Hybrid working is here to stay. Are you managing?

Data released this month by the MRI Software has claimed that hybrid working is “here to stay.” The research shows that more than 50% of employees worked from home for at least part of the week last year with an average of 60% of people regularly working at home for at least part of the week since February 2023.

But how are SME managers dealing with this? And how do they manage to strike the right balance between business effectiveness and keeping staff happy, motivated and engaged?

The advantages

Though undoubtedly challenging for SMEs, there are distinct advantages to offering a more flexible approach to working.

Though many employers are concerned about productivity when less able to monitor their staff, most employees claim to work more effectively in their homes – a massive 80% according to Microsoft’s global study. In today’s challenging recruitment environment, offering your employees a chance to work more flexibly, manage their own time and avoid the daily commute is one clear way you can appeal to potential employees. Not only that but, remove geographical constraints and you are no longer limited to the pool of talent in your local vicinity but can recruit from a global network for your perfect candidate.

Similarly, these policies are likely to be well received by existing staff members, reducing their travel time and costs, making it easier to manage their domestic lives and potentially improving stress and mental health. This can only have a positive impact on staff retention.

There are also cost savings on business overheads. Recent research by insurance brokers Gallagher showed that over two-thirds of business leaders are now changing office space because of changing work patterns with smaller offices and shared office space becoming more appealing and practical for many businesses.

The challenges

A dispersed workforce poses challenges when trying to establish a strong company culture. How do you establish trust between employer and employee? How do you get employees to engage with your values? And how do you foster a team spirit and encourage collaboration between employees?

Though the flexibility of remote working may appeal to more established staff members, it is perhaps less appealing to younger or junior staff. Not only are they less likely to have separate home office space, but they may also miss out on professional development and training opportunities or the day-to-day support from more experienced colleagues. The risk of isolation and attendant mental health concerns cannot be overlooked.

In practical terms, SMEs must also decide how they ensure compliance with legal frameworks for remote working and how they maintain confidentiality of company information. It is worth investing in the support of a good commercial lawyer that understands your business and can help establish workable and robust policies and procedures in these areas.

What measures can you take?

From 6 April 2024, employees will have the right to request flexible working from day one of their employment – so you must be clear on how you are going to approach these requests. Here’s what you should be doing to get prepared:

  • Firstly, be clear about which roles can and cannot feasibly be carried out at home and develop a home and hybrid working policy. Ensure the policy and processes are understood by everyone and managed fairly and consistently.
  • Review employment contracts. If they may need updating, ensure that any changes have been agreed to avoid possible constructive dismissal claims.
  • Investment in good HR practice is crucial. Ensure the structure of working from home is agreed and understood by both employee and manager and that you are compliant with Working Time Regulations 1998. The process for holiday requests and notifications of absence or sickness must be clear. Establish policies on security of equipment and data.
  • Ensure employees have the necessary equipment to perform their duties when working remotely. Familiarise yourself with relevant labour laws and regulations and ensure compliance. Employers are obliged to carry out a risk assessment for their workers whether working remotely or in the office, conduct a display screen equipment assessment and ensure reasonable adjustments are made for disabled employees.
  • Data protection is critical – conduct training on keeping data secure and update associated policies.
  • Create a strong company culture that embraces sustainability, diversity, inclusion and positive employee wellbeing.
  • Adopt available technologies to drive employee engagement and enable effective remote working.
  • For companies where IP is critical, ensure the employees’ employment contracts expressly deal with ownership and put protective measures in place to ensure all IPR created is captured and recorded on the company’s systems.
  • Consider introducing a trial period initially to measure the effectiveness of remote working before committing. This may also help in defence of a discrimination claim or the right to revert.
  • Ensure managers have the tools and support to manage teams effectively. Regular individual check-ins, team meetings and certainty in goal setting and appraisals will help with this.
  • Explore training and professional development tools that can be accessed remotely.

New technologies are constantly emerging to support the new norm that is remote working. Assess if they will help and be innovative. Making changes to ensure your system and processes work for everyone will be a win-win for you and for your employees.