by Mary Devereux, Senior Advisor, SEC Newgate Greater China.
Since December 2019, millions of people and organisations around the world have been taking part in a global experiment – albeit unknowingly – testing whether working from home or hybrid working is something that we can adopt in the long term.
McKinsey’s 2021 research reinforces the idea that hybrid work is here to stay. More than four out of five of its survey respondents who worked in hybrid models over the past two years want to retain them. PWC’s 2022 survey found that 63% of people globally prefer a mix of in-person and remote working. While in Hong Kong, the same survey reveals that 89% of Hong Kong employees prefer to work entirely or mostly remotely. The results for employers were positive as well. Mercer’s 2021 Flexible Working Survey found that the majority of employers in Asia-Pacific say that remote working did not impact productivity, collaboration or employee development. In some cases, those areas saw improvements.
The ‘great realisation’
At a time when organisations are plagued by burnout, mental-health issues, and record numbers of employees leaving their jobs, leaders who see in-person work as a return to normality must confront just how strongly employees feel about flexible workplace models. This makes sense to me. We are at a crucial time in the world of work, when employers are dealing with the so called ‘great resignation’ (shortly to be followed, as I have coined, by the ‘great realisation,’ when people recall that they need money to live on).
Back in February 2021, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon famously said that working from home was an “aberration.” To be fair, he was referring to his – then - cohort of young workers who were set to join the firm that summer. He was concerned they would miss out on direct contact and mentorship.
Like Solomon, at SEC Newgate Greater China we are also big believers in personal connectivity, but unlike Solomon, we think that this can be achieved through the hybrid model.
Thinking about work along two axes
Lynda Gratton, founder of the Future of Work Consortium and professor of management practice at London Business School, wrote in the May/June 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review Magazine that when designing flexible work arrangements, employers need to focus on individual human concerns, not just institutional ones.
Figuring out how to do this is far from straightforward. That’s because to design hybrid work properly, says Gratton, you have to think about it along two axes: place and time.
Place is the axis that’s getting the most attention at the moment. Workers around the world have made a sudden shift from being place-constrained, aka, working in an office, to being place-unconstrained, i.e., working anywhere.
What is attracting less notice is the shift many have also made along the time axis, from being time-constrained - working at the same time as others - to being time-unconstrained, aka, working at different times to fellow workers.
As communication consultants, we have long paid attention to the time axis – it’s the very nature of our business. Client needs can’t be parcelled neatly into a 9 am to 6 pm box, so we have learned to adapt our working style, and parcel out working hours and time in lieu fairly among colleagues.
However, while the time axis affords people the flexibility to structure their work/life balance as they wish, it runs the risk of us all being switched on 24/7. Protecting personal time is a challenge SEC Newgate is working through and we are in the process of building out a set of safeguards, including the questions of inclusion and fairness.
Individual circumstances are key
You also have to consider each employee’s individual circumstances. I often chortle when reading about the convenience of working from home; I assume the writers believe everyone has a large home office and no distractions. My colleagues and I vividly recall the early days of Covid in Hong Kong, where homes are small, bedrooms are typically shared, and parents and grandparents all cohabit the same apartment. Many of us were using ironing boards as desks in those early days.
Here in Hong Kong, we regard ourselves still at the epicentre of Covid, and expect to continue our hybrid approach after the current pandemic becomes part of the background, like influenza. I know from speaking to my colleagues and other connections that we have all come to relish the days we spend working from home, as opportunities to get dug into those long research reports, proposals or articles we need to write.
However, we also enjoy being in the office. It’s a space that creates a sense of belonging. Being physically present plays an invaluable role in supporting idea generation, creativity, knowledge sharing and mentoring. The challenge for SEC Newgate and others is to ensure we make every office day special; getting the most out of each day people spend in the office.
The new shape of work
Hybrid is, I believe, the new shape of work. However, it requires continual experimentation to make it operate fairly; we are still in the early stages of figuring this out. Currently, SEC Newgate Hong Kong has one, formal WFH day each week, which seems to function well. But we will continue to watch its development, ensuring we remain true to our company values and support our lively culture. We need to ensure we have a system that everyone in our office finds fair, inspiring and engaging.