Hybrid working – getting it right for your people, your business and your customers

Last week Diversity Mark partnered with Bidvest Noonan, one of Northern Ireland’s largest private employers, to host a series of round table talks about how modern work practices are impacting diversity in the workplace.

The first event in this series, hosted at Invest Northern Ireland’s headquarters, brought together senior leaders from some of the most important employers, agencies and authorities. The group discussed hybrid working and its effect on workplace diversity, sharing their expertise and perspectives to help chart a way forward. 

The sudden rise of hybrid working has been welcomed by some; however, others question its longer-term impact on our workplaces and industries. This change in working practice may create both winners and losers.

Paul Murnaghan, Head of BT in Northern Ireland and President of Northern Ireland’s Chamber of Commerce shared his perspective that hybrid working practices can be a powerful way to attract, support, and retain great talent from all backgrounds. A recent report by the CIPD bears out this view. The report found that 54% of employees expect to spend all or most of their work week in the workplace once the pandemic has passed; However, when asked about their preferences, 39% said they would like to work from home all or most of the time.

Hybrid working can exacerbate inequities, and some commentators fear that it could lead to the unpicking of hard-won gains for traditionally underrepresented groups. Research by Mckinsey found that underrepresented groups, such as people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ community members, favour hybrid working most.

There are concerns that hybrid workers, being distant from the office, will be less visible than in-workplace employees, making them less likely to be considered for promotion and reducing their impact in the business world.

These round table discussions aim to unearth issues and challenges posed by current working practices and seek to use the experiences of participating organisations to develop solutions and best practices. A number of significant themes emerged during the discussions at this first event.

Consult with your people

For Director of Employment Relations Services at the Labour Relations Agency, Mark McAllister consultation with employees is key to the success of any new working practices. “When the civil services 24,000 employees were asked about how they wanted to work going forward, 98% of staff said they didn’t want to come back to the same way of working as before,” says Head of NI Civil Service, Jayne Brady. “Working with staff and the unions was key to create a ground up formula that made sense for the departments implementing them.”

Be decisive and accountable

As Chief People Officer for Bidvest Noonan, a market leader for facilities services, Janice Brannigan takes responsibility for delivering a positive work experience for the company’s 27,000 employees. Janice said “The decisions we take in this post-pandemic environment, must provide for the needs of our people and the needs of our business whilst also ensuring that we are encouraging and supporting diversity.”

Danske Bank Employment Lawyer Jenny Moore shared a best practice example from IBM. At the start of the pandemic CEO, Arvind Krishna shared the company’s Work from Home Pledge on LinkedIn, outlining a set of remote working practices to follow.

As its colleagues return to the workplace, it has now created a playbook that sets out its timeframes and principles clearly to employees. “As leaders we don’t just need to talk, we need to advocate, and hold ourselves to account too. A working charter is a good way to do that,” she adds.

Communicate your reasoning, recognise the benefits

“Communication can enable or derail any transformation,” says Invest NI’s Executive Director of People and Culture, Denise Black. “We wanted to be clear in answering the key employee question ‘Why do I need to return to the office?’ And for us, that comes down to four Cs. Connection – because we’re social animals. Collaboration – including those collision collaborations that can be so productive and are lost at home. Creation – the energy and body language of a team working in person is hard to match on screen. And Care, which is a big one for me.

There is a mental health aspect that we need to recognise,’ Denise says. “I’ve worked in this role for two years and I’ve just met two of my team face to face in the past three weeks. A scheduled 30-minute check in is a great tool, but getting to know quieter staff or just grabbing a coffee is something you can’t get on screen,” she adds.

Trust your people

While recognising the need to provide a framework for hybrid working, Denise also urges leaders to be brave and to recognise their relationship with employers as an adult-to-adult one based on personal accountability and trust.

For Bidvest Noonan’s CEO, Declan Doyle ensuring his colleagues had access to the resources they needed and felt well supported has been a top priority; “We have colleagues living and working all across the UK and Ireland. Many found working from home to be a challenge. Some wanted access to our offices because their homes were too busy or didn’t have good broadband connections. We have made sure that our network of offices are available to those people and we have seen these offices get busier and busier in recent weeks,’ he says.

For Head of International & SME Development at NI Chamber of Commerce, Tanya Anderson, creating that culture of acceptance and trust is key. ‘Our system knows who is in the office and who is out, but we trust our departments to run their own diaries, they know their workloads and they manage it,’ she adds.

Consider your business needs

However, Tanya also recognised that organisations need ‘to keep their business hats on. For many, especially small businesses or those looking to grow internationally, having people in the office is important,” she says.

“The model we work to needs to fit the work that needs to be done and to ensure that there isn’t a dilution of service for customers and the people we serve,” Jayne Brady adds.

Challenge your technologies

Before the pandemic, few around the table would have considered that a project could go from idea to completion via work on Microsoft Teams, and it was clear that technology had a key part to play in enabling successful hybrid working.

For Jayne the civil service establishing the 11 Connect2 hubs throughout NI can be a game changer for those who due to caring roles could not commit to daily commutes to departmental HQs. “Having spoken to individuals they have indicated that this was a factor in self selecting themselves out of promotion opportunities. The Connect2 hubs can be a catalyst for innovative and inclusive new ways of working and ultimately delivering a more diverse and regionally balanced workforce.”

Consider wider options

Jenny Moore and Ian Campbell, Translink Director of Service Operations, were also keen to recognise key workers who didn’t have hybrid working as an option. Some 70% of Translink staff worked throughout the pandemic.

Jenny says “NI plc needs to work hard to ensure that it looks at flexibility in its broadest sense. Businesses choose how to define ‘flexibility’ and therefore should be flexible about what flexibility looks like for all with reduced hours, asynchronous schedules, job sharing and compressed work weeks on the table too.”

This roundtable is the first of our quarterly series facilitated by Lisa Strutt, Leadership Coach & Guide and Harvard affiliated and content produced by Alison McClintock. Attended by Jenny MooreIan Campbell, Mark McAllister, Janice BranniganJayne BradyDenise BlackPaul MurnaghanDeclan Doyle.

The Diversity Mark accreditation is awarded to companies following an assessment process which ensures they have reached the required standard of commitment to advancing Diversity and Inclusion. For Companies from all sectors the Diversity Mark is a ‘Mark of Progress’ that publicly declares commitment to building more diverse and inclusive workplaces to benefit all employees.

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