Does employee choice and control pay off when it comes to hybrid working?
- Socio-Technical Centre
The majority of office workers are as keen on hybrid working as they were 12 months ago, and it is unlikely that this will now shift. According to our cross-industry snapshot survey, hybrid working is 54% of UK office workers’ ideal working pattern, however, almost half of office workers say they are in a job that doesn’t fit their ideal way of working.
Collaborating with a range of organisations and stakeholders, the Adapting Offices for the Future of Work research team published a research-led guide in June 2022, providing advice for organisations looking to create hybrid workplaces. We have now launched a second report, providing a focused, data-driven evaluation of the impact of different work patterns and workplaces on employee behaviour and social networks.
In this blog series, we focus on different aspects of our research featured in the report, including: managing hybrid office workers, addressing the hybrid training gap, and looking at whether employee choice and control pays off when it comes to hybrid working. You can read the full report for further information.
Employees’ choice and control over where, when and how they work varies across hybrid workers. This affects the experience of work. Providing employee choice and control may pay dividends for workers and organisations, according to our evidence.
Our snapshot survey of a cross-industry group of UK office workers shows that those who have more control over where (office, home or some other place) and when they work are more likely to report higher levels of job satisfaction and work-life balance. It also shows that workers who have less control over when they work are more likely to say that they want to leave their current job.
This reinforces the idea that flexibility and control are at the heart of what workers really value about hybrid and home working. Flexibility may benefit the individual workers and be strategically important in retaining talent and reducing staff turnover.
Help employees to stay in control of hybrid working
With hybrid working, the lines between work and home are increasingly blurred with ‘work’ now within touching distance within the home. This can make it difficult for employees to switch off and can lead to overwork, burnout or feelings of conflict between work and home lives. Comments from our some of the hybrid workers we interviewed included: “Your computer is always there. It’s difficult to switch off. I’ll go in and check my emails periodically and see if there is anything I need to be aware of…” Another said: “It’s very easy to keep going when you don’t have the driver of seeing everyone else in the office has gone home…”
There are practical ways to separate work and home, and to encourage employees to create healthy work habits and establish distinct boundaries between their work and personal lives:
- Go for a walk in the morning before beginning the working day and another at the end of the day. This can help mimic the morning/evening commute and changes the physical surroundings, making people’s brains think they are ‘going to work’ or ‘coming home from work’.
- Make a conscious effort to have regular breaks: give eyes a rest from the screen, stretch the legs, make an effort to eat a nutritious lunch, maybe even take a short walk at lunchtime.
- At the end of the day and over the weekend, close the door to the home office or tidy or hide away work things. If possible, do not enter the home office or workspace until the next working day. This mimics the routine of the office – out of sight, out of mind – to avoid a ‘spillover’ effect from work into the home and to help detach at the end of a working day/week.
Where employees cannot keep work contained in a home office:
- Shut down your laptop and any other devices completely at the end of a working day, rather than leaving them on standby/locked screen, so no lights are flashing and to prevent the temptation to work longer than necessary. If possible, place the laptop in a drawer so it is out of sight.
- Switch work phones off completely or put them in airplane mode and in a drawer.
- Adjust smartphone settings so work apps are muted during non-work hours (e.g. no notifications from Teams/emails etc).
- Mute any group chats to detach from ‘work chatter’.
Control over where and how to work
We analysed our diary data from office workers in a variety of organisations, roles and office types to measure the effect of different levels of control over where to work. The data shows that employees who reported having greater control over where they worked from (for example the office, home or third spaces) also reported higher job satisfaction and more positive wellbeing.
Statistical analysis of our diary data shows that when employees reported greater control over where they worked within the office or home, they had:
- Higher job satisfaction and workspace satisfaction
- Higher self-rated job performance
- More helping behaviours and completed extra work tasks
- Fewer ‘counter-productive’ work behaviours (such as scrolling on a phone or distracting colleagues)
- More positive wellbeing, with lower levels of exhaustion
- Lower work-family conflict (where work spills over into family life) and lower family-work conflict (where family demands spill over into work).
Providing employees with a meaningful choice between workplaces is beneficial for employees, but it is not as influential as choice within a workspace (e.g. where within the office, home or elsewhere to work). This underlines the need for a whole-system approach to the design of future workplaces so employees can exercise control over where they can work within the space, and can enjoy working effectively from it. This will be influenced by their role, mix of tasks, and the organisation’s management practices, technologies and culture (see section 'A whole system approach to designing hybrid workplaces' - page 23 in our June 2022 report).
Employees care about how they work as well as where and when they work. Analysis of the diary data shows that when employees reported that they had greater control over how job tasks are completed, they experienced:
- Higher job and workspace satisfaction
- Greater self-rated performance
- More helping behaviours
Space for autonomy
Many organisations and managers have struggled to provide equity within their hybrid working offerings, particularly when some job roles require the individual to be more office based than others. Our findings offer evidence as to the value of designing in more discretion for workers to decide how, when and where to get tasks done. Where it is harder to offer employees control or choice over their workspace or work pattern, giving employees greater freedoms over how tasks are completed may buffer negatives arising from feelings of inequity or ‘us and them’ between hybrid workers. (See section 'Tensions when implementing hybrid working policies' - page 14 in our June 2022 report.)
We have known for many years that job autonomy is a key driver to boost employees’ job satisfaction, intrinsic motivation, and performance. Our findings suggest managers should be cautious of designing a hybrid working arrangement based on strict rules for employees to be in specific work locations or to use set spaces for each task.
Giving employees autonomy over the workspace engenders a sense of responsibility and ownership to do their job well. Invest time in deciding where the non-negotiables have to be (e.g. confidential tasks that must occur in particular workspaces, core hours that must be covered), then direct attention to defining where and how employees can exercise autonomy. Give them choice and clear boundaries. Set a review point to evaluate where this is causing operational difficulties or friction within teams and then revise the boundaries.
Read the report for further information.
This project (Adapting offices to support COVID-19 secure workplaces and emerging work patterns – ES/W001764/1) is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) rapid response to COVID-19. Report authors: Davis, M.C., Collis, H., Hughes, H.P.N., Wu, C., Gritt, E., Fang, L., Iqbal, A. & Rees, S.J.
If you would like to get in touch regarding any of these blog entries, or are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact:
Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgPhone: +44 (0)113 343 8754
Click here to view our privacy statement. You can repost this blog article, following the terms listed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.