2020 was the year when employees in the UK proved work could get done no matter where workers were physically located. The pandemic has shown organisations should trust their people to be productive even when away from the office. Now, as rules begin to ease, a new challenge awaits HR professionals and office managers: how to handle the workforce’s return.

It is becoming clear that a hybrid approach is the way forward – combining the best of the digital and physical workspaces. Employers have an opportunity to reshape work around individual roles, preferences and even personal lives, enabling workers to better serve the collective goals of the organisation.

But, individual employee needs and expectations will differ. We know that nearly one in five (17 per cent) employees would not choose to go back to the office to work even when restrictions have been lifted. For the remainder, expectations regarding when and how they should work in the physical office will vary. It is clear that a one-size-fits-all policy will not help people as they look to return to the office. Managers will need to examine the requirements of individual roles instead. It could be the case that someone’s role does not require them to by physically located in one place, whereas other roles may require physical collaboration. Examining these requirements on a case-by-case basis will help with planning, and support people as they begin to ask their employers what the expectation is, when it comes to their physical working location.

Managers also have a responsibility to balance the needs of the virtual and physical workplace, to ensure equality and inclusion. It’s important that everyone has the same engaging experience of work, whether they’re in an office, they have specific accessibility requirements, they’re working remotely balancing personal commitments, or they’re on the frontline, conducting business out in the field and will need the connected tools and devices to do so.

Employee expectation

To encourage employees to adopt hybrid working and return to the office, policies and procedures must match against employee expectations. And those expectations have changed in the past year. From research, we know that some of the top benefits UK employees would choose to support remote work include high-speed broadband and new office furniture.

Employee wellbeing should also sit as a central part of a hybrid work strategy. Staff are growing more concerned about their work/life balance, and hybrid work policies should still support more flexible working options as offices do begin to open up again. Employees will want to take full advantage of the options available, especially as the past year has shown that even when fully remote, work can still get done.

Engage employees to understand what their needs are. By having staff expectations in mind when developing new policies, the return to traditional offices will be less abrupt for employees after a year out. In turn, this will aid employee retention after a high-stress period of work. It can also help shape long-term planning when it comes to office infrastructure. It may become clear that less staff will be on-site at any one time, presenting an opportunity to down-size or streamline corporate infrastructure.

CIPD guidance

In our research into the new hybrid working habits and expectations of the UK workforce, the CIPD has provided further guidance for organisations and people professionals when it comes to managing the blend of office and remote work. These four areas should be kept in mind when supporting hybrid working practices:

1. Support hybrid workers through good people management: Design work processes that suit all locations, concentrating particularly on knowledge-sharing, co-ordination of work and team relationships to encourage performance and innovation. Encourage line managers to hold regular catch-ups with employees to discuss any work and personal concerns they might have; make any reasonable adjustments that are needed at home or in the physical workspace; set clear objectives and manage by outputs rather than inputs.

2. Ensure fairness of opportunity: Ensure ongoing access to development and career conversations for all employees. Make sure there is a fair allocation of work and opportunities, and record training and development sessions so that employees are able to catch-up at a time that suits them.

3. Put health and wellbeing front and centre: Ensure that employees are not over-working and remind them about the importance of maintaining their physical and mental wellbeing and taking regular breaks, fresh air and exercise. Make it clear to all employees any health and wellbeing support you have available. Crucially, ensure line managers understand the importance of showing empathy and providing support and flexibility in their approach to people management, regardless of whether their staff are in the office or working remotely. These behaviours are central to building trust in the employment relationship and for managing and preventing stress and helping staff balance work and personal/domestic responsibilities.

4. Offer a range of broader flexible working options: go beyond remote working and look at introducing wider flexible working options like job shares, compressed hours, flexible start, and finish times. Support flexibility from the start by recruiting flexibly and making the right to request Flexible Working a day-one right.

The return to the office is the start of hybrid working, as employees make the most of flexible working policies. Use this as an opportunity to build a hybrid workplace, designing policies and adopting best-practice that not only drives employee productivity, but supports employees in their day-to-day working lives.