrid environment, while connections within teams may remain strong, interactions between different teams tend to be reduced. Ad hoc conversations and interactions that happened spontaneously in the office are no longer as prevalent, necessitating intentional efforts to foster collaboration between teams to prevent the substantial loss of productivity and connectivity that the isolation of Hybrid Working can produce. Identifying individuals who can bridge gaps between teams and fostering formal plans for their involvement can help address this issue.
Building a sense of community among employees and allowing them to work with people they enjoy collaborating with, is one of the most effective motivators in driving return to office initiatives. Larger events and gatherings have also been used successfully by firms to bring global teams together and strengthen relationships.
In addition, leaders, being most affected by the clustering and isolating effect in hybrid work setups, benefit significantly from in-person connections, and return to office initiatives tend to require strong and dynamic leadership to be successful.
A more efficient and structured approach to leadership is needed, where leaders actively promote collaboration and facilitate interactions between teams. leaders in financial services need to recognise how hybrid work will affect their roles and adapt accordingly.
Command and control styles of leadership are no longer sufficient; instead, a more intentional and structured leadership approach is required. Authenticity in leadership, such as listening to others and sharing experiences, can have a positive impact in a hybrid work setting.
However, measuring the efficacy of this leadership remains a key challenge for COOs. Utilising data to examine how these relationships affect teams and identifying teams with potential issues in connecting can allow for a more targeted and intentional approach to building collaboration.
Hybrid working is undoubtedly here to stay, and the main challenge lies in effectively utilising and improving this approach. The rapid transition to hybrid work over the past two years has upended traditional work practices. Retraining organisations and keeping employees productive requires a thoughtful and incentivised approach rather than relying solely on policies and top-down direction. The ongoing dialogue and exploration of solutions will help organisations adapt and succeed in the evolving world of work.