UK government minister Jacob Reese Mogg wrote to his ministerial colleagues asking them to return UK civil servants to their offices. He stated (as quoted in the Financial Times) ‘the benefits of face to face working and benefits to the wider economy’. Should we take head of his advice?
The minister is right in so far that there are benefits of face to face working but he’s wrong to suggest that those benefits can’t be realised through remote or ‘hybrid working’, a way of working which includes elements of home and office working. Reese Moggs comments also put him at odds with the vast majority of employees in the UK who want more flexibility not less. For instance, over 81%, according to the Future of Work Study, are keen to see hybrid working implemented. I suspect that the minister’s comments will be ignored by the majority of organisations who, for the most part, are quietly getting on with exploring ways to make remote and hybrid working a success. They are doing this because they recognise the benefits it brings to overall employee satisfaction, productivity and cost savings.
The real question for employers, should not be whether to return people to the office but rather, how to make hybrid working as seamless as possible for people and the organisation. One of the challenges is that the term ‘hybrid working’ is a little vague. Any employer seeking to understand what it really means should start with the more established notions of employee empowerment and the ‘control’ which it is perceived to bring to individuals.
At a psychological level the idea of control and autonomy have long been associated with positive motivators at work. People welcome the opportunity for more control over how they do their work. In this context, needlessly forcing people back into the office when there is no good occupational necessity will demotivate and not motivate people. This in turn will hurt productivity levels which will surely damage the economy rather than boost it. On the other hand, if hybrid working takes on the format of something which is regimented and imposed, it is far less likely to be seen as a benefit. Indeed, there are signs this is already happening with the BBC reporting earlier this year that some people are finding the experience of hybrid working exhausting and emotionally draining. Does this help validate the Ministers comments?
In a word, no! The direction of travel with work is greater flexibility not less. To this end managers must approach hybrid and remote working plans in a way that is genuinely collaborative and trusting. This approach will be best placed to wade through the operational and individual considerations. For example, if employees spend less time in the workplace, it is more important that the time they do spend there, achieves the things which are often more difficult remotely, such as building relations, sharing information and discussing ideas. Ultimately the priority should be about finding a solution which offers mutual benefit for individuals and the organisation. Organisations which have a leadership and management culture which is genuinely consultative will be better placed to do this. It is difficult to achieve two-way conversation when the approach is an old-fashioned telling one.
There are compelling reasons to get ‘work’ right, particularly in a labour market where attracting and retaining the best staff is often difficult. Trends and evidence show employees are increasingly looking for flexibility in how they do their work and hybrid working will remain part of this equation. Unfortunately, the UK civil service may go in the opposite direction.