As we began to emerge from two years of lockdowns and restrictions, all the talk was that the success of remote working during the pandemic would permanently transform how and where we work.

The results of our latest CEO Outlook suggest that might not be the case – or at least how CEOs see it. More than three in five (62 percent) UK CEOs predict that, over the next three years, employees whose roles were traditionally office-based will be back in the workplace full time.

So, has all the talk of remote and hybrid working gone out of the window?

In the war for talent, flexibility is a differentiator

Respondents to the CEO Outlook survey were asked what impact hybrid working has had on the likes of hiring, productivity, retention and morale over the past two years.

Around one in ten (11 percent) say it has had a negative impact on hiring and retention. But around two in five say it has actually had a positive impact, and the rest say the impact is negligible either way.

Certainly, the conversations I have with employers suggest that flexible working is now a key differentiator in the war for talent. Companies that order employees back into the office permanently risk their top talent walking out of the door to other organisations offering more flexible options. Even ‘destination’ employers are having to consider the importance of flexible working to their employee value proposition. 

The productivity conundrum: ‘If a tree falls in a forest … ’

So, if CEOs and employees recognise that hybrid working is a positive for recruitment and retention – or at least not a negative – why aren’t more than 37 percent anticipating a hybrid future of work?

Perhaps this is a question of productivity and of trust. There are certainly some CEOs who harbour doubts – rightly or wrongly – about how productive their employees are while working remotely. If you can’t see them working, are they working?

This risks confusing presenteeism with productivity. Someone who is seen to arrive at the office early and leave late is not necessarily the most productive – this has long been a proven point.

If we go back to the CEO Outlook results, we see that actually just 7 percent of UK CEOs say hybrid working has had a negative impact on productivity, with 42 percent saying it has actually improved it, and the remainder ‘neutral’. 

It’s not ‘all in’ or ‘all out’

This has me thinking that perhaps the survey respondents were thinking too much in absolute terms. Employers shouldn’t be thinking in terms of working from the office versus working remotely. What they should be thinking through is what working pattern best delivers their organisational goals and optimises productivity.

A hybrid approach benefits recruitment, retention and engagement by giving employees the flexibility they want and that they grew accustomed to during the pandemic. And it doesn’t negate having time together in the office for collaboration, learning and teambuilding, and for employees’ mental health. (Many UK employees struggled and reported mental health issues from working remotely during the pandemic.)

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Yes, implementing hybrid effectively takes more thought than going back to pre-pandemic ways of working. But were those traditional working practices really the most productive?

To get started, ask yourself the following questions – and be honest with your answers:

  • What tasks need to be carried out to achieve our business objectives?
  • Which of these are best done in the office, and which are more suited to homeworking?
  • How often do my employees need to see each other face to face, and for what purpose?
  • As a leader, when do I really need to see my people in person?
  • How do I measure an employee’s productivity?

Provide some guidance

The next step is to set out some guidelines. Don’t simply say, “we’re going to adopt hybrid working”, and then leave line managers to it. Help them by setting out what type of work should be done at home (such as ‘thinking’ work) and in the office (ideally, tasks that require collaboration).

To ensure that teams get together in the office at least some of the time, some companies have introduced ‘all-team days’. That’s a great idea and can work well, but make sure you give teams the autonomy to find the right ‘rhythm’ – the optimal balance between home and office – for them.

Many organisations are currently at the stage where they’ve set out guidance such as ‘three days in, two days out’. The next step is to support teams in really thinking through which days they need to be in, and which days out to drive the best results – in terms of engagement and productivity.

From there, you can begin to update your workforce management plans and adapt your workplace environment to meet your new needs.

Don’t tell individuals to come in three days a week to sit on their own. They’ll resent commuting in order to spend all day online, talking to colleagues who are remote that day. When they do come in, make sure they can sit together with the rest of their team. That may mean reconfiguring  your hot-desking set-up, especially if whole teams are in the office at the same time. You may also need to encourage office working on Mondays and Fridays to balance desk space use.

The 15 drivers of productivity

Finally, you need to put in place a set of measures that identify whether your model is driving greater productivity and meeting your organisational goals. That’s not about whether someone can be seen to be working. It’s a measure of output against units of input, and needs to be aligned to goals, outcomes and KPIs.

At KPMG, we see productivity as being made up of a complex set of 15 drivers, which fall into five categories: 

  • organisational effectiveness – alignment of strategic objectives with productivity, and of individual and organisational goals; productivity management information
  • capability – learning; talent retention
  • management – leadership and management capability
  • employee experience – health and wellbeing; employee engagement; culture and behaviours
  • enablers – workplace and work hours; workforce structure; tool and technology; processes, policies and procedures.

As you can see, there are a wide range of factors to take into account beyond when and where your people work. But these are important enablers of productivity, and need carefully considering before you go back to plan A.

If you’d like to discuss your workforce management plan and how you can measure its effectiveness, please get in contact.