• Mel Newton, Partner |
4 min read

With much of the adult population vaccinated, the Government has been keen for people to return to the workplace and help reinvigorate city centres. But just how far will our working habits go back to how they were before the pandemic?

I’ve been having lots of conversations with businesses about how they can adapt to a hybrid world of work. So, I was quite surprised by some of the findings of the KPMG 2021 UK CEO Outlook. 

Here in the UK, just 14 percent of CEOs say they plan to downsize, or have already downsized, their organisation’s physical footprint. Looking back to the summer of 2020, almost three-quarters said they were going to. There’s more. Less than two fifths (37 percent) of CEOs say most of their employees will work remotely at least two days a week in the future.

Does that mean the future may not be quite as hybrid as we’d expected? 

Downsizing office space where it makes sense

Most of the firms I’ve spoken with aren’t planning for a return to pre-pandemic models. Many are looking at more flexible ways of working and reconsidering their physical footprint. We’ve already seen clients come under pressure to seize the cost-cutting opportunity that releasing real estate presents. And I expect we’ll see more look to downsize over the medium to long term.

Of course, it’s not possible or practical for all organisations to reduce office space. They may be tied into long leases or find there simply isn’t high enough demand for the sites they’re looking to divest. 

Same space, different layout

If businesses aren’t considering downsizing on the same scale, they’ll still be looking to reconfigure their existing workspaces. Many organisations I work with are replacing banks of desks with more open spaces and social areas, and with tech-enabled meeting rooms. They’re occupying the same space, but they’re using it differently. The focus is on designing offices that encourage collaboration and innovation. The ‘desk work’ can then be done from home.

This isn’t just about driving innovation. For many companies, creating these types of workspace and enabling hybrid working will be essential to attracting and retaining talent. Employees have grown used to homeworking, and value the flexibility to work where they choose. There aren’t many brands that can afford to eschew flexible working: like it or not, it’s now a central part of your employee value proposition.

That said, not all companies will be able roll out hybrid working en masse. Industries such as retail, manufacturing and healthcare simply can’t operate their point of delivery remotely. The proportion of people working remotely at least part of the week will depend on industry and role. Where the pandemic has demonstrated roles can be done remotely, businesses need to adapt for a hybrid future of work. 

How do you switch to hybrid working?

Rolling out an effective hybrid working model isn’t something you can do overnight. It takes careful consideration, as it needs to support your wider people strategy and operating model. 

You’ll need to consider your physical footprint and the layout of your offices. The office of the future is designed to facilitate innovation, ideation, collaboration. You’ll need to think through how digital technology can help you streamline operational tasks, and allow seamless and secure remote access. And you’ll need to identify and manage the risks – physical and cyber, tax and legal.

Sound like a lot to do? Here are six principles you can follow that will set you on the right path to effective hybrid working:

1) Tailor your model. Different individuals and teams have different needs and preferences. They’ll demand different things from the workplace – when at home and when in the office. Tailor your model by developing personas.

2) Know the science. There’s extensive scientific and psychological research on how people work, and how environmental factors influence productivity and effectiveness. Understanding this will help you design a successful hybrid operation.

3) Sweat the small stuff. The employee experience is affected by a complex web of micro-events, interactions and touchpoints – all of which can cause frustration if they don’t work well. Put the effort into understanding these, addressing them and having processes to resolve issues quickly when they arise.

4) Step into the user’s shoes. Good experience design is done through the eyes of the user, not the organisation. That requires rich, data-driven insight to help you understand your employees’ needs, wants and pain points.

5) Plan for future success. Your hybrid model must set the business up for success not just in the short term, but also three, five and ten years from now. Your current business strategy, future direction and strategic workforce plan should be key inputs into its design.

6) Take a phased approach. Don’t try to do everything at once. Identify the areas where you most need to enable hybrid working, and prioritise them based on feasibility, viability and desirability. Communicate your plan to employees, and expect some resistance to change along the way.