After the pandemic, do workers want to continue working from home? We talk to three Sussex businesses who're navigating hybrid working and exploring how to make sure it works for them and their staff.
photo: by Theo Decker from Pexels
Pre-2020, how many of us had regular conversations about hybrid working?
There might have been the flexibility to work the occasional day at home, or flexible hours around school pickups. But for most, 9-5 in the office was the norm – and anything else an exception.
The switch to home working in 2020 was abrupt, with little space to think strategically about how best to make it work, or how to maintain a sense of connection. Two years on, we have that space. Some organisations have already moved successfully to hybrid working patterns, tested different ways of doing things and found the path that works best for them.
At School of the Wild, we’ve been helping teams as they adapt to hybrid working find new ways to collaborate and connect – taking them away from screens, and into nature.
What we’ve found is that there is no simple, one-size-fits all solution – but there are solutions.
The hybrid working challenge
One of the biggest challenge for hybrid working is that you may have new starters who have never met their colleagues, or be a post-2020 startup that has never had an office.
Among your staff, there will be people struggling with working alone at home, longing for the office buzz, and others who relish the flexibility they now have (and perhaps rely on it to fit around childcare or dog walking – pets are now a regular feature on many a Zoom call!).
You might also be struggling to know how or where to recruit – if you want new starters to work in the office, they might reject you in favour of companies offering remote working. If you provide flexibility, will that make life difficult for existing staff who want to work 9-5 on site?
In one study, 56% of participants said hybrid working has made them more productive – but the same study found that 20% find it hard to switch off. Nearly a quarter said they feel negative about the ‘new normal’.
Hybrid teams can feel scattered and disconnected. There might be a group working mostly in the office, often skewed younger and more male. And another working mostly from home, often those with caring responsibilities, more likely women, and those with health issues that mean they’re more vulnerable in the pandemic.
There may be frustration when client meetings are hard to organise, or when deadlines are looming and some team members are hard to get hold of. There can be a perception that those working remotely are less productive – even though the stats don’t bear that out. Resentment can creep in and be hard to deal with.
Can hybrid working really meet the needs of everyone?
Hybrid teams: the reality
There’s no doubt that hybrid is popular with staff at all levels. In 2021, ONS stats showed that 85% of workers then working from home wanted to move to a hybrid approach. In 2022, most of us relish the freedom that hybrid provides to balance working and home life.
There are challenges – but they can be met. We talked with local businesses in Sussex to find out how they’ve done it, and one thing was very clear – connection is vital to hybrid teams, and businesses need to give serious thought to how they can make this happen.
We spoke to Lyndsey Clay from Connected Brighton – a membership organisation that helps create personal and professional connections, filling the social contact gap left by home and hybrid working.
She told us that many people still working from home are struggling with returning to the office, saying:
“There is a mental health build up for those not ready for the office, or who prefer home working. Careful handling is needed to manage the potential anxiety.”
Others have a desperate need to get back to the office – and one or two days a week might not be enough for them to thrive:
“For those who really need the office network, being able to access it fully is important. This means five days a week, and not the 20-30% some companies are expecting.”
This conflict between those who need the office and those who want to be at home is made worse by uncertainty. In the summer of 2020, it seemed for a while that business as usual was imminent, and plans were made for a full return to the office.
Now, as Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford, tells the BBC: “Endless waves of Covid have led most CEOs to give up, and instead set up contingent policies: if, when and how to return to the office.”
It’s that ‘if, when and how’ that many are still struggling with.
Arke Agency: in the office five days a week
Hybrid working can mean an office that’s open five days a week, and running pretty much as it was pre-pandemic, with the option for staff to work from home when they need or want to.
That’s the approach creative agency Arke have taken. After a staff survey showed that remote working was damaging their employees’ mental health, they knew they had to take action.
They signed up for Mind’s Mental Health in the Workplace scheme and re-opened the office once restrictions allowed.
MD Steph Noble told us:
“Now staff do come into the office everyday, however, we provide the flexibility for those who request to work from home. To date our team’s mental health remains a top priority and we have introduced benefits to enable people to access health or wellbeing support they wouldn’t have accessed before.”
Staff wellbeing had always been a priority at Arke – and the re-opening of the office gave them the opportunity to renew that focus and provide a deeper level of support for their people.
Propellernet: fit work around their life
At digital marketing agency Propellernet, 20% of the team are fully remote.
As a result, they’ve been able to bring in new talent from across the UK, and all staff can balance their work and lives better than they did pre-2020.
When we spoke to Jo Humphreys, People and Operations director, she told us that:
“People can now fit work around their life not life around work – it’s a much healthier way of approaching things. They can do the school run, go to exercise classes, walk their dog, head to watch the sunset at the beach or do anything else that improves their own personal life, and easily fit it around work. That just wasn’t possible when we all worked 9-5.”
Like Arke, they’ve taken decisive steps to make sure that wellbeing is prioritised. Feedback is regularly sought and wellbeing discussed in 1:1s. They recognise the risk that remote workers could find themselves unseen or unheard – so they make sure that doesn’t happen.
The long-term challenges of hybrid teams
The evidence from the three business leaders we have spoken to is clear: for hybrid to work, listening and understanding are essential. Not only when you’re setting up a hybrid team, but as an ongoing strategy.
Across all the conversations we had, the word that kept coming up was ‘connection’ – and this means more than just communication.
Lyndsey (Connected Brighton) told us that: “While communication can be effective online or in person – there is a need for in-person relationships. People need quick coffee catch ups, netwalks and lunches to feel connected to teammates and bosses, and to feel seen and heard. It’s a different experience.”
Communicating might be as easy as sending a Slack message – but connecting needs more thought and time.
At Arke, they’ve rolled out numerous thoughtful initiatives designed to build that connection and help people feel seen and heard. These include a longer lunch break during the winter months, so women who don’t feel safe outside after dark can get some exercise and fresh air. They have monthly show-and-tells to celebrate highs, and ongoing initiatives to encourage feedback, recognition and open communication.
There’s also their Culture Committee – a safe space for people to share ideas, built on shared values, free for anyone to join. As Steph told us “it doesn’t stop, it’s reviewed and updated continuously.”
At Propellernet, with a high percentage of remote workers, they recognised the danger that new employees might not feel connected – so they’ve introduced a more structured onboarding programme.
There’s also a budget for social events to replace the informal mingling that would have happened naturally in the office, and there have been whole company get-togethers that were, in Jo’s words, “absolutely lovely”.
All three of the businesses we spoke to said that the ability to get outside and away from screens – lunchtime exercise, netwalks and beach walks – is essential to staff wellbeing. Tech is addictive and hard to put down, leading to burnout, overwhelm and a drop in productivity. We’ve found the same in our work – the teams that join us on our screen-free Detox days leave refreshed, connected and able to work better together.
How connection leads to trust
All three of the leaders we spoke with were clear that some form of in-person connection was vital to making hybrid work.
As Lyndsey at Connected Brighton said:
“Nothing beats in person connection, after such isolation and, for some, major life changes (moves to the coast, break ups, new jobs). To feel part of a tribe is really important. Some have started new jobs and never met their teammates in person.”
Disconnected teams don’t trust each other easily or share ideas well. Processes and systems that worked pre-2020 might not translate to hybrid working. But when connection is prioritised and trust follows, teams and individuals thrive.
At Propellernet, Jo told us that:
“People are trusted to do good work, they’re celebrated, they’re encouraged to take risks and they know that the leadership team and their colleagues are on their side.”
And for Arke, Steph said
“We had strong relationships with the team before the pandemic which did over time become more distant. However, we have worked hard to get this back… ...we created budgets for training, industry events and new equipment, to evidence our investment in our team. The feedback received was that this helped build trust that we had the team's best interest at heart.”
Both Arke and Propellernet told us that this trusting relationship with their people was a natural extension of how they did business before the pandemic. Both are people-first organisations, where employee wellbeing has always been valued.
Finding ways to make this happen post-pandemic has been challenging at times – but there was never any question that they would do it.
Connected hybrid working might be easier than you think
If your business was committed to wellbeing and trust pre-pandemic, then you already have the skills you need to make hybrid work for you.
Hybrid working may be complex, but the starting point is simple – listening to your people and understanding what they need to work well. That kind of listening and understanding doesn’t happen on Zoom and Slack. As we’ve identified, communication is not connection.
That’s why all our team building days and ongoing programmes take place in nature, away from distractions. You can reset, collaborate and decide together how to make hybrid work, and you leave with a clear set of actions, plus support to follow-up. Check out how and why it works.
We’d love to hear how hybrid is working for your team, what’s gone well and what you might need help with. Get in touch to let us know.
At School of the Wild, we bring leaders and teams outside to help you reconnect and think differently, so that you are inspired to change the way you work. We incorporate activities like making fires and connecting with nature as part of creating space for meaningful conversations. Have a look at our hybrid team building programmes or get in touch for more info.
Author & Curator
Nigel Berman is the founder of School of the Wild.