Millions of people have found advantages to home working, swapping the stresses of commuting and office politics for increased productivity and a better work-life balance. But as pandemic restrictions ease, some companies are putting pressure on staff to get back to their desks, rather than automatically embracing the remote or hybrid-working future.
Of course, each company’s needs will differ, but experts say that if you want some form of home working, there’s never been a better time to mount a case. The trick, says Sarah Cook, author of Making a Success of Managing and Working Remotely, is to “be clear about how to benefit the business, not just you”.
Presenting a well-crafted argument will involve anticipating any concerns your boss may have. After all, your manager’s reluctance may not just be “because they’re a jerk and want to give you no autonomy”, says Mark Mortensen, professor of organisational behaviour at Insead, France, but because they too have many new challenges to juggle.
So, if you want to have a successful hybrid chat, it’s worth putting some planning into your pitch, so you can serve up solutions rather than posing new problems.
While you may be tempted by the idea of never setting foot in the office again, the first thing to do is realistically assess how much of your job you can do remotely in the long term.
The good news is that according to a recent survey for the OECD, 60% of managers felt their employees had been more productive while working remotely. But for many manual or high-resource jobs, working remotely is seldom possible, and for creative and collaborative roles, says Mortensen “let’s be honest, [it] works better if you’re working in a room with people”.
Research by McKinsey, for example, showed that in the US, only 22% of employees could work remotely for a few days a week without their productivity being affected (while 61% could work effectively at most only a few hours outside the workplace). So, think carefully and honestly about the specific tasks you can do better at home, and gather evidence to reinforce your point.
Cook advises asking for perhaps two or three days of remote working as a starting point – a ratio most researchers agree is optimal for balancing wellbeing and company performance – and agreeing to come in for things like onboarding new staff or around performance reviews.
Working out how you'll stay in close contact with your team on your remote days could help ease your manager's concerns (Credit: Getty)
A top tip from Cook is to steer clear of asking for Mondays or Fridays at home – because “people tend to think we’ll be less productive” either side of the weekend. She says you’ll also need to reassure your manager you have a suitable working environment for those days: a distraction-free workspace with the equipment you need to do your job efficiently.
So, as you’re getting ready to argue your case, it’s worth making extra sure your connection is always good on video calls, you are suitably responsive to messages and emails, and that you know exactly what technology you’ll need your workplace to provide.
What about your colleagues?
Unless you really do work on your own, you’ll also need to think about your colleagues, particularly if people report to you.
Research indicates that missing time with colleagues has been one of the biggest downsides of home working during the pandemic, and that knowledge sharing has suffered because of the lack of in-person interaction. This may ease as workplaces get used to new virtual systems, but Cook says your negotiations over hybrid work will need to “include suggestions for how you might enhance teamwork”.
That doesn’t just mean routine meetings, but also how you’ll maintain team camaraderie and how you’ll factor in “the little things that go unspoken” that enhance the sense of team, like making time for informal non-work chats.
Mortensen says it’s important to talk to your peers and “find out what your working from home means for them”. That conversation should touch on not just your official job, but also the informal, social role you play in the team. If you’re the team peacemaker, for example, your absence might be strongly felt without you necessarily being aware of it.
He advises building feedback on remote working into your team’s routine, with perhaps a once-monthly check-in where everyone shares openly about what the hardest issues have been for them. Those conversations give you “the data to make an informed decision”, he says, and shows in your proposal that you take teamworking seriously.
I think one of the best things you can do is say, ‘Let me try to help you solve this problem’ - Mark Mortensen
If you do lead a team, it’s particularly important to be honest about things that you’re finding challenging, adds Mortensen, because others may find it easier to speak up. “When a leader says, ‘I want you to be honest and tell me everything’, but doesn’t share anything, it doesn’t work”.
Put yourself in your manager’s shoes
Mortensen says it’s vital that employees recognise how complex these changes could be for colleagues further up the hierarchy. Managers are having to meet their business targets while adjusting to completely new ways of working in which they can’t oversee their teams as they did before. “I think one of the best things you can do is say, ‘let me try to help you solve this problem’,” says Mortensen.
Evidence suggests the pandemic has been being particularly tough on middle managers, many of whom have found it hard to adjust to new ways of supervising their teams while also worrying about their own careers.
Mortensen says part of this anxiety comes from what he calls a “crisis of trust” within workplaces. “Fundamentally, trust is based on predictability,” he says. Managers trust employees because they know they are competent, hard-working and reliable. But if they are not seeing you every day “that reduces the data you have on which to build that foundation of trust”.
You can help your manager by introducing more predictability to build up that trust, however. That might mean giving a quick video of your distraction-free home office, committing to slightly more emails or one-on-ones than you’re used to, or promising to write weekly reports setting out what you’ve achieved, even if you feel it will give you extra work. “If you don’t want to do it, don't do it,” he says. “But you can’t be upset if your manager doesn’t understand everything you’ve been doing.”
Cook suggests making it easy for your boss to take your work-from-home pitch to their managers by providing just two solid pieces of evidence of your improved productivity, rather than drowning them in data.
Employees should not be afraid to talk about how their wellbeing is improved by hybrid working – Sarah Cook
She also notes that the pandemic accelerated a trend for organisations to focus on not just operational priorities but also “the whole person” when it comes to their employees, which may be a useful part of your negotiations. “Many managers are being set targets around employee engagement, and wellbeing is an important part of this,” she says. So, “employees should not be afraid to talk about how their wellbeing is improved by hybrid working”.
Of course, make sure you know your rights – in the UK, for example, your employer must have a good business reason for rejecting a flexible working request – and if your workplace already has a policy for remote working, make sure you know how it applies to you. It may also be worth having some facts up your sleeve about how industry competitors have benefitted from hybrid working. Cook says the trick is always to “turn negatives into positives”. So, rather than arguing that other companies are doing it better, show how you could replicate their successes to benefit your employer.
Keep flexible working flexible
The experts agree that it’s not a good idea to present your hybrid working request as an indefinite arrangement. Instead ask for a trial period, then get a meeting fixed in your boss’s calendar for an honest discussion of how it’s gone, perhaps having checked in again with colleagues for more of that crucial data.
Research shows that missing out on advancement opportunities is a real concern for workers spending less time in the workplace. So, although it might not be part of your initial proposal, Cook says it’s a good idea to show your employer that “you've thought about the career development implications of working remotely”.
“Remember to emphasise the benefits this brings from a business perspective, and how you will engage in helping build an effective team going forward,” she says. That could mean demonstrating how you will keep building your network, taking part in training or suggesting extra tasks you could take on to stretch yourself, all of which show you’re committed to the company and to growing in your role.
Mortensen says it’s important to recognise that the workplace is undergoing a huge upheaval and that hybridity is “a way of working that has benefits and it has drawbacks”, so everyone is going to need to remain, well, flexible.
“Where we can get more traction is getting a balanced view, recognising managers and employees are all trying to optimise but we’re optimising on different dimensions,” he says. “The more we’re able to find a collaborative solution the better off we're going to be.”