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Hybrid working: your questions answered

In this special episode, hosted by Will Sturgeon, PwC UK’s Head of Content and Thought Leadership, our workforce experts Prasun Shah and Victoria Robinson answer your questions on hybrid working. Are you looking for practical advice to help you encourage your people to return to the office? Do you want to know how to manage capacity to avoid mid-week desk shortages? Or how to support your people’s wellbeing as you introduce hybrid working? Listen to this bonus episode to find out.

Listen on: iTunes Spotify

Will Sturgeon:

Hello and welcome to the latest episode of our Business in Focus Podcast. I’m Will Sturgeon, head of content and thought leadership at PwC, and I’m your host. Today, we are talking about hybrid working, and back to the office plans. As the UK continues to ease its way out of lockdown, many people are, as we speak, no doubt planning trips into the office, some possibly for the first time in over a year, others possibly for the first time in their career.

Something that many of us have taken for granted over the years has become subject of much debate and consideration - what's the role of the office? What value does it create, how often do we need to go there, do we even need one anymore? Similarly, how do we manage, motivate and develop teams in a hybrid age? And how do we ensure our people feel looked after? To address these topics, I’m delighted to be joined in our virtual studio by my colleagues, Vicky Robinson, a partner at PwC leading on hybrid workforce strategy and culture; and Prasun Shah, our human sciences and future of work technology leader.

Vicky Robinson:

Thank you, Will, great to be here.

Prasun Shah:

Thank you, Will, great to be here too.

Will:

Now, normally for a podcast like this, I would have been researching lots of questions to ask you both, but on this occasion, all of that work has been done for me. That's because we recently ran a webcast entitled, ‘back to the office, how to create a model that works for everybody.’ Vicky, Prasun, you both took part in that virtual event. Not only was it incredibly well attended, but we received so many audience questions, we were unable to get through them all. So we’re using this podcast to cover off a lot of outstanding questions, all posed to us by business leaders, who are trying to pick their way through the hybrid ways. We will try to rattle through as many as possible, so Vicky, Prasun are you ready?

Vicky:

Ready and waiting.

Will:

Excellent, let's go. The first question is one I can definitely relate to, I know I've missed bumping into people around the office, having a chat about nothing in particular. Sometimes those interactions manage to throw up the answer to something I've been wrestling with all week or an idea I'd never have thought of otherwise. So the question is, how do we replicate spontaneous serendipitous discussions and networking in a hybrid setting, or is the answer just to come into the office? Vicky, I'll come to you first with that one.

Vicky:

Thank you, Will. It's definitely something a lot of clients are debating at the moment and there is a lot of talk about the virtual water cooler moment, and how do you actually replicate some of that serendipitous interaction that you have in the office. Three points I'd like to make about that. Some organisations, including ourselves, have looked at everything from, do we have virtual coffee mornings where people can just drop in, speed dating across different team members so that you get more of the interacting with people outside of the formal events. Some clients and I have a lot of sympathy for this view, who say there is no substitute for the office, and actually that's where the office is really, we need it to come back, we need to come back into our own around those moments.

What I will say, which I find really interesting as well though, is we have to remember that there is a generation of people out there that actually grew up networking, socialising, etc. online, and where a lot of companies including PwC are looking, is actually, how can they rethink the digital virtual behaviours to put in place more collaboration, more networking. So for example, at PwC one of the pilots we did in our team and we're rolling it out across the firm, is a really simple tool that sits on my laptop, my phone and monitors my digital interaction with the team and it really gives me nudges. It says, you haven’t asked the opinion of this person for a week, it uses NLP it’s got it built-in, you haven't actually been as warm with this person, have you checked in with this person, because you haven't put any time in with them.

And I think a lot of companies are really looking at that, how can we create the digital nudges and help our teams and our leaders reimagine their leadership style, more in a virtual context, so that we can get that collaboration and networking, just part of business as usual, even when we are not all in the same physical space.

Will:

That’s a fascinating answer Vicky, I think I could use an app like that in my personal life, to be honest, reminding me when I've not spoken to my mum for a while, or which friends I've been ignoring. That sounds a great way to remind us who we need to be speaking to. And it’s interesting that you make the generational point there, because we had quite a few questions, actually about younger employees, and the way they may have been affected, and what businesses can do about that. For example, some people have asked what businesses can do to help those people in flat shares or working from a bedroom in their parents’ home to create an optimal home office set up for long-term hybrid working. Others are asking about how businesses should address the issue of people who've been, or have had less access to learn in the workplace through observation or mentoring from senior colleagues. Prasun, do you want to pick up on those questions?

Prasun:

This is actually quite fascinating, Will. I think this goes back to the core principle we believe will make hybrid places work or not work, and that I believe is this idea of, it's not one size fits all design. We have to really understand the workforce, understand the personas inside the workforce, and apply a behavioural science and personality trait lens to it, and then design for it. We've done some research recently jointly with Carnegie Mellon University. That research shows that personality traits, income, age, relationship status, these are some of the most important factors that affect the myriad of aspects of wellbeing and hybrid working. It kind of goes back to your question earlier around the younger workforce, so some of these factors do affect them.

So giving employees an option to exercise their flexibility and giving them some choices and optionality around where they work from, will be fundamental and critical to this. So an example of this is an emerging idea of the concept of third space. In addition to your office, your home office, this idea of a third space, which could be a local bank, could be a local coffee shop, or a WeWork kind of an arrangement that you are entering into as a corporate in different parts of the country. This allows individuals the flexibility to not necessarily all the way have to go into the office, but go to a place which is close enough to your home, but not your home. It gives you that additional dimension, allows you to pick and choose places where you want to go, collaborate, based on the nature of the work that you're doing, so it all boils down to optionality.

Will:

Brilliant, and the next question which I'll ask you Vicky, picks up on some of that. It asks, how do you win people around who are reluctant to return to an office?

Vicky:

I think that's really interesting and lots of my clients, that is a real source of worry for them, how will we actually get people back. Two parts, first of all, understand why they are so nervous about coming in in the first place. Is it transport, is it health and safety in the office, and what can you do to relay those concerns and actually reassure people that things are going to be okay. I think the other thing that's quite important to do, is actually look at, can you, if you like, break the back of it. So some team event, which naturally causes, you know it's a reason for people to come together, because I think generally our experience is people including myself, I was quite anxious that first day back at the office, none of my clothes fitted me, it all felt quite a drama, but actually the minute you get back, you're like, ‘I’m enjoying this, this is good, I’m seeing people.’ I think it's some sort of event to get people over that initial hump of anxiety as well is quite important, giving them a reason to come to the office, and make it as productive and satisfactory as possible once they're actually there.

Will:

That's a great answer. I see myself with that. It’s not always the reluctance is related to big issues such as concerns about transport. Sometimes it is just wanting to be sure that the experience when you get there will justify the travel and the effort of going in for the first time. Those are some great points there. The next question is perhaps a slightly controversial one, and I’m going to put you on the spot here, Vicky. How do you think cultures will be impacted by those that have had a vaccine, and those that have decided not to? Can you foresee organisations mandating vaccinations?

Vicky:

That's a very good question, Will. I think it really depends where in the world you are coming from. We've seen quite different practice, for example, in the US than we are in the UK, but today most of the organisations I've been speaking to, they're very nervous about mandating vaccination. First of all, is it something that they can police; culturally, what's the implication; does it exclude people that for whatever reason aren't recommended or don't personally feel that they should have the vaccine, etc. So most organisations I’m speaking to in the UK are saying, ‘we'd rather focus on the testing, on the safety etc, rather than going into vaccinations,’ but I am aware that that whole policy is being quite differently interpreted in different countries. So I think it is something that local territories need to make a call on themselves.

Will:

Of course and the next question also raises an important point. It's something that I certainly feel very strongly about, if I think about some of the content that we’re creating as an organisation, talking about these issues. I am very keen that we don't fall into the trap of assuming that everybody has been working remotely for the past year or everybody is going to be working in a hybrid model, just because we’re used to working in offices. The questions about those industries where many staff are hands on, such as healthcare or manufacturing, and also organisations where some people are required on site or in the office more than others, and Prasun, I'll ask you this question. How do you implement hybrid without it becoming an us and them situation?

Prasun:

Yeah, it's fascinating Will, because in many ways there already was rightly or wrongly at least a perception of a divide between blue collar and white collar knowledge workers. In some ways, if you're not careful about it, hybrid is probably going to increase that divide, but if you really step back and think about how an organisation or the degree to which an organisation might be able to adapt to hybrid, it is in some ways, a function of the industry and how work is organised in that industry. Technology will play a key role, no doubt about it, but the degree of hybridisation, if I use that word, it is largely a function of the ability to digitise the work delivery and consume it accordingly. So if we don’t deliberately look out for it over a period, it will start creating a new divide, those that are in the hybrid workforce and those that are not. Organisations are dealing with it in different ways and we were at the beginning of that thinking, but an interesting way some organisations are beginning to think of it, is taking out some of the hard cash benefits that they're able to crystallise through hybrid, and ploughing it back towards the workforce that are not able to participate in hybrid. We are beginning to already see some retail organisations who are exploring in this space.

Will:

Excellent, thank you for that Prasun, that's a great answer. Building on that, perhaps, another question which perhaps has traces of us and them within it, is about geographically defined pay bands. And we've been asked, should there still be geographically defined pay banding such as London weighting, given the increase in remote working and the ability to access talent pools far more broadly. Vicky, do you want to pick that one up?

Vicky:

Thanks Will, definitely, another fruity subject you've raised there. I think in certain territories, like again in the US, we are really seeing a move away from location pay for exactly this reason. People have made lifestyle choices and moved out from commuter belts or further away, because they are not anticipating the same amount of travel going forward, so how do you deal with that. I think some companies are definitely tackling that head on, they're really looking at their reward strategies across the board. Other companies are being a bit more reflective around that, and saying, ‘it's something we can definitely look at going forward, but actually, we don't want to do anything with our existing workforce.’ It's more a plan around future roles and future recruitment that we can be much more thoughtful about the talent pools we are tapping into. And if we are going to go more geographically diverse, then actually we can really look at pay specifically for those roles going forward, and over time move away from a London weighting.

I think you do have to look at it, you know it's a complex issue though, and I know Will we've had this conversation before, things like gender pay reporting, you need to be careful that you are not also creating a real divide between what existing workers earn and what future workers earn as well. So I think the best plan is actually really thinking what is our talent strategy going forward, where are we going to get this talent from, and actually is now or sometime in the future, the time to review our reward strategy and make sure it's appropriate to the talent pools that we are actually targeting.

Will:

Absolutely, that makes a lot of sense. Another question which follows on from this, and it's still perhaps on the topic of where people live in relation to the workplace. And a traditional benefit of many organisations was the season ticket loan. Now, the idea of a season ticket loan, perhaps becomes less relevant if people aren't commuting into the office every day. It may not be a benefit that people consider one for them anymore. So how do big businesses address this or how do businesses address this, Prasun? Do they work with rail providers, do they change the benefits that they offer? What can they do to reflect people's changing relationship with travel and commuting and not feel like they are stripping people of a benefit?

Prasun:

This again is one of those where organisations are beginning to rethink how they could use some of the benefits that have been unlocked by hybridisation, and use that to create a new deal for employees. Specifically, if you think about it in the space of travel, we are already beginning to see early emergence of concepts like companies paying for commuting pools, more prevalent in the US than in the UK. In the UK, we've already had examples where train companies are exploring the idea of flexible season tickets instead of having to buy your season ticket as a chunk for the whole season, you are able to pick a few days of a week for which the same flexibility would apply. So we will see organisations on both sides, the travel companies, the enterprises respond to it, and equally we also need to recognise that this is something that will evolve. So as, for example, employees make some conscious choices around where they live, we will increasingly see people start potentially moving out of the bigger cities and a different kind of commuter belt emerging. It's one of those, where I think it will evolve over a period, but we are already beginning to see enterprises react to it in an interesting way.

Will:

Of course and Vicky, can I bring you in on this one. Do you have any thoughts to add to that?

Vicky:

I do actually and a lot of companies are reviewing their benefit provision at the moment, because there are loads of other things. Actually, how many companies should be providing home office setup support, should we actually be helping employees with their internet, should we be using our bulk purchase power to really get the benefits for our employees that they will need going forward to be effective working from home. It's definitely an area of review, and as I said, the surveys that we are doing are suggesting that the majority of companies are actually reviewing their benefit provisions at the moment.

Will:

It is absolutely, and another area which I’m seeing talked about a bit more, I suppose it’s relevant in this space, is around what organisations can do to better support active commuting. More people during lockdown seem to have taken up running and cycling, and those sorts of things. I think lots of people are looking at that as a way to get back into the office, while perhaps not necessarily having to confront concerns they have about public transport, and that sort of thing. Is that an area that organisations should be looking at, how do they provide better cycle storage, better changing facilities, showering facilities, things like that to help people keep those healthy habits they’ve developed during lockdown going now?

Vicky:

We are definitely looking at that, Will. I think you’re quite right, again it’s part of the office redesign. Actually, how can we make workplace as a service, how can we make it an as attractive place as possible for people to come, making it as easy as possible, and tie in with their priorities and their appetites if you like, for how they want to lead their life. So definitely an area we are seeing real emerging thought coming through on.

Will:

That’s great to hear, and I’m sure lots of employees across the country will appreciate their employers taking steps to support those kinds of things. The next question picks up again on the issue of reduced commuting, and for some reason, Vicky, I seem to be singling you out for some of the thornier questions. We’ve been asked, should businesses reduce salaries to reflect the reduction in commuting costs and other savings for staff working from home?

Vicky:

Oh, that one is really juicy. Some companies are thinking about exactly that. I think the most common approach actually, and probably the best approach is actually single out some specific roles that could be performed virtually. For example at PwC, we’ve been moving away from physical PAs to virtual assistants. And actually we’ve realised some quite significant savings, but actually tapping into some really interesting talent pools, where the priority for them is living in a very rural area, great skills, really want a job but want that flexibility of being near home, being near the school run etc., so really looking at some specific roles that you can actually pivot to being virtual.

What I will say though is, yes potentially you have got that saving on commute time from employees, but against that, arguably they’re heating their houses more, they’re spending more on wi-fi, on home office set up again, so I think you do have to look at the quid pro quo, and I think it’s quite controversial to just immediately give everyone a pay cut just because there is going to be less time commuting.

Will:

I think it would certainly be a difficult message to communicate across organisations. The next couple of questions are actually about orchestrating the workforce in a hybrid model. You look at lots of announcements, lots of headlines about what organisations are planning, and there seems to be a coalescence around people wanting to get the teams back in two to three days a week. Lots of people are concerned, what you are going to see is, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, busy offices, full, lots of energy; Monday and Friday, bit of a ghost ship.

So Prasun, I’ll come to you first, should organisations mandate which days whole teams should come into the office together to allow that in person collaboration and learning, but also perhaps to manage the flow of people throughout the course of a week.

Prasun:

This is a very interesting one, and one that’s quite close to my heart. As you said Will, we are beginning to almost coalesce around this idea of two to three days a week in office, but when and how people organise is critical. We’ve seen two distinct trends emerge. One, where organisations are providing some guard rails, like for example, we expect employees to be in the office two to three days a week, that’s one school. There is another school, which is again two to three days, but they’re mandating the days. Complete polar opposites, two very large tech organisations, global, have in a space of a couple of weeks come out with two of these diametrically opposite views.

One, where they have given the choice to their employees on which two to three days they decide, and the other where they are mandating the specific two to three days. I think the jury is out on this, but where organisations are mandating the specific days, that is with the idea that whole teams can be together, and it drives higher collaboration and productivity dividend. Whereas, where organisations are going for a model where they are leaving it to the discretion of their employees, that assumes that employees or groups of employees will exercise the choice to get together based on what they need to.

I think actually, both models will co-exist for at least a while. It’ll be a function of, amongst many things, the size and scale of the organisation, the way work and teams are organised. So for example, even in a large organisation, if you have much more agile and product-based teams, like squads and little cellular structures, you will see groups of employees can choose to get together when they need to collaborate. If you take us as an example in PwC, some of the work that we do in spite of being such a large organisation. It is networked and people organise themselves in project teams, based on the project that they are working on. It makes more sense for those individuals to get together on days that they need to get together as opposed to the entire organisation coming together on a Tuesday through to Thursday.

In many ways, I think it’ll be a function of the nature of the work that the organisation does, the culture of the organisation, how command and control they are, versus how networked they are. In some cases, I know some organisations, who are very product, and physical product or software product-oriented, and have significant collaboration projects going on where there’s IP concerns. They are creating a model where some parts of the organisation they are mandating when they should get together. It will be a mixed model and over a period we will establish the right equilibrium based on the nature of the organisation, the nature of the work, and the culture of the organisation.

Will:

One of the variables here is human behaviour and human nature, and I wonder how people might respond to a changing week. The assumption that offices would be empty on a Friday is based on the fact that when people used to go in more, by Friday they were ready to have a day working from home to catch up on their actions for the week and that kind of thing. But I wonder if people are traveling less into the city during the week, Friday may actually take on a new premium, as people look to catch up with friends they’ve not seen for a while, and integrate a trip into the office on a Friday more with the Friday night out on the town, and whether perhaps Friday becomes the new Friday.

Vicky, if I could bring you in on this, how can organisations manage capacity, avoid desk shortages on those busy days and spread the people out a little bit more over the week. I suppose one of the things here is, if Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday go back to the capacity and the occupancy of old, lots of other plans around repurposing office space become more difficult to implement. So what can organisations do?

Vicky:

Thanks Will, yeah definitely I think where you’ve got a specific business case, for instance the rationalisation of real estate, you probably do have to do a little bit of mandating to secure that, but what lots of organisations are looking at is actually how do we create those incentives for people to come in on those dead days even where we don’t mandate it. For example, staff discounts on local restaurants that kick in on Mondays and Fridays, and really looking at how can you create, I’ve got one client, actually a luxury retailer, and they were really struggling in the intervening period when offices were opening up again, they were really struggling to get people in. But then they had a bag sale day and suddenly it was over 70% of the organisation came in. So really looking at, how can you actually skew towards Mondays and Fridays, extra events whether its free lunch, whether its vouchers etc., for local restaurants. How can you really encourage people to come in so its more evenly distributed capacity across the office. I think the other thing to say is, you have to get the technology in to measure flow, to really look at what’s happening and then work out, what are our days where capacity is really beginning to go towards it’s maximum and actually monitor that, and then think through what interventions do we need to make to make sure that this is more even. So measuring it, I think is going to be really important.

Will:

Definitely, there’s some great ideas in there. I like the idea of deals with local businesses, because I’m sure the local economy around large offices has suffered considerably over the past year. So something that brings people in, and perhaps puts bums on seats in local pubs, restaurants, and cafes, and other venues would be a win-win for everybody. As we build to a conclusion of this podcast, I’ve just got a couple of questions outstanding now.

It would be great to get some thoughts on next steps. We’ve had a couple of questions here. Do you see a need, Prasun, I will put this one to you, for a two stepped plan, a short-term back to the office plan, let’s get people back, let’s see what’s working, followed by a longer-term plan for the future?

Prasun:

Yeah absolutely, I think we will see this evolve. We see this very much as an experiment, learn and optimise model. Everyone is learning now, but at the core of that will be reliable, actionable data across all aspects of people, place, and technology, the three core things that in an integrated way will ultimately drive the design of hybrid workplaces.

Will:

And Vicky, the last question for you, how are organisations getting started, where do you begin?

Vicky:

I think you start by communicating. I read some really interesting survey, where organisations that haven’t yet announced their plans, they’re suffering from a lot more organisational anxiety and wellbeing scores are dipping. Even if you haven’t come to a landing, just let people know that you are thinking about this. It’s a complicated equation, we need to look at customer and the impact there, we need to look at organisational team needs, but actually announce to people that you are intending to look at this and come up with a plan, and then look at it and come up with a plan. And how you look at it and come up with a plan, my view is, data, data, data. Really look at everything from your real estate, what’s going on there, what’s the art of the possible, what are your employee preferences, look at the roles that you’ve got, team organisation, ways of working, and come up with a plan over the next couple of months.

Again, what Prasun said, I think this is going to be iterative. Technology is emerging so quickly, that can help us, new ideas coming out all the time. Most employees will keep faith with you, they know that this is the great experiment that we are all going through, but actually keep them engaged, let them know what you are thinking, and really work through that detail to come up with a plan that you can execute over the next six months.

Will:

Brilliant, some great practical guidance there. Sadly, that’s all we’ve got time for. It feels like we’ve covered a lot of ground today. But if anybody does want to understand more about hybrid working, please do get in touch, I know Prasun and Vicky you’d love to hear from people, or I’d encourage people to check out our hybrid transformation webpages, where they can find the recording of the webcast that I mentioned at the start, as well as lots of articles and further advice on hybrid working. I’m sure we are going to be adding to that content over the next few months as this continues to take shape.

All that’s left for me to do really is to thank Vicky and Prasun for your time. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, and to thank everybody who’s tuned in to listen. Thank you both.

Vicky:

Thank you Will, likewise, really enjoyed it. Thank you everyone for listening.

Prasun:

Thank you.

Participants

  • Will Sturgeon
  • Prasun Shah
  • Victoria Robinson
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