Navigating the Shift to Hybrid and Flexible Work Environments

Hosted by

Mervyn Dinnen

Analyst, Author, Commentator & Influencer

About this episode

HR Means Business 12: Navigating the Shift to Hybrid and Flexible Work Environments

Host: Mervyn Dinnen

Guest: Matthew Davis

In this episode Mervyn talks to Matthew Davis, Associate Professor of Organisational Psychology at Leeds University, about their major research project on how work and workplaces are changing to adapt to hybrid and flexible working.

They discuss:

– The importance of individual choice in how, where and when individuals work

– Impact of location on social networks, communication and connectivity

– Collaborative working

– How location impacts engagement for those disclosing a disability or identifying as being part of an ethnic minority

Learn more here


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Transcript follows:

Mervyn Dinnen 0:15
Hello, and welcome to the HR Means Business podcast, which is part of the HR Happy Hour Network. I’m your host, Mervyn Dinnen. And today, we have a really interesting conversation with Matthew Davis, who’s an associate professor in Organizational Psychology at Leeds University, and has been involved in quite an interesting piece of research around hybrid and flexible work. But this time looking, I suppose more at kind of location and the impact on the individuals. And I’m quite keen to dig into this research. So I would like to say welcome to the podcast, Matthew, and maybe you would like to tell listeners a little bit about yourself.

Matthew Davis 0:55
However, it’s lovely to be here. Thank you very much. So I’m Matt Davis, I’m really interested in how people think, feel and behave at work. And in particular, what role the physical environment plays in that. So where we work, and increasingly now also hybrid. So what that change in between work home and other places means for how we, how we interact with others, how we get our job, and how we feel about our work as well.

Mervyn Dinnen 1:20
Okay, so the research, which I believe was, I should know what well, in fact, introduced the research, what was it called? And how did it come about?

Matthew Davis 1:30
Yeah, of course. So this will see the adapting offices, research projects are funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, to look at what the implications of hybrid working post COVID working was, in terms of what was happening for offices, but really importantly, how people working and how they’re feeling about their work. So we conduct a whole series of interviews with staff across public sector, private sector organizations, talk to experts in industry, real estate, and elsewhere. But we also did a whole series of series of surveys across different sectors to understand different work trends and patterns, did lots of high frequency diary studies. So asking people to report twice a day, what they’ve been doing, where they’ve been working, how they felt, when we were in the office, at home, other places? And that allowed us to really understand or do people really feel differently, and act differently when they’re in different locations, rather than relying on how they think they feel we ask them in the moment. And then we also gather data around people’s professional and social networks, so to understand who they interact with how often what for, and linking that to information about where they were working, as well. So lots of really interesting data.

Mervyn Dinnen 2:49
And what what interested me about this was the fact that the kind of data you are collecting is often information which is doesn’t appear in the daily conversations and the digital narrative about kind of, you know, Office Home flexible. It’s all it tends to be seen from the employers point of view, as opposed to the, I suppose the worker or the employee. So I suppose initially, what were your top line, I suppose three or four findings, anything that particularly surprised you?

Matthew Davis 3:23
Yes, I guess one of the big things is just how important employee choice and control is. So I think we do we make lots of assumptions that people like home working the hybrid working, because it’s flexible, and our data, our diary data in particular, so 1000s of data points, and this really, really show it. So we found that when employees felt that they had more control in choosing whether or working to home office elsewhere, then they also reported higher job satisfaction, more positive well being, we kind of expect that, but the data is really clear. But interestingly, looking at when people were, let’s say, within the office, when people felt they’d have choice over choosing where in the office to work, so maybe that’s a desk, maybe it’s a breakout area, the quiet zone, cafe zone, and so on. That you that feeling that you have the control over that people have more satisfaction, but they actually rated high performance as well. Help colleagues more felt they had lower levels of exhaustion, so more energy, less conflict in work in home. And interestingly as well, less counterproductive work behaviors, which in academic speech, that means people were doing less social media scrolling internet surfing, online shopping during work hours. So that’s good. I think that really shows actually the power of choice.

Matthew Davis 4:47
So if you’re a hybrid worker choice about location and your work pattern, but even if you’re not hybrid working, actually making more use of the space in the office, giving people control and choice over finding the Has place to work. And within these other things that were really interesting as well. So we were really interested about actually spending time in the office is that beneficial for workers, employer organizations, lots of arguments over over this. And we found when we looked at the same people, and how they were reporting, when they were in the office versus elsewhere, typically, people when they’re in the office had higher job satisfaction rates, or their performance higher, were more engaged in their work helped others more than when they were spending time outside the office. So I think that makes a really good case for why it is worth putting up with the commute, or the inconvenience of traveling into the office, maybe not every day, but actually spending time in the office is good for companies. But it actually is also good for us as individuals as well, although they couldn’t find a sweet spot. So there’s, I think it’s so individual in terms of preferences and circumstances that you can’t say three days or four days in the office is ideal for everybody. It’s much more individual than that.

Matthew Davis 6:06
And maybe like Lastly, maybe just to say on this as well. I guess the other thing, there’s lots of talk, I think about the the death of the Office of what’s the future office going to look like how do we support workers, post COVID. And our diary date, and this was talking about 10,000 diary entries. When people were telling us what they’ve been doing where they were, we’ve had actually, the the proportion of individuals would say solo tasks. So working on your own, maybe doing high concentration, things like solving a problem during the design task, or low concentration, answering emails, doing admin tasks, pretty much the same proportion of the activities people said they’ve been doing, which was so alone, whether in the office or at home. So people are doing as much individual work, when they’re in the office is when they’re spending time at home. Now, most of the I think the discussion around this, and if you look at the furniture product coming out and what people are doing in terms of their big offices, it’s all about collaboration, redesigning the office to increase the social areas to collaborative areas. I think our research kind of makes the point that we’re going to be really careful to make sure we’re still giving people that individual space that allows our focused high intensity work as well, because that’s not going away.

Mervyn Dinnen 7:23
Okay, I mean, that’s very, very interesting. Because one of the, I suppose one of the the positives, that people always state about people coming into an office or a work location, is, is that opportunity for collaboration, connection and stuff. Firstly, before I move on to that, did you find much different, I suppose regarding kind of gender, age, ethnicity, and also in terms of I suppose people who maybe are splitting their time working and maybe as carers or parents was, was there much difference?

Matthew Davis 7:59
Yeah. So it’s interesting, isn’t it? So we found slightly mixed findings on this. And I think we’ve there’s a need to do more, but it does raise the, I think the point that people are having very different experiences. So I think as managers, as HR professionals, can be really mindful about those those circumstances that people have. So I guess there’s a few things to say. So we found maybe, not surprisingly, that people who were more extroverted so think about personality, were more likely to choose to come into the office more often. Okay, so that you’d expect that. But actually, for introverts spending time in office was a positive. So actually changed a bit about how they behaved at work, they were acting in more sociable ways within the office than when they were at home, in terms of, I guess, age, and so on. So we found that younger workers tended to to have better outcomes and the office when we’re looking at diary data, so it seems to be a you know, more positive thing for younger workers, but also people at the upper end of the age scale as well. So maybe older workers also seem to be having a better experience than maybe the more middle aged, and I feel self conscious, and it’s I feel properly fit into this category now. So maybe also people who’ve got more family and caring responsibilities, seems to be having a worse experience within the office found a little bit of evidence that men may also be having more positive outcomes when they spend time in the office.

Matthew Davis 9:33
That’s, we can’t say for definite what that is. But it was noticeable in the data that men seem to be more satisfied, have more positive experiences within the office. So there might be down to culture, it might be because they have less home responsibilities to juggle. But I think it’s something to be mindful of in terms of that gender disparity. And then some other data that we gathered, and this is this is maybe, I think a little bit more tentative If we were starting to see the people who identified as a minority, or who had a disability, we’re less engaged and less satisfied when we spend time in the office. And again, we can’t say why that is. But we didn’t have huge numbers of people who identified in these categories, they had a noticeably lower set of scores on those areas. So again, I think it just reinforces the need to, to keep an eye look for, you know, potential adverse outcomes. If we’re redesigning spaces, bringing in hybrid policies, or just thinking about these minority groups, and I think particularly think about physical space. If people have disabilities, whether they’re seen or unseen, and particularly, maybe neurodivergent. workers as well, we’re gonna be really careful to make sure there’s a choice of spaces that work. So people need to try to reduce the amount of distraction interaction, to feel settled, but also to have a physical disability, some of the very social environments, much more cafe style environments, and so on. But it can be quite difficult if you have mobility problems. So it’s, again, it’s thinking about how do we make things inclusive, whilst also maybe making more fun, more innovative. And I think that’s an interesting design challenge.

Mervyn Dinnen 11:17
One of the things that I know, has come up a few times in conversations I’ve had around the, I suppose discussing, kind of remote flexible, hybrid working, has been a early stage careers, I suppose people, but the early part of their career, that a lot of the knowledge that they pick up when they start working, comes from having people around them, it’s seeing what other people do, it’s being able to say to somebody more experienced, how do I get around this? Or, you know, I’ve been asked to do this, I don’t actually understand what they mean. And did you find much impact in terms of the younger demographic of feeling they were either missing out or feeling more of a desire to want to be in a kind of an office type environment?

Matthew Davis 12:04
Yeah, so it’s interesting. So I guess, within this research project, we found Yes, find some interesting things with newer staff, let’s say so people who are new to the workforce new to the, the organization, so we were finding variants. So looking at the social networks of people. So we found that actually, when you look at new starters, it was less about how often people came into the office. And again, I think there’s an assumption that if you’re new, you need to get the staff in everyday, get them into the office, get them embedded. But actually, when you look at the number of people they knew, and who they were connected to, and particularly connected to influential colleagues, it was less about the number of days and how often they were in the office, and much more about who they’re in the office with. Now, that makes sense. So being on you being a new startup, going in daily, but only thing other new starters, or junior staff, it’s not going to help you progress particularly quickly, or maybe to knowledge share and learn about the organization. So I think there’s a real strategic thing here for HR for managers, to look at who we get in the office at the same time. And that’s what our data is showing. So you get the right people in more experienced maybe different teams, different roles, that’s really instrumental in helping broaden people’s professional networks, and that aids their learning, but also the sense of belonging to the company as well, which we know that’s really important for keeping hold of people longer term. The other thing we’ve seen, so we asked my colleague how many G’s here and leads with lead and get a piece of research we’re doing, looking at our own graduates going out for the first time to the world of work. And looking at those particularly where they were having completely home working experiences and hybrid working experiences is interesting.

Matthew Davis 13:56
So we saw quite a mixed picture with them. So there are some real downsides that you might expect from not spending very much time in the office with others. So people talk about not having that chance to overhear conversations, look over people’s shoulder, be able to ask quick questions from those around them. So that kind of learning by osmosis. But on the flip side, I think something we can make use of whether people are spending more time in the office or not, actually, the kind of the chat functions, the shared documents were really actually helpful for new starters to to ask questions, maybe in a less threatening way you could ask for a piece of advice and it’s not like having to interrupt somebody to ask them that. But also I think as well in terms of just helping people control I think that work experience isn’t Bill maybe there aren’t show as much they were having to to kind of be so careful about looking like you didn’t understand things you could take your time to work through problems for the first time. Now the flip side of that the other thing just last thing to say on this was actually when people say and time getting into an organization, and you’re on your own. So you’re working from home, we found that people simply really didn’t have a comparison point. So they felt really uncertain whether they were up to standard, were they taking too long on things? Is it normal to be working till 10? In the evening, those kind of questions not be able to see how others are doing. We found some of our graduates and others, they were feeling that they were under more pressure, because they weren’t certain. And I think there’s things we can do actually to take away those kinds of those kind of worries, if people are in hybrid work.

Mervyn Dinnen 15:33
The, you mentioned earlier about the, the feeling of belonging, and obviously, a lot of the audience here work in HR. And a lot of it, I suppose, a lot of the employee experience is about, you know, having this feeling is of belonging to the organization aligning with the culture, the with people interacting less, and you did mention it just now the did you notice the almost a reduction in this or lessening of this kind of feeling of belonging, people saying that they really felt that they understood the business, they were part of the culture? Did they feel in any way a little bit isolated? Or is it that because I know you did some work on the social networks, people build up within the organization as well. So has there been an impact around that?

Matthew Davis 16:25
Yeah, absolutely. Agree, belonging, so important how we feel about the firm? Yes, it’s a short answer. So we know from looking at the social network data across a number of different offices in groups of employees, those who report less interaction with others. So they talk they interact with others less frequently, maybe they have smaller networks as well. So they just know fewer people, then that also does relate to to feeling less of a belonging. And we know that also then leads on to people getting more likely they’re going to move firms or change jobs as well. So I think that that’s important, I think that interaction doesn’t necessarily have to just be in the office. But I think if people aren’t in the office as often, then we need to work harder is HR managers is management. To engineer those interactions, as well maybe prompt them for some in the kind of way that we have to during COVID. And you have lots of firms encouraging line manages to do wellbeing, check ins and anti to actively manage that much more. I think that’s dropped off. As we come back to a more normal working state. I think actually some of those things we’re doing in the emergency situation, where actually we should be doing those if people are maybe co located less than the office less as well. I guess the other thing would be the belonging. So I guess there’s also a difference intensive, how long people have been in organizations, what their networks look like to start with. So if you already have quite an extensive network, you’ve got more capital there essentially to work off. We know through our interviews during the pandemic, and afterwards, that people were really quite good at maintaining their their existing networks, but they tend to become more siloed. So you have the cliques and the small groups who weren’t friends or people who work very closely to each other, which is good for that. But I think it lessens the, the sense of belonging to to the wider organization, less mixing as well. And that’s a bit of a risk. And also, I think, in terms of what that means for knowledge transfer, but knowledge creation, if people retrench to that kind of siloed way of working. And when we know, again, our data was showing the social network data, that whether you’re in the office or not, people will maintain those very close relationships. So the people that you need to talk to you to get your job done, or to get permission and sign off. Whether you’re in the office, whether you’re virtual, you’ll find a way of interacting with them through teams or zoom or email. It’s the people you don’t have to interact with. They’re the ones who drop off. And that’s a challenge. I think, for organizations, the people that you want to interact, but maybe there isn’t a business need to do it frequently.

Mervyn Dinnen 19:13
Now that that is an interesting point, because I mean, as somebody who spent most of my career working in offices, yeah, I mean, sometimes it’s the people you are not sitting with all the time, you’re not seeing all the time, but the who you casually bump into. And it’s just that chat, just just to you know, what people are working on and different perspective you might be able to give them they might be able to give you is there anything? Because I know that was a bit about office design, and you’ve obviously referenced a little bit about kind of co working spaces and things. Is there anything about office space and the way it’s designed, which from the research you feel, you know, organizations might really need to be looking at in the future?

Matthew Davis 19:58
Yeah, absolutely. I think that I can a chance encounter I think The me that’s a real, the real aim or the real, I think the benefit we can get from that colocation. So there’s things we can do. And really interesting trends we’re seeing in office design, around creating more those social activity spaces, whether it’s a cafe spaces, and so on where people naturally congregate, you’ve got more chance of having that kind of encounter, because you come together. But there might also be, you can do that through other kind of activity zones of actually, where you place things like photocopiers, printers, water coolers, coffee machines, that everybody makes use. So see, break down some of these team barriers, we all know the water cooler moment, we can be strategic, about whether it’s a place to encourage people to mix across teams as well. But I think increasingly now as well, with hybrid, we’re seeing people experimenting with desk booking systems. So increasingly, we’re seeing people move away from allocated desks to hot desking, or having less desk for a group and there are numbers of people. And one of the things that’s coming through alongside that are booking systems to allow people to have certainty that they’ll have a desk to work from on a given day when they come into the office. Now we can be smart with that. Because we could do say, well, we’ll build in some rules into that booking system, that means that actually will will mix up teams. So rather than allowing everybody from a particular team or a department to sit together, maybe we’ll we’ll mix this up a bit, or force people to sit at slightly different areas in the office week to week. And I think, again, that’s a bit of a nudge, where we can use some of the technologies which are coming through to shift where people sit within offices that might help is bring people into contact with people they wouldn’t otherwise see. So lots of exciting things going on.

Mervyn Dinnen 21:47
One of the things I suppose which I think you touched on earlier, which was, I suppose, flagged up a concern for me was that for two groups of people, people disclose good disability and those identifying as being part of an ethnic minority, both showed in your research, lower engagement and job satisfaction when they were working in an office. Is that something about office design? Or is that something about the balance of people, I suppose, who come into the office at different times? And those who feel more comfortable working away from it?

Matthew Davis 22:23
That’s a really good question. And I don’t think I don’t think the data wouldn’t give a good answer the thing, there’s probably two things going on here. So my my current reading of this, so I think one is on the disability side, it may be actually quite, it might be kind of designed thing. So in terms of its accessibility, around access, as well. So actually, some of the environments we have, you may find there’s been a big investment in innovative space of different task space, and so on. But if you have a disability, you might have particular needs that mean that you have to work on one desk, that’s where your workstation setup, you may not physically be able to access other areas. And I think that’s the challenge, then in terms of making people feel that they are still included, they can participate in different activities, if those are occurring in different areas of the office. So I think that’s something to watch for. The other part, though, and I think the other thing to recognize is, the office is more than physical. So there are office cultures, we know there’s office cultures, and there’s hierarchies and things like Office banter, and, and jokes and so on, they’re gone as well. And we know that has a big impact on how comfortable people feel within the office, and particularly if you identify as a minority group, as well. And I think we take a step back and just reflect, we know that the office environment wasn’t perfect. And people some people have very poor experiences, whether that was direct bullying and harassment or just feeling uncomfortable in the office culture before COVID I think the difference we have now is that people who got used to be able to get out of that if there’s a toxic culture, you know, you have a good period where you probably didn’t have to go in and with hybrid work and you’re able to stop maybe having to go in so often. So potentially that highlights actually when when you are in the fact that it’s uncomfortable or it’s it’s not conducive to working in an effective way. So I think maybe that’s another thing that’s that’s bubbling away here.

Mervyn Dinnen 24:24
And is that what what part would you say personality plays in this particularly around hybrid working? Obviously, you know, there’ll be a mixture of extroverts, introverts people who feel more comfortable in certain surroundings. I mean, did you find this this played a big part?

Matthew Davis 24:43
We did find something it’s like maybe we need a whole nother hour I think to get into personality and how competence gets my colleague Anna will tell me after reducing down to introverts and extroverts, but I’ll start there. Okay. So yeah, it said we defined, the experts were more likely need to spend time in the office. So we’re finding they will frequently went into the office, we also found, interestingly, they were more likely to sit closely to their manager. So we’re looking at where people were spending time with floor plans and offices and so on. So that’s interesting, I think it’s an interesting one, maybe there’s a line manager to be aware of the not just you need to be careful not to maybe discriminate or favor people that you see more frequently, because they’re spending time in the office. But just to be aware, as well, them, different personalities, different preferences mean. So actually, some people might quite like to be around you, and you might see more than have more interaction with them. Others might be looking for quieter areas of the office, they might be spending time deliberately away from you, because they find it uncomfortable near their manager build an impression. So that’s a challenge. Introverts. So I think there’s an assumption that people who are more on the introverted side of the of the spectrum, maybe both less likely to go to go into the office, which we found that, but they have a worse experience in the office. And I don’t think that’s the the case from what we were seeing. And actually, there are lots of benefits for people maybe taking themselves out of their comfort zone. So coming into the office, when maybe it wasn’t their preference. So we found actually, the people who are more extroverted, were acting in more sociable ways, more extroverted ways, when they spend time in the office. So you kind of act slightly differently maybe to your to your preference. So that can be a really positive thing as well. So it’s good to have that challenge, good to push ourselves sometimes as well. But I think the key then for businesses, is to make sure you’ve got a mix of spaces within the office. So that actually if you need to get away for a bit of quiet time, maybe to have a bit of time on your own. But that’s an option. You’re not always on show or having to perform around others, or feel like you’ve been watched. I think that’s a really important thing.

Mervyn Dinnen 26:55
Just before we wrap up, Matthew, I suppose there’s two things that I would ask you. Firstly, was there anything that we haven’t touched on in this chat, which really surprised you? And secondly, I’m getting the impression that that, yeah, there’s evidence, there’s fairly decent evidence that there is a benefit for individual workers coming into the office and actually doing the commute. Now, obviously, some, it might be if they have a long commute, then one of the benefits of working from home is they don’t have to do it often. But it I get the impression that there is clearly a benefit to having people in an office environment. So you know, was there anything that particularly surprised you all was was countered to what you were expecting?

Matthew Davis 27:46
So I guess probably the only thing put a dry hit is just how buried the this term hybrid is and how people interpret again, and again, we I think we assume that hybrid working is really flexible, really empowering. But I think our interviews and our research was showing that actually, this can be something that’s quite a stressful arrangement as well and might be less empowering. So you might be a hybrid worker. So working sometime from home from the office from elsewhere, but you might not have any control over when that is where it is. So shift work in call center, these kind of workers, were actually having this mixed arrangement might mean that you have less control of your week that you would do if you’re a nine to five in an office. And I think that’s the only thing on that a mention, because I think we have to be really careful what we mean by hybrid, because it within a firm, it can mean different things. Or also, if you’re benchmarking against competitors, they might actually be offering very different terms, but still using the word hybrid, and on the individual benefit, so I think there’s really positive case to make for why spending some time in the office is a good thing for individual workers. And I think our data shows that it has the benefits of spending time with others and in that environment. But that goes alongside the other finding of control, being really, really powerful in shaping that overall experience. So allowing people some flexibility over when that is. And I think having the individual conversations over what’s an appropriate work pattern. And for some people, if it doesn’t match up, they might need to be supported moving to different jobs where the patterns work, but it’s trying to make sure that we we have fairness in this that people have some control, but we don’t allow him to opt out completely. I think it’s actually we do need some office work or spent time in the office as well.

Mervyn Dinnen 29:38
It’s been a fascinating conversation, Matthew. There’s lots there to chew on. I think lots there for particularly HR or listeners who work in HR to maybe think about when they are structuring I suppose offices and structuring hybrid work. If people want to read the research, how can they access it?

Matthew Davis 30:00
So the BBC research reports got animations, podcasts, videos and more. All on our website websites with future

Mervyn Dinnen 30:12
Okay, Matthew, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much for your time. And hopefully, we’ll be speaking again in the future when you hopefully do some more research.

Matthew Davis 30:25
That’s great. Thanks very much. I’ve enjoyed it.

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