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Talking SME Podcast: How to Make Hybrid Working Work

Our guest on this episode of Ten2Two’s Talking SME podcast is Sarah Sen, HR Consultant at Sen HR Consulting, who shares her top tips on hybrid working. She talks about the key considerations for employers when moving to a hybrid working arrangement, and details the great benefits it can offer and the pitfalls to avoid.

A bit about Sarah

Sarah Sen is an award-winning HR and dynamic working consultant. She works with SME clients to develop modern and flexible workplaces.  Sen HR Consulting is a boutique people consultancy. They focus on modernising outdated ways of working, by helping companies to build flexible solutions for the future of work.

Sarah is MCIPD qualified and a certified Agile HR Consultant.

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‘How to Make Hybrid Working Work’ is just one of in our series of podcasts where we talk about a wide range of topics. We talk with business experts, and also offer broad insights to help SMEs become more successful.

Don’t forget to check out our other Talking SME Podcasts here.


Jane O’Gorman (00:02):

Hello, and welcome to Talking SME, our quick fire chat with business leaders. I’m Jane O’Gorman, and I’m very pleased today to welcome Sarah Sen from Sen HR consulting. Sarah is an award-winning HR and dynamic working consultant who works with SME clients to develop modern and flexible workplaces. Sarah is particularly passionate about updating outdated ways of working to help companies build flexible solutions for the future of work. Hi, Sarah, how are you?

Sarah Sen (00:37):

Hi, Jane. Thank you for having me. Yeah, very good. Thank you.

Jane O’Gorman (00:40):

Great, lovely to have you here on this rather wild day. It’s breezy out there isn’t it?

Sarah Sen (00:45):

It certainly is. I apologize if your listeners can hear the rain in the background, but hopefully it will all be good.

Jane O’Gorman (00:51):

Oh, I’m sure it will. I can’t hear anything at the moment. Sarah, so the buzzword at the moment, moving on, I guess, from the remote working challenges of the last year, is hybrid. I certainly know from conversations I’m having on a daily basis, that hybrid is becoming the adopted norm. So, it would be lovely to spend some time today thinking about how to make hybrid work. What do you think hybrid means for the future of the office?

Sarah Sen (01:25):

Sure. Well, thank you, Jane. I think before I answer your question, it might be helpful just to explain what hybrid working actually is. So like you say, it’s been talked about a lot, but despite all the discussion, not everyone seems to agree on exactly what it means. So from my perspective, hybrid working is essentially a form of flexible working where an individual or team within a business work part of that time in your office and part remotely.

And so over the last year, because of the pandemic, many of us have been working exclusively from home, but there’s lots of research now that’s revealing that today, I think it’s about 73% of workers want flexible work from home options to continue post pandemic. So with that in mind, companies obviously need to rethink how, where, and when they work. Because one thing we have learned from the pandemic of course, is that work doesn’t have to be done in an office anymore.

Sarah Sen (02:31):

Yeah. So, so going back to your question then about what this means for the future of the office. Well, I think how we use office space in the future will look and feel quite different to how things were before the pandemic and research is showing us that the majority of employees like the flexibility of remote working, but they still do want to be able to attend an office part of their working week.

So my first piece of advice for clients thinking about moving to a more dynamic way of working is to think carefully about what the purpose of their office will be going forward. And that might seem like quite a simple question, but the reality is quite different and really needs some careful consideration. So for example, you might decide to repurpose your office space, which has historically been fixed for desks, to something that is far more flexible and used maybe predominantly for collaboration or team meetings and client engagement.

So really for me at its best, hybrid working is about matching the task to the location and doing the right work in the right place. And there’s lots of examples of people saying that they work more productively on certain tasks from home. So actually now is the opportunity to really think about that work, where, where the office fits into that.

Jane O’Gorman (03:58):

Yeah. I like that – task and location. Excellent. Yeah, absolutely. So what for employers, what would you say they need to consider as the nation is moving out of lockdown? What practical steps should be taken as companies pivot to a hybrid model of work?

Sarah Sen (04:17):

So, okay. So firstly, I think employers need to speak to their staff to understand how they’re feeling about lockdown measures easing, and what this might mean for them in terms of a potential return to the office. We can’t assume we know what our staff are thinking or feeling. And for some who’ve potentially been out of the office for over a year now, there may be some anxiety about attending the office or commuting to work, or even simply being around their colleagues or customers in person. For others, of course it may not be an issue and they are going to embrace the change with open arms.

But the point is is that we are different and managers need to get close to how their people are feeling about this stuff sooner rather than later, so they can factor it into their plans. And it’s worth saying that any plans that employers do make now about hybrid working overseas should take into account a short and long-term view of the future, because if you think about it with so many variables, initial hybrid working times are likely to change and evolve over time.

Sarah Sen (05:26):

So companies might plan for interim hybrid working in the short term, but also think longer term about the strategic decisions on a more flexible form of working, which will obviously include how they use their office. And then just, just sort of a second part of that answer really is about, you know, once employees have gained insight from their people and have some clarity around the purpose of their office, I then suggest they build a project plan to build, to bring together into one place.

So for example, before anyone physically attends the office, companies will have to have a safe return plan, which encompasses all of the legal health and safety obligations. And there are some very specific obligations at the moment on employers and employees laid out in the health and safety legislation before offices can safely open – the COVID 19 secure guidelines, which provide really practical advice about how work can be undertaken safely.

Sarah Sen (06:27):

And there’s 14 of these different guides that cover a range of different types of work. But they’re broadly similar across all workplace settings, but the guidelines aren’t law. So it’s, it’s really up to employees to implement their own risk assessment. There’s other practical considerations for employers to think about such as potentially amending or adding to HR policies, remote working health and safety requirements, the use of technology and data protection issues, but all of these items can be built into your plan and be delegated out to specialists help if needed.

Jane O’Gorman (07:07):

That’s really useful. And actually, it’s interesting to think about the human side of it in terms of that consultation that you referred to, and then the practical side of it as well.

Sarah Sen (07:18):

I think over and above the practical considerations, I would urge your listeners to think really carefully about the impact of hybrid working on their organizational culture and that human piece. We know that there are some real benefits of hybrid working, things like increased productivity, improved work-life balance, increased employee engagement, but maintaining your company culture, your kind of how it feels to work here vibe, whilst dealing with potentially large scale change needs to be carefully managed.

So my advice really is to be open and honest and transparent at every step of the way as you navigate this journey as a business leader yourself. And treat your staff like adults, empower them to be part of those conversations,

Jane O’Gorman (08:04):

Good advice Sarah. And I think it’s interesting when you talk about being open and transparent and planning and thinking about the culture, but also it’s interesting, we touched on the short and long term. Yes. Cause we don’t really know, but perhaps even thinking about what can be done in the short term but plan for the long term view.

Sarah Sen (08:25):

Yeah. And it will evolve, you know, these, these plans will change as we all become clearer about what this means for us and what we want to do with our offices and what the staff want, they will change over time.

Jane O’Gorman (08:39):

And it’s interesting because the office, if we think about it, you know, the office in part is intended to bring people closer together. But what do you feel now the purpose of the office will be?

Sarah Sen (08:53):

I think, I think the answer will be different for everybody. I think it will still bring people together, but the purpose of the office will really be about collaboration and education. So training and development, learning, and engagement. So I think they will be the primary purposes personally. An example of that might be that managers might want to use the office to have their team one to ones or client meetings. The office might be used for team events or training days or socials rather than the quiet desk based work that requires kind of quite deep concentration.

And that’s not to say that desk-based work won’t happen in the office of the future, but I think it will be done differently. Whereas before most people needed a reason to work from home. I actually think in the future, people will need a reason to go into the office.

Jane O’Gorman (09:52):

In a reverse, like you have, it kinda goes back to your task and location really doesn’t it?

Sarah Sen (09:57):

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s empowering, empowering your staff to make sensible decisions about where it’s best that they do their work. You know, where they’re most productive. We spent a lot of our time, you know, in, in the days of old, trying to cover up the noise of a busy office with headphones and meeting into private meeting rooms and so forth. But actually we’ve now got a really good opportunity to reconfigure how we work, where we work.

Jane O’Gorman (10:29):

Sure. So what do you see Sarah as, if you like, the pros and cons of a hybrid and remote working structure?

Sarah Sen (10:38):

Sure. Okay. Let’s start with some of the positives then. So in a hybrid culture, obviously, as you said, people are given the choice either how and where they work and that flex depending on the business, but by doing that, they inevitably inevitably feel empowered and trusted to do their best work in the environment that suits them best. So we know that 94% of employers believe company productivity is the same or higher than it was before the pandemic. And that’s a lot to do with, in my opinion, that’s a lot to do with how people have been trusted to do their work in the way that suits them.

I touched on this earlier that 80% of workers have said that it’s important to be able to maintain a good work-life balance after the pandemic. So a well managed hybrid working plan really enables improve work-life balance to reduce stress.

Sarah Sen (11:32):

That’s, that’s got to be here. That’s going to be a big plus. By giving your people greater autonomy around the working life, you’ll be showing them that you trust in their ability to manage their own work priorities. And this might be a larger shift in ways of working than you’d first imagine for some businesses because there will be managers trying to navigate the challenges of managing a hybrid team.

So don’t underestimate how hard some people will find moving to hybrid working and the impact that will have on your culture. So, you know, you can get past the resistance. If you can get past that your culture will benefit, as you’re more likely to retain your employees loyalty and obviously keeping them in the business. And then I guess finally, just in terms of the positives, I mean, there’s lots, but the ones I’m talking about today, simply by working in a more flexible way, you naturally open up previously untapped talent pools, right?

Sarah Sen (12:30):

So whereas before the pandemic companies don’t have to be really limited to local talent within very restricted geographical areas. Now with dynamic working, companies can expand their search wider than ever before. You know, the world has become suddenly very small with the use of technology and people working in this new dynamic way.

Sarah Sen (12:55):

And then, and then some of the challenges, well, I think I talked about culture and if your business is built on like a really vibrant social culture, moving to a hybrid working model might be more of a challenge. You know, having those regular socials down at the pub after work, et cetera. But, but we know that culture doesn’t exist simply in the walls of our offices, right? So that’s a good thing.

And we know that with input from your teams, you can adapt your ways of working to align with what makes your business special. So my suggestion with overcoming that challenge is to really ask your people what they see as being important, and ensure that you build that into your core values and behaviours and ultimately your, your plan for the future.

Jane O’Gorman (13:41):

That’s really interesting in terms of thinking about that, but what makes your business special? It’s not restricted to the walls of a building, but much more than that. And communication is so important there, but yeah. Lovely, please continue.

Sarah Sen (13:58):

Absolutely. Yeah. So you know, I think we would be, it would be remiss of me not to talk about wellbeing and the impacts that the last year has had on our wellbeing. We can’t underestimate that, you know, people living through the pandemic, the impact of that will last a long time and people will require some longer term support. So it’s really important in any kind of planning for the future to have some well-being support in place and to consider all of those complex issues that might arise after people have been asked to stay at home for a whole year and then return potentially to an office space.

You know, some of the questions you might want to ask yourself are things like, you know, how would they feel about returning to the workplace? How will they feel about using public transport for example.You know, I went into London for the first time, a couple of weeks ago and it, it did feel very strange, very strange.

Sarah Sen (14:54):

And you know, it was fine. I enjoyed the day I had a great day but it was strange after a year of not having commuted anywhere. People need to think about that. And also with people potentially working from home or remotely, companies might also just want to think about how they help their staff to establish boundaries whilst working at home, you know, that includes digital wellbeing too.

So, you know, having good habits around tech needs to be part of that roadmap that I talked about before, because that would also form part of your future culture as well. You know, we don’t want to all be on call 24 seven, and we need to have some guidelines around how we’re working when we’re not in the office. When you put your team in the office altogether, obviously you tend to work in a fairly structured way.

Sarah Sen (15:48):

You know, you have the ability to, to be quite fluid in your routine. But in hybrid working, those people working remotely could potentially miss out on important activities that happen on an ad hoc basis. So we’ve, you know, we’ve got used to everybody being remote, but, but the problems around communication, I think are going to be more prevalent when we’ve got some people in and some people out. That’s where the risk arises around communication.

I think we just need to be mindful of that and having, you know, having the tools we’ve got now, we’re very lucky to have so many communication and collaboration tools out there available to us, just using those in the right way to ensure that everybody is brought into the conversation. And then just finally, there’s a couple of other things, obviously hybrid working has some potential to impact personal development.

Sarah Sen (16:41):

You know, if people aren’t in close proximity, additional effort has to be made to ensure that opportunities are still available to them. You know, we need to think about how we manage performance. And be more purposeful on those things so setting very clear objectives that are focused and those conversations need to be more regular so that there’s continuous feedback throughout the year.

And then I think finally just for my last point on this is, I think companies do need to think carefully about the impact of hybrid working on their diversity and inclusion. You know, we know that certain groups such as women and BAME have been disproportionately affected by this crisis. So companies need to think about that and take some steps to mitigate those negative impacts at those more at-risk groups, you know, whilst also ensuring that there is equality and inclusion within their new normal workplace.

Jane O’Gorman (17:40):

Yeah. That’s a good point. There’s a lot of good points in there Sarah.

Sarah Sen (17:44):

I mean, there’s so much, it can feel quite overwhelming. I think that’s one of, that’s why I’ve said, I know it’s like, you know, teaching people to suck eggs, but actually get it down into a plan, break it down into manageable chunks because then that stuff can be delegated out to specialists if needs be, it can be managed internally, but it takes the enormity of the task away and breaks it down into smaller manageable chunks.

Sarah Sen (18:12):

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And as you say, there’s a lot to take in and a lot to plan, but it’s almost like it’s not a given, you know, this move and the way the, you know, the work of the future, it’s going to be different and there will be things that people do need to think about. And I like that you mentioned, for example, the good habit, you know, those things that we do need to be mindful of in terms of being constantly, you know, switched on or how you manage the communication – there’s a lot to think about.

But you know, as you say, once you get past that resistance – if there is resistance – there are so many benefits that can come from it too. There’s a lot of really good content that I think for our fellow business leaders to be thinking about as they’re considering how their office is going to be in the future and how they’re going to manage that. If you had some top tips that you would share with us that businesses could consider, as they start bringing people back into the office, what would they be there?

Sarah Sen (19:19):

So I’ve got three things, right? It’s going to be reiterating what I’ve said already. So the first one, as I said earlier, is think about what the purpose of your office will be and how you will use it in the future. We know that people still want to be able to go to an office, but the way it will be used will inevitably be different. So that’s my first thing. Think about the purpose of your office and how you want to use it in the future.

Secondly, I think you need to talk to your people. Let’s not forget that businesses are essentially made up of people and human beings, and we need to ask them how they’re feeling about the lockdown, which is coming to an end, and what the impact of this might be on them. So talk to your people, get some engagement going and and have those conversations.

Sarah Sen (20:11):

And then finally create a plan. So as I said before, get it down in writing, figure out a plan to help you through the next couple of months. Don’t wait until the 21st of June when hopefully the lockdown measures will be released. Think about how you can start to prepare now, by building that project plan to incorporate some of those practical steps that I’ve talked about today, so that you can reopen your office safely. So yeah. They’re my top three tips, really.

I think just one final word is that it does feel like an overwhelming, it can feel like an overwhelming task, but break it down into small, small chunks. There’s lots of resources available online. The government website is particularly helpful for some of the sort of legal health and safety pieces. So have a look there too. Um, it actually this is a good thing. I genuinely think this is, you know, hybrid working is, is here to stay and I think it will transform organizations for the best.

Sarah Sen (21:15):

Yep. I hope so Sarah and I certainly agree. And I like your three final points there. Purpose, engage and plan. There are some very good mindful tips there. Thank you. Thank you so much for joining us today. And for this valuable chat, it’s been a pleasure talking to you today. Oh my pleasure. And to our listeners, I hope you enjoyed Talking SME. Look out for future episodes coming soon.


20 min read