Splitting work between home and the office might seem like the best solution for some companies, but will hybrid models unfairly disadvantage people in the early stages of their career?
Nationwide Building Society announced last week that they would be formally moving to a hybrid working model. They’re in good company, joining the likes of KPMG, WPP and Google in giving their staff the ability to determine where they spend their working days. Most staff, it seems, will opt for a balance of home and office working.
Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs has taken the opposing view – they believe staff need to be in the office full-time to properly absorb company culture.
Around the world, other CEOs, Boards, and MDs are facing the same choice.
And making the decision raises some difficult questions.
Do you ask staff? Does a return to the ‘old way’ of working signal a lack of modernity, a lack of trust in staff? Will a decision made now affect our ability to recruit and retain staff?
Thinking about what’s right for the team at Optima Connect, it’s a dilemma.
On the one hand, we’ve seen that people can work from home and maintain (or even exceed) previous productivity levels. We’ve seen that Zoom and Teams can allow meetings and collaboration in ways that would be unthinkable even a few years ago.
Removing the commute has also given our staff hours back each week, not to mention the cost savings. Particularly where we have people travelling miles to and from work each day, taking the office out of the work equation has had a marked impact on people’s routines and work-life balance.
But just because we’ve made it work when we had to, and enjoyed the benefits of the forced working-from-home experiment, does that mean a hybrid model is the right decision moving forwards? And more specifically, is it the right decision for us, at Optima Connect?
For us, one of the big considerations is the high proportion of younger people we have in the business. We’ve been operating a graduate recruitment policy for almost a decade. It’s a cornerstone of our business model, and the value that graduates bring to Optima cannot be overstated. But flip that round, and a big part of the reason grads choose to come work with us is the opportunity we give them to grow and develop, to learn with us (and from us), and to be part of a team where expertise, innovation and curiosity are highly valued and nurtured.
Work is about much more than just doing the work… it’s about the people we work with, the friendships we form, and the culture we create as a collective. If you take the office out of the equation, or permanently reduce its role in the work environment, I worry that the long-term effects will be significant and irreversible, especially for younger professionals.
When you’re starting a career, you need role models and mentors. You need to be around people, to see how they behave, to overhear things, to be able to ask questions (even when you don’t always know what you’re asking). You need to be given opportunities to observe and absorb. You need to see management and leadership in action. Remote working makes some of that harder, and some of it impossible.
And it’s not just seeing, but also being seen. Early in your career it’s comforting to know that you have more experienced colleagues around you, seeing how you work, how you interact with the team, and are on hand when you need a little extra support or help.
Also consider that some of the most valuable learning happens when things aren’t going to plan. How do your colleagues deal with mistakes, challenges and set-backs. That’s the stuff you really need to see early in your career, and the stuff that speaks loudest about the true culture of an organisation. And you don’t pick that up on Zoom. As a junior member of the team, often you won’t even be in the meetings in question, but you pick up that something isn’t right, ask the people around you what’s happening, and absorb the subtle clues about culture and leadership from how people respond.
Take people out of the office, and you take them out of the culture. And hybrid models where everyone works two or three days a week from home might seem like a sensible compromise. Though when I think about what that means for our graduates and those at the start of their careers, I’m conscious that in the long-term that’s still months and perhaps years of missed interactions and learning opportunities for those who need them the most.
We’ve yet to settle on what the right decision will be for us and our clients and we’ll have to wait and see what the Government advice is about the return to office working in the short-term. What I’m sure of, however, is that the right decision will be one where we balance the needs of all of our people, and continue to provide an environment where our graduates and younger team members have the very best opportunity to learn and develop.
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