Can hybrid work improve workers’ well-being and productivity?

In their expert discussion at our business conference, Professors Diane Coyle and Sir Cary Cooper raised the pros and cons of hybrid working – a concept that is set to transform the workplace over the course of this year and beyond.

Issues surrounding the extra burdens carried by working women with caring responsibilities, mental health and better line management were voiced by both professors as they debated the impact hybrid working could have on productivity and society.

“We don’t have enough emotionally intelligent line managers”

As businesses shift towards hybrid working – a working structure composed of two types of working practices or locations, mainly home and office – one of Professor Cooper’s main concerns was a lack of emotionally intelligent line managers as they were used to people all being in one place.

Once restrictions are lifted, a phased return to work will commence. During Phase One, people will want to go back to the office to reconnect but also to find out if their jobs are secure, which will suit most managers.

This won’t last long though, due to the commute and other factors. Once employees feel secure in their job, Phase Two will begin, where workers will want to work more flexibly.

In order for this new structure to work businesses, must invest more in management training.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development calculated that the UK, during the year before Covid, lost four and a half percent of its GDP due to mental ill health in the workplace, making it the biggest issue in the workplace in terms of long-term sickness absence and presenteeism.

Therefore businesses need to have managers with the emotional intelligence that could improve employee wellbeing and productivity.

We promote people into management roles because of their technical skills and not their people skills, says Professor Cooper. Being a good engineer or being a good classroom teacher does not necessarily make you a good manager and this is a major issue for employee wellbeing and productivity.

Are there gender issues in hybrid working?

One of Professor Coyle’s main concerns were the implications on women in particular and gender equality.

The loss of visibility in the workplace seems to have a bigger effect on women’s promotion and pay because it’s still the case that women pick up most of the burden of the household work, she argues.

It has already been addressed by our Managing Director Professor Bart van Ark at last month’s Future of Work summit by think tank Tortoise, where it was discussed  that improving access to resources that create productivity growth such as childcare could help bring more women into the workforce.

However these women who are returning to the office also face the challenge of balancing household chores, possible homeschooling as well as their job.

Women were significantly more likely than men to supervise home schooling for their children in the most recent lockdown compared with the one in April 2020 according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics, with 67% of women taking charge of their children’s education at home in comparison to 52% of men.

Women still take on most of the household and the family duties, noted Professor Cooper, so what happens when there is more hybrid working is going to be interesting.

The range of issues both professors cover made this a fascinating and important discussion for business leaders across the UK who attended our conference. However most of these issues – for example mental health and gender inequality – were around pre-pandemic too. Previous lockdowns have just exacerbated these challenges.

Professor Coyle says it is more than just line managers having the emotional intelligence to handle this change but also the practical organisational business sense – how do you get teams that need to talk to each other together in person? How do you retain the knowledge and research needed in the workplace during the shift to hybrid working?

Knowledge provides businesses with competitive advantage and ensuring the flow of information in this new structure of working is key to to ensuring both good productivity and wellbeing.

Sir Cary Cooper is chair of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and Professor of Organisational Psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School and Diane Coyle is Bennett Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. Both both members of The Productivity Institute.

Watch the full recording below: