As restrictions lifted and offices began to reopen last year, hybrid arrangements were heralded as the future of work. The ability to divide your time between remote and office working would give employees greater freedom, flexibility and the all-important work-life balance, and after more than a year stuck at home, they could finally swap Zoom calls for in-person meetings, catch up with colleagues and restore some semblance of a boundary between work and home. In practice, however, hybrid models haven’t quite lived up to that promise.
We’re in a phase where the way in which we work has probably changed more in the last two years than it has in the previous two decades,” says Deirdre O’Shea, associate professor in work and organisational psychology at the University of Limerick (UL). “It’s important to acknowledge that the office we’re going back to is not the office we left. When we were sitting at home, looking at people through a screen and not having a chat in the corridor made us lonely, and that created this expectation that when we go back into the office, it will all be fine. That can’t fully be realised if not everybody is going back into the office.”
For many workers, low attendance levels mean being in the office can be just as lonely as being at home.
“It’s another form of isolation,” says Patrick Flood, professor of organisational behaviour at DCU. “You may be in the building, but your colleagues aren’t there, so you’re not interacting very much with them. That doesn’t mean that’s not an effective model to get the work done — it’s a good model actually, because you’re uninterrupted — but from a relationship point of view, you can be isolated at home, or you can be isolated in an empty office.”
It has given rise to a phenomenon dubbed ‘pin-drop syndrome’, where the absence of any background noise from co-workers chatting or laughing can become stifling and heighten workers’ self-consciousness. “There’s a certain comfort there for particular personality types which is lost when you’re in the big, open, silent office,” Flood explains. “It’s extremely quiet, and when they speak, it’s really noticeable. The sound is magnified in that open space. You can hear your heart beating almost. People are inhibited by the silence itself, and they tend to use messaging apps like Slack to interact with each other, even though they’re in the same space. It’s exactly what you don’t want, because face-to-face conversations are really where you get problems solved and innovation takes place.”
He notes that this could be helped by installing an ambient noise machine, as the BBC reportedly did in 1999 after staff complained their open-plan workplace was too quiet. “If a company wanted to recreate that, they could have something like ‘tinkling waterfall’ as a background noise. The BBC actually taped the typical sounds in an office and played that where people were working, so they have that sense that it’s like the good old days,” he says.
The ‘ghost office’ problem has been haunting workers for months, as employers try to ascertain what hybrid model works for their business and staff. O’Shea notes that firms are still in the early stages of figuring out arrangements, and that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, due to the different requirements of each organisation depending on its size, location, products and other factors.
Part of the problem stems from companies making the decision to introduce hybrid working, but not investing resources toward facilitating it, choosing simply to tell staff to come in a few times a week without giving any explanation as to when, why, or for what purpose they should be present.
“That’s the knowing-doing gap, as they call it,” Flood says. “You have HR policies or working policies, and you talk a good game of golf, but there isn’t the momentum and support to make things happen on the ground. For employees, particularly younger employees, clarity is something that they crave from management. Clear leadership sets out clear objectives and clear guidelines for them.”
Hybrid has become an important feature for attracting and retaining staff, and according to research conducted by CIPD Ireland in December, 46pc of organisations plan to increase their hybrid working options. However, Jennifer Dowling, an organisational psychologist and director of trainremote.ie, notes that there’s a “huge disconnect between what we’re doing and why we’re doing it”.
“Why are we bringing people into the office? If I need to collaborate with the team, if I need to meet people, if I need to get information face-to-face, then that makes sense, but if we’re just doing it because everyone’s doing it at the moment, and I’m just being brought in to do what I can do at home, what’s the point of me coming in? That’s something that will be really demotivating for people.”
The most common hybrid model is for employees to spend two days in the office and the others working remotely. However, director of CIPD Ireland Mary Connaughton explains that companies vary in how they implement such models. “There’s the unstructured approach, ‘work it out between yourselves to come in when you need’, versus a structured one, which is, ‘you’re here on Tuesdays and Thursdays every week’. Whereas the unstructured is great — it gives employees more responsibility and more flexibility — it can feel a little bit uncoordinated,” she observes.
One of the ways around this is to establish ‘core days’, where employees are instructed to come in every Wednesday, for example. This allows staff to plan their childcare or commute around the core day, while remaining flexible about what other day they choose to come into the office.
“It means you’re able to connect to other people and have proper team activities happening. It’s also happening at a corporate level — we used to go for off-site strategy days, now they’re on-site. But there has to be a clear purpose around that, for business updates and state-of-the-nation CEO addresses,” Connaughton explains. “We’ve also seen it happen around social events: let’s bring people together, let’s do some training, let’s do some wellbeing activity, and let’s have an opportunity for people to show up. It’s not business as usual, it’s a lighter agenda.”
The challenges of structuring hybrid work are often rooted in a lack of understanding about what the office is for now, and what functions it serves for the company and its employees. “Do you really need to come into the office to have routine department meetings? Probably not,” says Flood. “If something is sensitive, or political, it certainly helps if you’ve got face-to-face contact, because you’re reading things like body language; the negotiations are much more subtle in a non-video environment. Things that you probably do want people to come together for are innovation, brainstorming, reorganising — that really helps if you have people on-site. But do you have to have them on-site 9am-5pm to do these things? The answer is no.”
Companies are also rethinking how their offices look, and how best to use the available space. Connaughton notes that many firms are replacing assigned desks with ‘hoteling’, a longer-term, reservation-based version of hot-desking.
“We’re seeing companies investing in the layout of their offices, so that means much more collaboration space. Now offices will have lots more round tables, and screens may be attached to the round tables in case you need PowerPoint or there is somebody who’s virtual,” she explains. “The idea of a desk per person has significantly diminished.”
In other cases, moreso among smaller businesses, it is no longer cost-effective to maintain a physical office. They are instead moving operations to serviced offices or providing a stipend for a co-working space.
“They’re looking at the cost of rent and the low level of usage,” says Connaughton. “There are certainly some challenges, particularly adapting when people have all been together to working remotely, but they’re putting schedules (in place) for coming together regularly. If there are 10 of you, you can meet in a hotel lobby, for example, and go to lunch, or you can take a co-working space for a day.”
Flood raises the example of Fujitsu, the Japanese IT giant, which moved to what it calls the ‘borderless office’, an ecosystem of open-plan ‘hubs’ located in major cities, ‘satellite’ meeting spaces, and shared offices near urban or suburban train stations.
“It keeps the link between the company and the employee tighter, simply because they are in an environment which is heavily branded — it looks and feels like it’s Fujitsu, even though it’s not in the headquarters,” he explains. “If you think of the growth of commuter towns in Ireland, for example, Drogheda is a big commuter town for Dublin; you could see how it could work for companies to have a hub space there, or maybe even collaborate with other companies to share a space so that it was more economical.”
And what is to be done with the gleaming office towers lying empty? In London, the rise of remote work combined with soaring rents left 20 million square feet of office space vacant, an increase of 20pc since 2020. The area with the largest number of unused buildings is the City, the financial district, where the governing body plans to convert empty sites into at least 1,500 homes by 2030.
In Manhattan, where the office vacancy rate stands at 16pc, Silver Art Projects has repurposed one floor of a World Trade Centre skyscraper for artist residencies, while other cities are turning offices into warehouses for Amazon and other e-commerce sites, or last-mile delivery centres, as is reportedly planned for La Défense in Paris.
Dowling notes that the key to getting hybrid right is to listen to, work with and solicit feedback from employees. “What I think is really important is that we involve people in this process of experimentation,” she says. “Some organisations are doing this really well, with working groups, employee surveys, and pilot studies where they’re trying different pieces of technology to support different elements of the work. What I’d be looking for as an organisation is, how can I collect really good data that’ll inform me in putting together a good model that will work going forward?”
Now that remote work has shifted from a temporary pandemic response to a permanent fixture, employers are facing tricky questions about proximity bias and the impact on career progression. “We know that there are advantages to your manager being able to physically see you work, and there is this idea of presenteeism,” O’Shea points out.
There are differences in which members of staff are most able and willing to spend time in the office. Women, for example, may be more likely to favour working from home due to traditional gender-based expectations around childcare and other caring commitments. Research by the Kemmy Business School at UL in 2020 found that 48pc of women experienced difficulties balancing work and home life compared to 34pc of men. How might hybrid arrangements affect their career development?
“We’re seeing a huge drop-off of women in the workforce over the last two years, and those with caring responsibilities not being supported by workplaces. That’s really, really challenging,” says Dowling. “As somebody who has two small kids, that flexibility can be game-changing. I think it’s about seeing both the opportunities that it can present for people, but also the real challenge that oftentimes is overwhelming.”
Despite these teething problems, hybrid working is here to stay by all accounts. “It’s what employees want, that’s what all the research tells us. It’s an employee’s market. In recruitment, there are individuals who will just say, ‘I want to work from home a certain number of days a week,’” says Connaughton. “I think some organisations will force people either to come back full-time or to go remote full-time and, over time, people will change jobs to find their right way of working. The more an employer facilitates what employees want, the better.”
Although employers are still figuring out what works best, Flood believes we will start to see clear structures established in the coming years.
“I think the future of work is hybrid, no question about it,” he says. “The only question is, what percentage of the time working is spent in the office? Companies have realised that productivity is, in many cases, enhanced by hybrid working, but they just haven’t figured out how to manage issues like maintaining a corporate culture that is strong and cohesive where employees are away from the office and dispersed. I think, in the next year or two, you’ll see a much more defined set of arrangements come into place. From an employee point of view, it’s really making sense, and from a company point of view, the productivity gains make sense. I think it’s really a question of working it out and working through it.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/ghost-offices-why-hybrid-working-hasnt-lived-up-to-the-hype-41857076.html Ghost offices: why hybrid working hasn’t lived up to the hype