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Don’t Confuse Flexible Working With Remote Working

At the end of January a People in Law conference heard from Iain Harrison, a senior manager at EY about the difficulties and potential rewards of establishing a new hybrid working model once the pandemic has receded. Adam McCulloch listened in.

Businesses must not confuse flexible working with remote working – they are two different things. UK workplaces have been faced with a revolution, not evolution, over the past year as a result of the pandemic, Iain Harrison, people consulting, EY, told the People in Law conference at the end of last month.

Harrison also said that few people “realised how important HR was until the pandemic”.

He said that people were mistaken when they talked about there being a great experiment in flexible working during the pandemic. It’s actually an experiment in remote working, he told People in Law delegates, with some employers increasing digitisation exponentially and claiming that they would never return to the old workplace-centred way of doing things. But was this something of a sticking plaster approach that didn’t recognise the importance of continuous human interaction, Harrison asked

“Are clients going to want remote meetings? Will we return to a real desire for in-person contact and what does this mean for our structures?” Harrison said.

Harrison suggested that remote working was no more flexible than having to go into the office. “We all have stories of colleagues who have not fully embraced remote working. Confirmation bias … oh we can do everything remotely … but it doesn’t mean that things should be done remotely. The thought process hasn’t evolved fully enough to make the right choices,” said Harrison.

He said that companies had made missteps during the pandemic, implying that permanently changing the working model did not address the question of whether the model fitted how firms worked with their clients.

There was also the question of how remote working had disadvantaged some groups of workers. “We’ve seen a disproportionate impact on women in the pandemic. It’s taking women backwards. So the new [hybrid] models [of working] are an opportunity to make up for that,” said Harrison.

Empty buildings

He went on to question how the office would lose value as part of a business’s branding if managers were to invite clients to largely empty buildings. Harrison saw offices as being linked to social activities – a shift from our traditional view of them as places just for work. He said the view would become more one of “Work is something I do in different places… the office does not exist as the main place of work.”

One of the most important functions for offices, he said, was how they provided a venue for random meetings with colleagues; one of the benefits was that employees were in proximity to more experienced colleagues and could “earwig” conversations. “So flexibility reduces the chances of these important interactions,” said Harrison.

“Putting together a hybrid model can’t be done by accident,” said Harrison, citing research by Cushman and Wakefield, whose study showed how the random meetings and encounters that “give wonderful insights on taking your work forward” would be impacted by more flexible working. The research showed that the chances of a team coming together reduced exponentially depending on how many days a week people were at home. If team members worked at home three days a week, the chances of meeting a colleague dropped to 12%.

This told us, said Harrison, that “you can’t choose to work at home whenever you want… there must be some form of design”. The fact that, for example, junior lawyers learned a lot by “osmosis” was highly pertinent here, yet there were employees who had joined professional services firms nearly a year ago who had never met any colleagues.

Decisions needed to be made on who needed to work together and leadership must develop real time for engaging with people and ensure it had the capacity to do this. HR could help with this but it had to be led “within the line”… and had to be supported by rostering, facilities and real estate to ensure there’s space for teams.


Harrison said many employers and employees feared that “return-to-office presenteeism” could develop very quickly where people wanted to be in the office, where the “seat of power” was. This had been seen at some government departments where people had needed to head in to the office and presenteeism crept back in. “Thankfully some of the leaders said I’m not going back in and I’ll continue to work remotely but inclusively. That role modelling is so important from leaders.

“The culture and behaviours are different levers that need to be in place to support this new way of working. We’ve seen a lot more organisations needing to focus on culture as a forethought not an afterthought.”

One of the biggest risks, said Harrison, was around collaboration and relationships. As people come into the organisation how do people feel they’ve joined an organisation – what differentiates one business from another? “Onboarding is a real challenge and one of the hardest challenges of a new hybrid model.”

“We’ve had to work doubly hard to make sure people gain that shared knowledge and shared experience,” he said.

There was a risk that the benefits of the hybrid model would not be felt because leaders would just decide it was too difficult to achieve, agreed Harrison in response to a question. But this was why really understanding the drivers behind hybrid working was vital – “we need to get the hard metrics and put them in the dashboard”.

Shared experience

He saw the past 12 months as a shared experience, one that had affected clients, supply chains, leaders equally. “We now all have an experience of remote working. We are seeing greater acceptance of individual red lines… many people might now feel they can meet remotely because of a family issue, client expectations have changed because the clients themselves have had to lead a different kind of working life. We have to be a lot more bold in expressing our needs.”

HR must facilitate the conversation about where certain tasks must take place, with the ability of people to move around roles becoming important.

The new hybrid style of work “will require trust” concluded Harrison, at the People in Law conference. “Team leaders must be trusting about workers. Output must be focused on. Guardrails and guidance … a more adult to adult relationship in the employment contract as opposed the adult-child-type relationship we used to have.”

The original version of this article was first published in Personnel Today by Adam McCulloch