The power of choice – why giving employees flexibility pays off

The results of a poll completed by participants before the event were shared, showing that most of those attending have a blend of employee and organisation choice when it comes to hybrid working models.

Leading the discussion, Stephen Fountain, a Senior Project Director at MovePlan, explained that people’s resistance to adopt change stems from being told to do something versus being able to choose.

“When someone tells me you have to go to the office I don’t want to go, but if you leave it open, I might choose to go to the office,” he said.

An attendee agreed, saying a contract in the UK had faced resistance from a particular group of employees when it came to working in the office.

Explaining further, he said: “They really put-up resistance so much that the leadership team created a more flexible scope for people to stay away from the office more than originally planned. But what they found was this group of people were in the office all the time.

“They said with the cost-of-living crisis it was cheaper to be in the office because it saves money. People wanted the right to not be in the office, but financial burdens meant they chose to be in the office and wanted to be there.”

Another attendee pointed out that many people do not want to revert to spending £10k a year on commuting.

He added: “The choice that you have within parameters that you agree with the employer seems to be the way forward. I’ve heard organisations say, ‘we leave it up to the employee but they have to be in the office three days a week.’ That’s not up to the employee. But it has to be job specific.”

How office design can support and enable hybrid models

One attendee spoke about the popularity of phone booths in her office. She said: “These have really high demand because it can be distracting if everyone is making calls around you.”

Another spoke about the need to be in the office for team bonding and camaraderie, saying: “You can’t build a team on a screen.”

One participant spoke about a survey conducted with staff which revealed 88% wanted more flexibility. He said the company’s catchline is “twice the experience in half the space,” adding: “Contracts were changed to say how often they would go to the office. It’s a journey we are on, but it’s one we were on before Covid. It has involved HR and IT but Covid sped up the process of a journey we were on before.”

How to attract and retain top talent

A discussion was had around attracting and retaining top talent – a conversation which has been at the forefront of leaders’ minds for a while.

“I think there’s a bias at play when it comes to top talent,” suggested one attendee, explaining: “I’m an executive so I am top talent and I come into the office most of the time. But there also needs to be a recognition of the diversity and that top talent might also be someone who doesn’t come into the office as often.

“We can take the top talent from people who don’t want to go into the office at other companies where this is being enforced. I think the business is lagging a bit in catching up to that mentality of true hybrid.”

Stephen asked whether this unconscious bias could be discussed through a Diversity and Inclusion conversation.

“It’s a developing conversation for everyone,” the attendee replied, adding: “My concern is that a global recession will come in and low attendance will result in offices downsizing or closing. We are lucky to have a strong relationship with HR so we can come back to the data and see why people are coming in. But I don’t think it will shock people to know that people are coming in to see colleagues and so the space needs to reflect that. That’s when we start empowering employees.”

How to attract employees into the office

It was agreed that flexibility is key when it comes to attracting employees back to the office. However, those at the event discussed issues with offering too much flexibility.

“People want flexibility in terms of when and how they turn up to work, but if they turn up and their colleagues aren’t there then the team bonding doesn’t happen,” said one person.

Another added: “If you’re spending two hours a day getting to the office and two hours getting back, that’s four hours of lost productivity.”

One attendee said they had introduced a transport policy making it easier for employees to travel to and from work. “Employees leaving late at night can get a taxi service two and from their home. It’s very easy for employees to use an app to get a fully paid taxi to and from their house which makes the commute easy and safe for them.”

The rise of flexible workspaces

A discussion was held around the increased use of flexible workspaces within urban areas such as shopping centres.

“There’s a move away from the traditional office to putting co-working spaces in other parts of the built environment,” said one person.

Another added: “On a smaller scale there are pop-up meeting rooms being charged at say $3 an hour. You can go out shopping but if you need to make a phone call somewhere quiet you can do that.”

However, Terence Fung, a Project Director at MovePlan, believed this is unlikely to happen in Hong Kong.

“I like the idea but I don’t see it happening in Hong Kong. The space is too expensive,” he said.

Another participant disagreed, saying: “If you’re sitting in a coffee shop you have the background noise. People will find a way to exploit the space. I like the idea of it happening in Hong Kong. If someone can make money from it, I’m sure there’s a way of doing it.”

Stephen added: “It’s an interesting effort to try and get a piece of the pie – everyone is working wherever so how do I get a piece of that? Is it helpful for future planning or are you ignoring it because it doesn’t quite match what you want to do.”

Using the right tools to support hybrid working

“We are trying to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s tools,” said one attendee, adding: “We have all these tools – too many tools in my opinion. We’re not empowered to use them in the right way and when you have this gap people fall back to old habits. People fall back to email.”

He believes that meetings are putting a burden on people, and said: “Is a meeting the right tool to get this work done? That’s a conversation that isn’t happening. It comes from a HR place. If we’re talking about metaverse put that aside, just tell people to stop emailing attachments. That’s something I’m really working at to try and change the way we’re working with staff.

“We don’t want another app. Don’t roll out an app unless it’s employee centric.”

Stephen said: “I like that phrase solving tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s technology. You’re working in an organisation that has taken on consumer and commercial technologies to be used for hybrid working, so how is that conversation happening to bring about that change?”

The attendee replied: “It’s very fraught that conversation. You have property, HR, IT and finance all coming together to contest this technology and they are all very territorial about it. The barriers between IT, HR, property and finance are all breaking down. An organisation that’s ready for hybrid working there would be no barriers. I don’t think many are ready for this from what’ I’ve seen.”

What is needed to support the evolution of offices?

Stephen believes that leadership needs to come up with a concise vision that can be turned into a great design or strategy to achieve successful change.

A participant commented that change management should start with storytelling and narrative.

“Employees are in an uncertain and ambiguous time; they don’t know what’s coming and I think we haven’t got our story straight. That’s why the partnership with HR and IT is so important so you are all telling the same story about why this is happening and what’s happening in the future,” he said.

Another added: “The leadership role has not actually changed from beginning to end; its set a vision and walk the walk. I think this role continues to be extremely important because it can make or break a certain strategy if management doesn’t walk the walk and are not doing it themselves, it’s not going to work.”

What is beyond hybrid?

When it comes to work beyond hybrid, the roundtable participants agreed that leaders need to be courageous in their decision making.

One commented: “The understanding of the work patterns has encouraged us to take a step back and have the courage to reverse some of the decisions we made during the pandemic. In the future things will get more fluid. There will be a deliberate exercise in going to the office.

“The design needs to support that. There are special needs and functions that need specific things to enable their work. Day-to-day patterns need to be studied further. A lot of companies didn’t have time to do this during the pandemic. That needs to be the next step to customise.

“I hope the experience extends to home and extends to working anywhere.”

Stephen added: “It’s okay to turn around and say ‘that doesn’t support us anymore. It supported us then but it doesn’t work now.’ That’s something important to acknowledge.”

Another participant said: “If there’s something we learn in this pandemic it is that we always need to be flexible and have the courage to reverse some of the decisions we make.”

Concluding the session, Stephen highlighted the importance of transparency, saying: “If we are going to be adventurous and experimental, we have to be comfortable sharing that with our colleagues. Often that’s what people are begging for; they just want the information.”