Is Flexible And Hybrid Work Here To Stay Permanently?

A recent Sensée webinar asked the question: “What’s the business case for 100% back-to-the-office?” The discussion covered a lot of ground, but it was clear that for most office-based professional workers there is a very weak case for a 100% return to the office.

The ongoing experiment with work-from-home (WFH) and hybrid work, where the employee mixes some office time with some time based at home, has led to a global oversupply of office space. The Financial Times reported recently that office vacancies are now higher than they have been for over 20 years – in both the UK and US.

The productivity and employee satisfaction data does support the case for WFH. Most employees prefer flexibility, rather than an employer insisting on their work location every day of the week.

However, one of the perennial arguments about the value of employees congregating in an office is that it uses less energy to heat and light a single building compared to all the individual homes many hundreds, or thousands, of employees would be using if they stayed at home all day.

Intuitively this sounds like a strong environmental argument, but it is undermined by a recent National Academy of Sciences study that found going from a 5-day in-office week to 2 days reduces carbon use by 11%, 4 days by 29% and 5 days a week by a whopping 58%. The analysis combines commuting and non-commuting travel (e.g. driving to run errands if you work remotely, etc.), office energy, home energy and ICT energy.

A recent study by the recruitment company Hays plc suggests that the situation in the UK is very finely balanced. Their data (published on October 23) suggests that the number of office-based professionals now working from an office has just passed the number of hybrid workers for the first time since the Covid pandemic.

The problem is that many employees are just ignoring back to the office mandates. Employees only come in for an average of two days a week when bosses are mandating three or four days, according to research by AWA. When companies try to enforce a complete return to the office, fewer than 70% of employees comply with the instruction, a recent BCG study found.

Mark Hall, UK head of LHH Recruitment Solutions, is quoted in the Hays research saying: “You may get a company saying ‘I want you in three-four days a week’ but the people that actually control the business — the actual line managers — will demonstrate flexibility because they want to retain talent. They’re doing a delicate balancing act.”

This balancing act may differ, depending on the industry, and even individual companies. If employees are ignoring company-wide ‘return to the office’ mandates then in most organisations they should expect a rebuke or penalty. However, as suggested, there is now a greater expectation of flexibility and many managers will want to hold on to their talent regardless of what the head office rules say.

Bloomberg reported in July that British employees want to work from home for at least 2.3 days per week – approximately half their working week at home and half in the office. What they want and what they get may depend on the strength of any economic recovery. If employers feel they have the power to demand strict compliance to corporate rules because the economy isn’t looking very strong, then more employers will feel they can make demands.

But this also leaves best practice employers and employees with hard-to-find skills in a strong position. An employer can quickly position their brand as an employer of choice by offering flexibility over work location and rejecting the dogmatic return to the office.

The Harvard Business Review has supported this view. In fact, their analysis also suggests that any employer that wants to truly support a diverse workforce that embraces disability and neurodivergent employees must offer flexibility over work location. Sensée noticed this long ago. There is a vast pool of talent out there that cannot – or does not want to – commute to an office and spend the next 8-10 hours working a shift in an office cubicle.

It’s worth remembering that most people don’t have a choice anyway. This entire debate is focused on office-based professionals that can work flexibly. Around 60% of jobs require a person to be in a specific place – you can’t perform heart surgery or a haircut on a Teams call – but it remains an important debate for all those who have now seen that flexibility works for their job.

The Covid pandemic has changed working patterns and flexibility around work location forever. Professor Nick Bloom of Stanford University has estimated that flexibility is worth around 8% in pay to most employees, so we may see people in very inflexible jobs start to demand more pay as an “inflexibility bonus.” 

In the US, employees are currently expecting annual pay increases of about 7%. Add another 8% on that for those who are told to get back into the office and it suddenly looks like flexibility might be a very attractive option for employers as well as employees.

Flexibility is here to stay, despite the pleas of the commercial real estate industry for a return to pre-covid normality.

(Webinar) 6 Things You Must Do Well In The New World Of WFH

THURSDAY NOV 2ND, 10 – 11.30AM

Chair: Sandra Busby, Cnect Wales

In this webinar we look at how to best replicate the things you’ve traditionally done well in the office environment in the new world of hybrid and home working.

We will focus on 6 aspects:

  • Team culture and engagement
  • Communications (and making sure messages land)
  • Training
  • Managing performance
  • Workday scheduling (for flexibility)
  • Reward and recognition

We’ll also consider the technology required to create digital workspaces that bring the worlds of home and office together.

Sandra Busby, Managing Director of Cnect Wales will be joined by Alison Carroll (Service Delivery Manager) and Jen Sutherland (Team Leader) from Sensée.

Click here to register for the webinar.

Sensée and Bupa homeworking team named Outsourcer of the Year at the 2023 Northern Contact Centre Awards

We’re delighted to announce that the Sensée Bupa customer service homeworking team was named ‘Outsourced Contact Centre of the Year – Medium’ at the 2023 Northern Contact Centre Awards gala dinner last Friday night.

The Sensée team comprises over 200 home-based advisers who handle health enquiries for Bupa customers. This covers everything from detail changes to conducting assessments of customer conditions against eligibility criteria, and booking treatments. The team also assists with Bupa Mobile App & website queries via webchat, email and phone. 

Business partners for 7 years, the Sensée and Bupa relationship is not just longstanding but possibly the most mature outsourcing relationship in the UK work-from-home/hybrid space.

The annual Northern Awards is a celebration of contact centre excellence for businesses operating in the North of England. Other winners at the 2023 Awards were Ageas, BT, EE, Foundever, IAG Loyalty, Motability Operations, NFU Mutual, Proximo Group, RAC Motoring Services, Shared Services Connected Ltd, and Verastar Ltd. The event was organised and operated by the Northern Contact Centre Forum, a networking organisation that supports contact centres right across the North of England.

“We are extremely proud of the hard work and dedication of the Bupa homeworking team and delighted that their achievements have been recognised with this Award” said Paul Whymark, Chief Operating Officer, Sensée.

Is WFH better for the environment?

It’s long been suggested that, by removing the need to commute, WFH is better for the environment than office-based working. However there’s been very little independent research into the topic over the last few years to back up the claim.

A new scientific paper on the impact of WFH on the environment, recently posted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – a peer-reviewed journal of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) – has reignited the debate.

The paper, which can be accessed at https://lnkd.in/gsqxBUiA concludes that “in the United States, switching from working onsite to working from home can reduce up to 58% of work’s carbon footprint, and the impacts of IT usage are negligible, while office energy use and non-commute travel impacts are important”. 

 

PNAS survey

 

The study says that achieving the environmental benefits of remote work requires proper setup of people’s lifestyle, including their vehicle choice, travel behaviour, and the configuration of home and work environment.”

It’s a fascinating insight into the topic, backed up by hard independent research and evidence. The study calculated the impact of WFH frequency from 0 to 5 days a week on carbon emissions, taking into account commuting, non-commuting travel (e.g. driving to buy lunch if you WFH), office energy, home energy and ICT energy. And it found that, by moving to 2 days a week at home, carbon usage can be reduced by 11%, to 4 days by 29% and to 5 days a week by a staggering 58%. These benefits were mainly realised from less commuting and closing offices. 

Stanford Professor and leading commentator on the WFH revolution Nick Bloom commented “we know commuting is energy intensive, but only after reading this did I realise offices are also huge energy users. For firms, this highlights how a supportive WFH policy can deliver progress on climate objectives. Indeed, these effects are so large that WFH policies are likely to be one of the most powerful tools for companies trying to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Could Work From Home Tap Into A Vast Group Of People Who Are Currently Not Working?

Over 2.5 million people claim incapacity benefit in the UK. The government recently announced action to drastically reduce this number by over a million – described as “a blitz” by the Daily Mail. In early September, the Work & Pensions Secretary, Mel Stride, suggested that many of the claimants will be able to work if they have no other option.

The government proposals sparked a backlash from disability groups, with the MS Society saying they would ‘create worry, fear and the real threat of major financial loss’.

The new measures sound tough. Anyone who remembers the Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ will know that the British system of unemployment and incapacity benefits can seem like a minefield. Nobody truly wants to have to navigate their way through this bureaucracy.

But there are a couple of very specific details in the requirements for incapacity benefit. One is the ability to walk – or move a wheelchair – more than 50 metres without help. Another is focused on anxiety and the ability to work with other people.

So there are both physical and mental health measures that could be dramatically alleviated if people can work from home. The government has noticed this and suggested that if they introduce new supportive measures then a large number of people being signed off work could start working again.

This article is not judging the government, or the people claiming incapacity benefit, however there is a very interesting point here. The government has noticed that working from home may be far easier for a group of people with specific disabilities – compared to getting them to find a job in a factory or office.

At Sensée, we have argued this point for many years. Working from home is naturally more inclusive. It can give any company a boost if they have never really focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion before.

If someone suffers anxiety in the workplace, because a large number of people are around, then working alone from home is far more comfortable. If they suffer from mobility issues that make a regular commute difficult – or even impossible – then working from home will be easier. In fact, a wheelchair user is likely to have converted many aspects of their home to make mobility easier.

The British government isn’t changing their approach to incapacity benefit because they want to improve their Environmental, Social, and corporate Governance (ESG) scores – they just want to reduce the cost of paying out those benefits to people who are not working. 

However, companies that want to improve their own approach to inclusion could follow the lead of the government by exploring how they can offer flexible work-from-home jobs to people that have often been excluded from the traditional workforce.

This flexibility and opportunity can extend beyond physical and mental health issues. Parents of young children may want to offer their skills to the right employer, but they need flexibility. The same applies to adults that are caring for an adult relative. 

This also applies to people that have retired, but would love to do something useful with the knowledge they have built up over a lifetime. Someone with decades of experience working in a retail bank branch is unlikely to ever consider going to work in a contact centre even if the role is helping people with financial advice. If they can manage their own hours and work from home then this is suddenly a possibility.

Although the tone of the Daily Mail story is essentially negative, what the government is actually doing is highlighting that a large number of people are excluded from work today because they want flexible hours and the ability to work from home without commuting.

It will not suit some people, but for many the opportunity to work from home and earn a real salary again could be a lifeline. The government just needs to be sensitive to who it does and doesn’t work for and how to support them in the transition from incapacity benefit to working from home.

Shining a spotlight on all these other groups of people excluded from the traditional workplace could actually be a positive outcome from the government reforms.

There are employers out there that offer flexible working hours and the ability to stay at home. Sensée has always operated this way, but it is becoming more common. Many more employers are finding that there is an enormous pool of untapped talent out there, they just need some flexibility and then they are ready to jump back into the world of work.

How Do We Replicate All Our Office Processes For WFH?

During the Covid pandemic, the Sensée team was often called on to advise on the sudden switch to working from home. An often-heard management comment on the challenges of working from home (WFH) sounded like this:

“Our biggest challenge is replicating everything we do for our people in the office when they are now working from home or in a hybrid mix of the home and office.”

This problem has persisted long after the pandemic, because companies have continued to use WFH or hybrid. Office occupancy in London in September 2023 was 32.9% – this is after the quiet holiday season.

It is clear that many companies have now permanently embraced hybrid work or WFH to the extent that commercial landlords must now be considering what they can do with all these empty office buildings.

But as so many corporate leaders have found, working from home is about so much more than just working from home.

Think about all the processes that have traditionally been performed in-person in the office… recruitment and interviews, onboarding, training and career development, communications, scheduling shifts, general management oversight and task prioritisation.

All this now needs to be performed remotely.

This can be a shock for many managers, especially those familiar with ‘management by walking about’ – the idea of taking a stroll to check on things seems archaic with a remote or hybrid team.

Security is another issue that needs to be reconsidered. When all processes were performed in a single location by people who had to pass a secure entrance then security wasn’t all that difficult. Build a firewall around the network and little else was needed.

If you now have people scattered all over the place accessing the system, especially if that involves customer’s data, then you need to rethink security protocols, encryption, and the entire culture of security. How does everyone become aware of what is and what isn’t a security risk?

One change that becomes essential with remote teams is the concept of managing people by tasks or delivery. You are not supervising the people in person so you can no longer make any assumptions about who is busy or not or who is late and not putting in the required effort.

Now you need to create some defined standards around a ‘normal’ level of activity. Let’s say the number of customers served as an example. If the average is ten then  it’s not alarming to see that some of the team are serving 12 an hour and some are serving 8. However, if a team member is only managing to serve 5 customers each hour then the manager may need to step in to investigate.

It is also important for people to feel connected throughout the day. Most people that work in a team want to feel that connection, rather than just having a daily team talk on Zoom and then being allowed to work alone for the rest of the day – this can be extremely isolating.

It is likely that you will require a software platform to manage this – a virtual office in some form. We have our own tools inside Sensée that allow our teams to create virtual meetings, work together, and even replicate actions like holding a hand in the air because the user wants to talk to a supervisor.

When companies were forced to rapidly adopt WFH, because of the pandemic, some introduced a few questionable practices. Many managers thought that it would be acceptable to watch employees at work via their webcam. Research in Fortune magazine shows that most managers think this can boost productivity. But as this BBC article shows, it often backfires on employers as it feels more like spying on someone in their own home, rather than managing them. 

The reality is that you need a change in management mindset to manage a WFH or hybrid team. You cannot simply transplant all office-based functions into the WFH environment, however most processes can work when you plan for them.

Sensée recruits, onboards, and manages all our team remotely. We know it works. The difficulty comes if you sound like the manager quoted at the start of this article ‘we are struggling to replicate everything we do in the office…’ 

You don’t need to reinvent all those office-based processes. Feel free to reimagine how work can be designed if there is no expectation of an office being in the equation.

(WEBINAR) WHAT’S THE BUSINESS CASE FOR 100% BACK-TO-THE-OFFICE?

TUESDAY OCT 10TH, 12 – 1PM
HOSTED BY MARK HILLARY, CX & TECHNOLOGY WRITER AND HOST OF CX FILES

In March 2020, organisations moved to work-from-home (WFH) due to the Covid outbreak. Three and a half years later – and having experienced both WFH and latterly hybrid home/office working, some businesses are proposing the bold move to return 100% to the office.

It’s an emotional and charged topic. Some industry leaders argue that continuing with WFH/hybrid will sound the death knell for their businesses; others argue that the world of work has changed forever and that WFH/hybrid is an inevitable part of that future.

Who is right?

In this webinar, you’ll hear from experienced contact centre practitioners who’ll dissect the evidence and debate whether there’s a strong business case for 100% back-to-the-office from…
…… an employee perspective
…… a productivity perspective
…… a cultural perspective
…… an environmental perspective

Industry analyst and author of ‘WFH – Securing The Future For Your Organisation’ Mark Hillary will be asking the questions. He’ll be joined by Dan Philp, Service Delivery Director of Sensée, and Stephen Loynd, Founder & Principal at TrendzOwl.

We hope you can join us. Click here to register

Hybrid Working is the Future Say UK Contact Centre Leaders

According to a new online poll from the Call Centre Management Association (CCMA), only 2% of UK Contact Centres expect all their frontline customer advisers to be working in a physical office in 12 months’ time, with 98% saying that they expect them to either be working fixed days at home and fixed days in the office, working flexibly between the home and office, or working 100% from home.  

186 CCMA member organisations took part in the online poll on 14th September 2023.

Despite recent media headlines suggesting that organisations are keen to get employees out of their homes and back into the office, the CCMA poll paints a very different picture. Indeed, it indicates a small change away from 100% office working. In the first poll question (Question #1), 5% of CCMA members said that their frontline customer advisers were currently working 100% in a physical office; yet, in 12 months’ time, just 2% expect them to be working 100% in a physical office (Question #2)

CCMA Webinar - survey poll 1

The poll revealed that there isn’t a single hybrid home/office model that suits every organisation – although the arrangement where colleagues come into the office for 2-3 days a week is currently the most popular, favoured by 34% of respondents. The ‘totally flexible’ hybrid working option, and one where organisations expect people in the office at least once per month, are also very popular (Question #1).

The hybrid working picture is expected to change significantly over time, however, with just over half of respondents (51%), expecting people to come into the office for 2-3 days a week in 12 months’ time.

CCMA Webinar - survey poll 2

Source: CCMA Members Poll, 14 Sept 23, supported by Sensée (186 participants)

Does Working-From-Home Really Work?

Our blog recently explored the disconnect between the media view on working from home (WFH) and the popular view of flexibility as expressed by most employees. Most people enjoy more flexibility in their work environment, so it sometimes feels odd to see the media – especially newspapers – saying that a return to 2019 is what we should all be wishing for.

The underlying question for employers and employees is really ‘does working-from-home really work?’

The simple answer is that it depends. The problem is that there are a number of variables measuring success. It may look different depending on your perspective, employer or employee? It may look different depending on the demographic mix of your workforce – parents have different needs compared to young employees just starting their career. It may also just be different because of the type of job – some types of career have traditionally relied in in-person mentoring and guidance and they may not have figured out a better way to train new recruits.

On top of all these uncertainties are the outcomes – how do you really measure WFH success? Are employees more satisfied? Do more of them stay for longer so your recruitment costs go down? Does it make you a more attractive employer so it’s easier to find people? Does it reduce employee stress?

All the above is true, but the emphasis will change from one company to another. Prior to the Covid pandemic we surveyed a whole bunch of WFH employees to see how they were feeling. The results are interesting because they highlight some of the WFH advantages that employees really value.

For example, 70.7% actively chose home working to improve their work-life balance. 68.2% did not want to waste their day commuting to work. In fact, 85.9% confirmed that they incur no work travel costs at all now.

50.5% confirmed that they can work multiple shifts during a day, which shows that WFH is about flexibility – not just avoiding a commute. By working from home it is possible to work a few hours, take a break to manage some other responsibilities (kids or other caring tasks), and then do another shift later in the day.

Only 2% of the survey respondents met colleagues in-person daily, which is to be expected as their work is based from home, but it’s interesting to see that 79.2% confirm that they enjoy in-person meet-ups with colleagues at least every month.

On the corporate side of the results, our survey found that business continuity works far better – Covid reinforced that point – scheduling flexibility is far easier with workers based at home, employees are happier and more productive, and there is a dramatic reduction in the corporate carbon footprint.

That was 2020. So what is the latest research saying? Professor Nick Bloom from Stanford University is one of the best-known experts on companies that use WFH employees – he and his team have been researching this in detail for over a decade now. They regularly publish their latest research on the website wfhresearch.com.

The latest paper was published in June 2023, so it’s still fairly recent. In terms of employee expectations it is clear that all over the world most employees wants flexible work arrangements. A survey of over 42,000 people showed that the average employee wants to work a minimum of around 2 days away from the office – most employers are still offering less flexibility than employees now want.

But WFH also changes attitudes to work. Professor Bloom published different analysis of how employees react to sickness. Of those expected to be in their office, 76% will push on and go to work even when they are sick. 39% will still work if they can stay at home. This demonstrates that the power of presenteeism remains strong – if work is office based then it remains important to just be seen, even if you are too sick to be productive.

The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted that when it’s hard to find skilled people, flexibility over working arrangements is the easiest way to attract more recruits. Forget increasing pay, just allow your team the flexibility to stay at home when they want and you will attract more people.

European and US data on productivity is also closely correlated with an increase in working from home. The more that companies facilitate flexible working, the more productive their employees are. This has accelerated since the pandemic forced many more companies to explore home working options.

We know from discussions with our own clients that they love the WFH options provided by Sensée. An often-repeated figure is an efficiency gain of about 30% when working with customer service advisers based in their own home.

But efficiency is not the main driver here. We started out by asking whether WFH really works? What are the academics saying? What is the evidence from detailed research and what are our own employees saying?

It’s easy to find individual examples of employment that can’t be performed from home. Anything that needs in-person attendance by default, such as a doctor or shop worker, can’t even be discussed or compared. However, for office-based professional jobs – such as customer service – there is now a mountain of evidence showing that employees are happier with more flexibility and this also works out better for the employer too.

Pockets of the media are still calling for a return to 2019, but with all this evidence now available the simple response to all these headlines is now just a simple, why?

People Want Flexible Jobs But The Media Keeps Telling Us ‘Get Back To Normal’ – Who Is Right?

Individual employees have different opinions about working from home (WFH). Some believe it is more productive and saves them time wasted during a commute. Others believe that it isn’t possible to concentrate on work at home. The presenter of ‘Wake Up To Money’ on BBC Radio 5 could recently be heard saying that when he tries working from home he spends all day on Netflix.

This variation in personal opinion usually depends on personal experience. If you ask a group of friends this question then it’s likely you will get a variety of responses – unless all your friends are drawn from people with the same type of job.

So what has the media been saying? 

Through the pandemic there was plenty of discussion and argument about the government response, but there was generally broad agreement on working from home. It reduced exposure to the virus so it was a good idea at that time. Now there is a more mixed response.

Although the Washington Post is based in the US, there was a very interesting recent opinion piece by Michael Bloomberg – founder of the Bloomberg media company and former mayor of New York City. Mr Bloomberg almost yells at the reader to get back to normal. He says: “The pandemic is over. Excuses for allowing offices to sit empty should end, too.” His own company is reducing all flexibility and expecting people to be back in the office once again.

This negativity about working from home has also been reflected in The Economist. A June 2023 article titled ‘The working-from-home illusion fades’ reports that new research shows a 4% decline in efficiency for companies that allow employees to work from home.

The Daily Mail reported in May 2023 that almost half of the UK Civil Service calls their residence their main workplace. The first line of the story called the numbers ‘shocking figures.’ It’s easy to determine what the Daily Mail thinks of home-based government employees because the story states ‘also known as the blob’ when referring to the Civil Service.

If you scan the headlines there is a lot of anger at the continued availability of flexible working options – including the right to work from home. These leading media outlets continually attack organisations that are allowing employees to work from home and Michael Bloomberg’s views have been echoed in the UK by cabinet ministers and British business leaders.

But why all this anger?

Most people that are not worried about filling an expensive office seem to think that flexibility is good. Even the headline writers surely value some flexibility in their own work environment? Data from LinkedIn indicates that a third of British employees would quit if their employer insisted on a complete return to the office.

It is now two years since the last Covid lockdown in the UK. Very few employers insisted on a return to the practices of 2019. Flexibility and the ability to work from home when in-person work is not essential is now seen as a right by most  – despite all those negative headlines.

The UK is something of a paradox though. We have retained more work from home flexibility than any other country in Europe and yet we also work more hours than almost all of our neighbours. The WFH debate is actually far more complex than those media headlines might lead readers to believe. Many younger workers prefer to visit an office because it creates social opportunities – a pint after work – and parents with young children value the freedom to not commute. There are as many reasons to support working from home or working from an office as there are employees. 

However, the consensus is that allowing employees the flexibility to choose should be retained as the future for everyone. A July 2023 government press release was headlined: “Millions to benefit from new flexible working measures.”

This was the announcement that the Flexible Working Bill has now been passed into law. It grants employees the flexibility over where and when they work and the right to make requests for flexible work options is available from day one in a new job. Different jobs and different preferences and responsibilities mean that the reality is different for everyone – being flexible is the option that offers the best outcomes for most employees.

The UK government has officially backed flexibility and made it law. Most employees welcome flexibility – it’s optional so those who prefer working from an office also have that choice. The data from most studies of working from home demonstrate that it is easier to hire people when you offer flexible work options, it’s more productive, and people suffer less stress. In general, all the research indicators show that the more flexibility offered, the better the outcomes.

How does the overwhelmingly positive academic research into work flexibility and the new Flexible Working Bill square with the endless calls from headline writers in the media urging us all to just ‘get back to normal!’? 

Perhaps there is an editorial agenda that is not obvious – advertiser preference or just the editorial opinion that ‘normal’ work is performed at a physical place of work? Or perhaps it is just the media reflecting a traditional view of ‘work’ and ‘home’ and failing to appreciate the modern reality – most people are embracing flexibility and don’t look back at the old days with rose-tinted glasses. Work is now the tasks we undertake, regardless of whether it is done inside an office or factory.

Whatever the reason, the media looks out of touch. British employees are not rushing back to commuter trains and a rushed sandwich at a desk. Flexible working is here to stay – even the government has made sure of that.