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The future of hybrid working

July 16, 2021

Insights from a "hybrid working" roundtable with a group of senior HR professionals. We discuss the issues they are facing and the solutions they are finding.
Employee Experience|Ukupne nagrade |Benessere integrato

It’s the issue at the top of everyone’s minds. Now that we’ve experienced a pandemic-necessitated global experiment in working from home, will we ever return to the office?

At one end of the spectrum, some big banks are telling their workforces to leave their kitchen tables and get back to their desks. At the other end, Deloitte has told its UK employees that they can choose to work from home permanently.

Most employers who are considering the future of hybrid working are seeking some form of middle ground. As they work to establish what that looks like, the role of HR professionals has never been more important. They are at the forefront of establishing the new norms of working life, which is both challenging and exciting.

Willis Towers Watson gathered a group of senior HR professionals to discuss the issues they are facing and the solutions they are finding. Here are some of the insights from the roundtable session.

There’s no going back – and that’s a good thing

Human nature is to embrace the familiar, and it would be all too tempting to try and get back to normal as quickly as possible. However, this would be a mistake. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to design a model which is based on individual human concerns rather than organisational priorities,” said Fran Fisher, director of employee insights at Willis Towers Watson.

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to design a model which is based on individual human concerns rather than organisational priorities.”

Fran Fisher

Reverting to old working patterns would destroy the trust employers have built with their people over the course of the pandemic, said one HR leader. Organisations which fall into this trap will lose employees to companies which are more prepared to adapt their ways of working, she added.

Hybrid working has given organisations many advantages. “Pre-pandemic, we were finding ourselves tight on office space, so it has been a great opportunity to reset what the office is for,” said one HR leader.

One fast-growing employer has established a remote first working model, with workers expected to come into London for a certain number of days each month. This will remain in place after the pandemic.

The model has expanded their talent pool, says the company’s HR director. “Moving to remote first means people can stop worrying about travel. The benefit is we have been able to recruit a lot of people who are mothers, fathers and carers, because they don’t need to do the commute and they know when the pandemic is over that won’t be an issue for them.”

Employee experience has become much more important

The overwhelming majority of employers (98%) believe that enhancing employee experience is a priority for the next three years, compared to only just over half (52%) three years ago1.

Organisations are increasingly focused on how their wellbeing and total reward strategies can support hybrid working. In the roundtable session, the participants were asked for the top things on their minds when formulating their hybrid working strategies. Employee engagement, managing people’s wellbeing, trust, fairness, productivity and safety were all important considerations for the group, showing the sheer number of different factors that must be thought through in formulating a hybrid working strategy.

Fuelling the complexity is the fact that working from home can be great for one person’s wellbeing and terrible for another’s. It depends on so many factors in their lives, from their personality type to their personal commitments. One HR director highlighted a red flag that she had seen: when people started to turn their cameras off in meetings on a regular basis, it could be a sign of withdrawal.

For many reasons, some people might want to go back to the office. So…

HR leaders should think carefully about the purpose of offices

“People should be going into the office to collaborate, communicate, connect and create,” suggested one HR director. “If people want to go into the office, then fine. But if others are just going in for the sake of it, there is no sense in them being there. So many of our teams work across different global regions, we actually find it is often better to get everyone on a Teams call because it levels the playing field.”

The future of hybrid work will look very different from organisation to organisation, though. To get it right for your organisation, you should remember that…

Talking to your people will help you to find a successful model

Unlock More

Live polling question

To what extent are you seeking to tailor the experience for different groups of employees?
  • We’ll tailor the approach for different groups of employees based on a balance of organisation and employee needs: 87%
  • We’ll tailor the approach for different groups of employees based on organisational needs only: 13%
  • We’ll provide complete flexibility to all employees to make the choices they want to; their needs come first: 0%

Office dynamics were already becoming more informal, but the pandemic has forever changed the relationship between employers and employees. In the past, working arrangements were seen as wholly within the employer’s control. Now, the traditional contract is turning into a conversation.

That comes with its challenges. What happens when some employees loudly disagree with their company’s direction of travel? Is it possible to take everyone’s personal needs and circumstances into account? How can managers set rules when organisations might have some teams who want or need to go to a physical workplace and others that don’t?

The answer to these questions is to include people in the decision-making process. One HR leader said: “We are encouraging team members to set team agreements. Those are workshopped with colleagues in the team and leaders together, so they all feel part of creating the solution.”

Many employers had set up steering groups. For instance, one has established a Ways of Working Group, including senior managers, HRs, business representatives, site managers, people from the communications team. The idea was to form a hybrid working group to make sure employees’ voices were represented from across the business in order to build an inclusive strategy.

Be prepared to adapt and evolve

It can be difficult to accept that we don’t have all the answers. But the pandemic has taught us all that nothing in life is ever certain. The HR professionals discussed how to communicate to staff, in a time when plans are inevitably uncertain.

Most organisations have been careful not to overcommit, but it can be a difficult message to convey to employees who want to know what the future holds. One HR director said: “When delivering messages about the future of hybrid working, we have tried to be careful in not overcommitting. We want to give people reassurance that we are ready to change if that’s what they need. It feels like we are being vague all the time, not pinning anything to the mast, because we don’t know what we want to do in the future.”

Another added: “Employees are demanding flexible working, there is no question about it. I can’t go onto a call at the moment without someone asking me what is happening when we go back to the office, are we going to be able to work flexibly?”

In this unprecedented situation, honesty is the best policy. “We are not in a position right now to say: ‘We know the answer’”, said one HR. “Experimentation is a big thing for us; we are encouraging people to create agreements and be comfortable with changing them. We are not practising full hybrid working yet because we’re not back in the office, so we think it will be an adaptation and experimentation process.”

Empower managers

From extrovert sales teams who are dying to get back to their desks to introverts who would be delighted to work from home forever, organisations will have different cohorts with contrasting visions of the future. One solution is to delegate power to individual teams to decide how they work best.

Interestingly, one organisation described the level of trust between managers and teams as being at an all-time high. In a recent pulse survey, nine out of ten employees said they felt trusted by their manager and leadership team. The company’s HR director said: “The trust is there right now, and we don’t want that to diminish. We realise that change brings anxiety and upset, whether it is positive or negative. We want to make sure that during that process, people feel just as supported and trusted as they do right now.”

Another HR leader added: “We have relied on our people to juggle incredibly difficult challenges over the last year. Why stop trusting them now their lives are getting easier to manage!”

One people director described how their company had set up team charters. Managers are having one-to-ones with their teams where individuals can express their preferences. Then the manager can think about what works best for the team as a collective.

But don’t throw your manager out the plane without a parachute. “Even having the conversation with employees to say, ‘What works for you?’ is a tough conversation,” said one HR director. To support managers, the HR team has built a toolkit for them, set up peer group coffee meetings so that they could talk to each other about what they have found difficult, and share pointers. In addition, the company has trained managers in how to practise active listening with empathy.

Keep listening

A lot of employers set up regular sentiment check-ins during the pandemic, many in the form of pulse surveys. “Only 50% of employees are currently confident it is safe to work. Do you know how your employees feel? Have you asked them that question? If you haven’t, how can you support them?” asked Willis Towers Watson’s Fran Fisher.

Right now, organisations have to be more agile than ever. Getting regular sentiment data will help them to respond to how their people are feeling.

Looking ahead

Directors of people are at the forefront of organisations today. It’s an exciting place to be, although there is a lot of pressure to get it right. The only way to do so is, paradoxically, to accept that there will not be a single ‘right’ answer.

In finding the best way forward for your organisation, listening will be vital, as will accepting that forging new ways of working will be an iterative process. No company is going to emerge with a fully successful permanent hybrid working model which will stay the same forever.

The HR leaders who attended Willis Towers Watson’s roundtable were all ready to ask questions of themselves and, most importantly, to work with their employees to find practical ways forward.

Thank you for reading this article. We hope you have found it useful and thought-provoking. If you would like to discuss any of the themes in more detail, please contact your Willis Towers Watson consultant or one of the contacts listed below.


1. 2021 Employee Experience Survey


Yvette Verschoor
Practice Lead Employee Insights Western Europe
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Sarah McDonough
Employee Experience Leader, UK & Ireland

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