As government restrictions are lifted it falls to individual employers to decide the right balance of home and office-based working to ensure; the safety of employees, the performance of the business, the sustainable development of new products/services and the successful induction of new staff. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the progress of the pandemic and the way people will respond to the lifting of lockdown restrictions with the growth in numbers of new cases and possible changes in the future efficacy of the vaccine. Making plans with any likelihood of seeing them implemented is fraught with difficulty in the face of such uncertainty.

Most future work patterns for office-based staff appear to be heading towards some sort of hybrid model where office and home working is mixed, but early experience of blending office and online working has been problematic. Hybrid meetings have often been unsatisfactory with those in the room dominating discussion and the contributions from online participants ignored or devalued in the decision-making process. So, what model of hybrid working will meet the needs and expectations of your business and your staff? And how do leaders make these decisions?

Scenario planning can help to explore, stress-test and de-risk strategies in times of uncertainty, and so here we’ve outlined four scenarios that span a range of different approaches that companies might adopt. They are idealised narratives of possible futures – no individual scenario is likely to be the right answer for you and your organisation – but in reading these four possibilities consider:

  • What parts of each scenario are attractive to you personally – and what parts would be attractive to your organisation?
  • Are your personal preferences and those of your organisation the same – and how could any gap be closed?

Scenario #1 – the primacy of the individual

Lockdown experiences have been extremely personalised, what might appear small differences in individual living conditions or family circumstances have created very different challenges for different people balancing their work and home commitments whilst looking after mental (and physical health). Looking forward this requires individualised solutions – and an expectation that employers will accommodate them. In this scenario the individual is at the centre of all ‘return to the workplace’ plans – and taken to the extreme says each member of staff can choose the pattern of home and office-based working that suits them.

But most organisations are more than a collection of individuals and as some points in the business cycle people will be expected to come together to budget, to plan resources, to review lessons and develop new products/services.  If every individual could design their own work patterns, these collaborative processes could be difficult to manage.

Scenario #2 – team-based choices

For many organisations faced with a series of complex decisions to set any ‘organisation-wide’ return to the office policy the idea of delegating these choices to local team leaders to find team-based solutions, is an attractive one.  In this scenario the members of a team need to assess the nature of their work and the preferences of the team members and identify a balance of home and office-based working. If a team is already inefficient or dysfunctional giving them the responsibility for this return-to-work decision may well be problematic. And changes in membership will be difficult to manage.

Organisations with stable functional structures may be able to identify teams that have been working successfully from home and encourage them to continue whilst other functions that need to get into the office asap will return to the office and will have more space to do so. However, these functional splits risk organisational fragmentation unless there are other mechanisms to bring people and teams together across wider groupings.

Scenario #3 – event-based choices

This scenario recognises that some tasks and meetings work very well on-line whilst others really do not – and uses the nature of the event as the primary driver for its approach to hybrid working. In this scenario an organisation would expect/require people to come together in the workplace for specific large-scale events or regular meetings but to continue to work remotely for other tasks.

This would appear to be well suited to project-based organisations that have defined group processes for keys steps where the cross-organisational interdependencies are best handled face to face, but outside these points individuals can get on with delivering their own responsibilities independently. This scenario is also well suited to geographically dispersed organisations that want to build a one-company culture but can only bring together the whole employee body occasionally.

Scenario #4 – going back to what we know worked before

An alternative approach is one that goes back to exactly how we worked before the pandemic. If the organisation had evolved a way of working that was sustainable for years up until early 2020 surely that must be a low-risk scenario to return to now?

As the social distancing rules change, it becomes possible to plan a full return to old office occupancy levels and all that flows form that in terms of ways of working within and across teams. Some people will certainly welcome this ‘return to normality’ – but it is important for leaders to be clear about the extent to which they want to signal what positive changes will be implemented in the office because of lessons learned from lockdown. The workplace may look the same as before, but many of the people in it will have changed in one way or another and if some people choose not to comply with a request to return to the office it will be difficult to force them particularly if they have specific health concerns.

Making your choice

With so many competing factors, it is difficult and possibly impossible for leaders to choose a version of hybrid working that will suit everyone and will meet the needs of the organisation. It matters that the leader’s decision making is seen by staff as authentic and reasonable, responding fairly to the obvious competing factors. Finding some clear criteria that can underpin and drive the decision is going to help others see that the decisions are fair, and the way forward is clear. Businesses with clear and collectively agreed values and principles can use these as the ‘touchstone’ of their decisions.

But as the future remains particularly unclear, leaders need to recognise that any choice of hybrid working will be an experiment. And so, flexibility and a willingness to review, learn and change approach if the implementation is not working will be key. Leaders who are open about the necessity of experimentation and who demonstrate the need to root any decision in the values of the organisation will have a far greater chance of positively engaging staff. This is, after all, possibly the most wide-reaching change management activity any leader has ever embarked upon!