New insights from the Australian HR Institute show that, while organisations say hybrid work is here to stay, more are mandating a return-to-work arrangement compared to this time last year.
Most organisations are calling for employees to return to the physical workspace for at least three days per week, new research from the Australian HR Institute into flexible and hybrid work has found.
This year, mandated office days have increased by 11 percentage points (48 per cent) compared to 2022. However, employers remain open to continuing to have a remote option, with AHRI’s data, based on surveys with 450+ employers, finding that 24 per cent believe remote/home-based working will increase over the next two years.
“This suggests that hybrid work is still an evolving practice,” says AHRI’s CEO, Sarah McCann-Bartlett. “And that’s to be expected. It is, after all, still a relatively new practice for a lot of organisations, so we are seeing an iteration process as organisations understand what works best for them and their employees.”
This aligns with the views of one of the world’s leading hybrid work experts, Stanford Economist Professor Nicholas Bloom, who suggests that we will see a “working-from-home Nike swoosh” – that is, while employers may be mandating a return now, work-from-anywhere trends will likely continue to grow in the near future, in large part due to advancements in technology.
“This year has shown us just how quickly technology can advance,” says McCann-Bartlett. “This time last year, you wouldn’t have thought the average manager would be talking about generative AI, but now it’s one of the most-discussed topics in business circles.
“We don’t know what the future holds for workplace technology, but I agree with Bloom’s predictions that it will only further enable remote work capabilities, and it may remedy some of the current hybrid work challenges such as feelings of disconnection, which our research showed was an issue for 75 per cent of respondents.”
AHRI also found employers were open to different styles of flexibility, such as compressed work weeks/four-day weeks (45 per cent), part-time hours (85 per cent), flexi-hours (53 per cent) and career breaks (44 per cent).
“It’s important that we broaden our view of flexible work beyond remote work, as our research shows that 36 per cent of organisations can’t offer this to their people.
“Flexibility will look different for each sector, organisation, team and individual. What’s important is that employers stay true to the nature of the word ‘flexible’ and offer relevant accommodations where possible and appropriate.”
Thoughts from both sides of the fence
It’s likely that conversations about remote and hybrid work models will continue well into 2024. Some leaders of large organisations, such as some of Australia’s leading banks, continue to express their hesitancy to embrace a fully remote future of work.
NAB’s CEO, Ross McEwan, spoke with ABC‘s The Business last week and shared that, while certain employees are allowed to work remotely for three days per week, he requires the most senior team members to work in the office five days per week.
“We are the leaders of the company. We need to be training and developing new colleagues in the organisation. Therefore, our job is to be with them. However, we do have levels of flexibility,” he said.
McEwan also shared his views on hybrid work’s potential impacts on career progression.
“I’ve been famously known for [talking to] graduates and saying, ‘There’s no way you’re building a career in this organisation by working from home. You’re not going to hear what’s going on from your leader. You’re not going to be involved in the conversations where you learn the most.’ I think people, for their careers, need to pick where the best opportunity [is going to be] for them.”
However, employers can’t ignore the clear benefits to both themselves and their people that hybrid arrangements can bring. In AHRI’s research, retention, attraction and work-life balance were all cited as benefits of hybrid arrangements. In fact, many of the case studies in AHRI’s research reinforce how hybrid working has also enabled an expanded geographical base to attract applicants.
“The debate about hybrid working, especially in relation to productivity, is too often divorced from the quality of line management and the adoption of good people management practices.” – Sarah McCann-Bartlett, CEO, AHRI
Productivity boosts were also evident, according to four in ten employers, with only 10 per cent suggesting remote work has harmed productivity levels.
Separate research suggests 78 per cent of people wouldn’t even consider working for an employer that didn’t have a formalised flexible work policy.
“A flexible working arrangement is becoming a non-negotiable for many jobseekers, and that is unlikely to go away anytime soon,” says McCann-Bartlett. “However, it’s also important to note that different industries and organisations have varied experiences.
“For example, our research also showed that some respondents were experiencing a reduction in employees collaborating with each other, and measuring performance was also proving challenging.
“Whether the solution to these challenges is to get people back into the physical work space remains to be seen, but it does demonstrate that flexible work isn’t one-size-fits-all.”
Communicating the changes
McCann-Bartlett says one of the key insights from AHRI’s research was that almost one third of organisations surveyed hadn’t consulted their employees about the company’s hybrid working arrangements.
“It’s important that employees are given a reasonable amount of notice before you make significant changes to your work practices,” she says.
“Communicating change with employees always makes it easier to gain buy-in,” she says. “That’s not to say you put all the decision-making in employees’ hands, but explaining the ‘why’ behind your decisions can be helpful.”
AHRI also found only 34 per cent of respondents were providing their leaders with training to effectively manage people in a hybrid environment.
Specific training might look like:
- Learning how to conduct effective one-to-ones virtually (e.g. not rushing them or consistently cancelling them)
- Regularly benchmarking hybrid working patterns to monitor for successes and issues
- Ensuring any team-based activity in the office is structured and coordinated
- Learning how to facilitate psychological safety in a virtual setting
- Focusing on outputs rather than time spent on a task as a success metric
- Developing trust and avoiding micromanagement
- Offering coaching and mentoring so remote employees don’t miss out on development opportunities
“The debate about hybrid working, especially in relation to productivity, is too often divorced from the quality of line management and the adoption of good people management practices,” says McCann-Bartlett.
“Manager training isn’t just essential for hybrid work management skills. We need to be uplifting the capabilities of leaders and managers on all manner of topics in order to boost Australia’s productivity rates, which are currently below our OECD counterparts.
“A thriving and productive workforce is dependent on effective and well-trained people leaders. Whether you’re focused on implementing a hybrid work arrangement or incorporating new technology into your workflow, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the quality of your people.”
Learn how to facilitate a productive, effective and connected hybrid workforce with this short course from AHRI.