September 29, 2021

Why successful hybrid working requires leadership, empathy and creativity

83% of attendees at a recent Vistage webinar expected to work in a hybrid way – both remotely and in the office – over the next 12 months.

Bringing employees back to the office part-time while still allowing remote work comes with unique challenges. How do you adapt your business practices, HR policies, leadership style and physical office space to this new way of working? How do you ensure your company culture is felt both in the office and remotely?

Helen Dyke, Senior Associate, and Elaine Huttley, Partner, at national law firm, Irwin Mitchell, discussed these challenges in a recent Vistage webinar.

Watch the full webinar here.


Reconsidering your office space

“As we look ahead over the next 12 to 18 months, there is a real opportunity to stop and reflect,” says Helen. “We would urge business leaders and HR teams to come together to make the most out of what has been a difficult situation.”

Irwin Mitchell has found that many clients are reconsidering whether they need their large, expensive city-centre office spaces. Leaders can reduce costs by downsizing. They can also reduce their environmental impact – and use this move to boost their brand and future growth.

“In a lot of tenders, we get asked about our carbon footprint, our sustainability, and our commitment to the environment and local community,” says Helen.

“If you are downsizing and allowing employees to work remotely, you can demonstrate that you are more sustainable than you used to be. It can be part of setting out your commitments.”

Do we need an office? Download our full guide to find out. 


Legal considerations for hybrid working

“We all know that the heart of the employment relationship is the trust and confidence between employee and employer,” says Helen. “When this goes wrong, employees can potentially make claims. So it is important that it doesn’t go wrong.”

“This isn’t only to avoid litigation, though. The flip side is that if you get that trust right, you will attract and retain the best talent. Studies show that when employees are engaged and motivated, absences go down and productivity goes up.”


Statutory right for flexible working

“So the pandemic hasn’t changed the law when it comes to flexible working,” says Helen. “There has always been a right to request a different working pattern, not a right to obtain it. And businesses can reject applications if they can prove it’s going to adversely affect your business.”

“In the past, it’s been quite easy to turn down those applications as long as you didn’t have a blanket ban. But that’s going to change going forward, as employees have proven that they have been working from home successfully all this time.”

Employee’s legal rights are actually some way behind the move to hybrid working. The Flexible Working Bill introduced to Parliament in 2021 still hasn’t passed, despite calls for businesses to be legally required to allow more flexible working back in 2019. However, this is expected to change next year.


Cultural considerations for hybrid working

The pandemic only sped up a larger movement towards more flexible – or even agile – working practices. There are huge benefits for both employers and employees. Working mothers are better positioned to balance work and childcare, and businesses – no longer bound by geography – have widened their recruitment reach to find the best talent no matter where they live.

Ultimately, we are changing the way we think about work, Helen says.

“Agile sees work as an activity rather than a place of work. It embraces both the physical and the digital workplace. It’s about supporting people to work, where, when, and to some extent how they wish to. And it’s about maximising their productivity and making sure that they're delivering the best value to your organisation.”

Irwin Mitchell has embraced this concept wholeheartedly. They have considered the challenges when adapting work culture to hybrid working and retaining a good relationship with employees.


How to make hybrid working work

We describe our current working relationship at Irwin Mitchell as “flexible by choice”.

“We’re all a team, we’re just miles apart in some cases. We’ve then looked closely at how physical distance impacts the employment relationship.”

Watch the full webinar with Irwin Mitchell here.


Be aware of multiple experiences

“We’ve seen a big shift during the pandemic around wellbeing and mental health. And considerable scrutiny of the work/life balance,” says Helen.

“There’s a huge spectrum of responses to these new issues. Some people like the new way of working. They feel it gives them a better work/life balance, they have more time for friends and family, they’re saving time and money through not having to commute.”

“The flipside is that there are some employees who now say: ‘I don’t work from home, I live at work’. You have to be aware of this. In your strategy, you’ve got to come up with ways to anticipate this in advance.”


Lead to reduce churn

Leaders need to be an example to their employees during times of change, or risk losing them.

“It’s not enough for your HR team to announce a policy and to cascade that message,” Helen says. “You have to live it on a daily basis, otherwise employees are not going to engage – and they will vote with their feet.”


Be creative about communication

One of the most valuable tools for developing and maintaining employee engagement is frequent communication.

“Think about what you've done so far to monitor and gauge employee wellbeing and engagement,” Helen advises. “At Irwin Mitchell we’ve used surveys every few months. When you do any sort of survey, someone might be having a bad day. Next week, they could be fine. So continuous listening gives you an average sense of what your employees like and what they don’t.”

Helen also believes that thinking creatively about communication when not everyone can rely on face-to-face contact is key.

“Employees don’t want to read long-winded emails. You need to use light touches and think about when you time your communication to be best received. Now we’re looking at using videos. If you work remotely within a senior leadership team, you might not have seen someone's face for months. Creating a short video that asks some questions, followed by something that needs to be read – that personal touch can really help with engagement.”

Ultimately, there are many legal considerations around the move to hybrid working. But as the Irwin Mitchell team have explained, the new world of work requires even more cultural shifts to ensure employees stay happy and productive.

Our in-depth guide to hybrid working includes more advice from Helen and other Vistage speakers on how to lead both remote and office-based teams. Get it here. 

Our gift to you...

Apply now for your personal leadership consultation with a Vistage Chair. They'll help you assess areas of strength of your business and identify areas of potential growth.

Apply Now

Subscribe to Vistage Insights