Dr Lila Skountridaki: The future of hybrid working
‘It is the new normal’ was a phrase we heard frequently while staring at a work colleague on a laptop during lockdown. As we readjust to life without Covid restrictions, many people’s working lives have not returned to pre-Covid normality.
Statistics released by YouGov in late September 2020 showed that six months into Covid restrictions, 40 per cent of people who had never worked from home before the pandemic wanted to continue to work from home after restrictions were lifted. The Business Insight and Conditions Study published in 2021 found that 24 per cent of businesses in the UK intended to use increased homeworking in their permanent business model, while a further 28 per cent were unsure.
Hybrid and home working has shifted from necessity to individuals' preference, and it did so quickly. In such a brief period, why did so many people decide they would like to work from home more often, and what new challenges may this new mode of working pose?
Holyrood spoke to Dr Lila Skountridaki, lecturer in Organisation Studies and Director of MSc Human Resource Management at the University of Edinburgh, earlier this week at the Holyrood Connect annual Digital Transformation event.
She has recently published research in association with Newcastle University focused on surveying professionals about their thoughts on hybrid working.
Skountridaki discussed the technological challenges that many workers had to navigate in the early months: “For a lot of them it was connectivity. Obviously, a lot of them had support from their employers. In some cases, people would have good connectivity in some rooms, and in others, it would be worse.
“So, people who had families would have kids at home, and their partner could have been working from home, so people had to ensure that their connectivity was better. This was in the cities too, not just the rural areas, which have their issues.
“Another challenge was the technologies that were being used, but even in cases where people were not confident with their tech skills, they still managed with some help to very quickly catch up. This was before the mainstream, very user-friendly available software that was out there.
“People like architects, academics, like myself, we had to start teaching online. We never had those types of skills. It is one thing to present live, it is another thing to record yourself, then edit the video, removing gaps.
“Very quickly there was a lot of knowledge there that we had to build, that led us to stress and burn-out.”
Some people quickly saw the social benefits of working from home during the pandemic, while others had struggled exceedingly. “It depended on what kind of phase you were in your life, and the home was especially important.
“I remember a member of staff, they used to live in a tiny space downtown. They had to work where they would cook and eat. They told me that they were suicidal.
“Then they got help to move to a larger space and that made them feel better.
“It depends on whether they live alone or with family. Fathers said they enjoyed working from home because they had not developed relationships so much with their children, as typically it is a mother that works part-time.
“But for people living alone, they did not see these benefits. Some of the individuals did not have strong social networks because they were from abroad, or elsewhere in the UK, and while moving for work they had not developed these networks yet.
“That made the space especially important, particularly how big it was.”
Skountridaki believes now that people have the choice of where they can work, the struggles prevalent during lockdown should no longer be factor: “They were more a symptom of the lockdowns; now that people can go back to the office, they have started to go back.
“They will prefer the hybrid way of working, choosing to go to work two or three times a week. It allows you now to get the best of both worlds.”
A good number of people made decisions based on their working environment during the pandemic, like moving house, and tending to move further away from city centres. This is another factor that has fueled the hybrid working argument. “A lot of people who decided to move away, and we have seen this in the price of real estate going up, people started looking to move.
“These were medium term decisions; you do not just move house. It makes a loop, where people moved away from places like city centres and now that feeds back to wanting to work on a more hybrid basis.
“Now they have a longer commute, it is the main thing that people want to avoid and lends itself as a great factor to working from home.”
There is a serious question about equity in the workplace as more people clock in remotely, says Skountridaki. “We know from research pre-Covid because there were remote workers – there was an impact. Pre-Covid we would expect some level of this to happen.
“I think it might happen still, due to something called managerial bias. What we have seen in one of the surveys was, there was a question that asked people who had managerial responsibilities about what they preferred: working from home or being in the office.
“They tend to prefer working more days in the office. So, we have seen a managerial bias to working in the office. That creates a preset that managers might expect their staff to work in the office more.
“Considering that, we might still expect there to be an impact, because managers seem to prefer working in the office, honestly, I cannot see how this is not going to affect their judgement when the promotions come - unless there is more awareness around this.
“On the other hand, people are more productive. People tend to work where they are more productive.
“I have people telling me that they were neurodiverse and that they suffered in open plan spaces. Also, there are people with chronic illness and disabilities that they do not want to disclose to their employers, those people were much better off because they did not have to do things like ride the bus.
“When they had pain flares they could rest for 20 to 30 minutes and then go back to work, whereas when they were in the office five days a week, they may have had to call to say they could not come in or go home early.
“There are some managers that do want to work from home, who are more positive around that, so I do not expect that it will be as bad as pre-Covid, but they might still want to see measures in place for those organisations that are open to hybrid work.”
After looking at what legislation other countries in Europe have brought in to make working from home a right, she believes there is a case for certain groups of people. “I was looking into what other countries do, for example Portugal, it is the right of a parent of young children to work from home.
“That is a clever idea, at least for some groups of people. Especially if it is to promote equity and consider things like chronic pain and disabilities.
“It might make a lot of sense, not across the board, but for some protected groups at least to see legislation coming in, I do not think it would be negative at all.”