Hybrid working is certainly a phrase that most people seem to have heard. But there isn’t a common understanding about what it is, and what it means for the way people are working or managing. Many organisations are still working out what the best options for them, what this means for the amount of space they need and how it’s used. AWA's new Hybrid Working Index will provide key insights into how things are going.
Here's a quick overview of the discussion points in this episode:
AWA Host: Karen Plum
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00:00:00 Karen Plum
Hello everyone. Has your organization adopted a hybrid way of working? What does that mean for you and your team? Can you decide where and when you work? Have you been mandated to go into an office on certain days of the week? Has your office been downsized or reconfigured for different activities? Do you even still have an office?
Everyone talks about hybrid working as if it's one thing, but it isn't - as we'll find out in this episode.
00:00:31 INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience helping organizations change the way they work, for the better.
00:00:55 Karen Plum
The phrase hybrid working has become so familiar over the last year, and if you're a regular listener to the podcast, you'll know that many organizations are taking their time, figuring out the best approach for them and refining their hybrid working and learning as they go.
Certainly the use of office space has changed massively over the last couple of years. With more and more people wanting to spend more time working away from the office, it's even more important to track how space is being used so that occupancy strategies can be adjusted.
I thought it would be interesting to find out more about how organizations are occupying space, particularly in big cities. And today I'm joined by two of my AWA colleagues to talk about a new survey that they've set-up to help track these trends.
I'm delighted to welcome workplace strategist Josh Sumner, who's been leading on this initiative. Hello, Josh.
00:01:48 Josh Sumner
Hey Karen, delighted to be here.
00:01:50 Karen Plum
And Founder and Managing Director of AWA Andrew Mawson.
00:01:53 Andrew Mawson
00:01:55 Karen Plum
Good to see you both! So Andrew, can you get us started and explain why you decided to create this new index?
00:02:01 Andrew Mawson
Sure, I mean there's a lot of stuff out in the press, isn't there at the moment about different companies applying different policies and the property industry is kind of convincing people that the world is really not changing very much and that everybody needs the same amount of space, they're just going to use it in a different way.
And so in amongst all this, what we wanted to try and do is actually track the reality of what was going on. So we've created a panel of about thirty companies, a growing panel and we're going to build on it and the idea is that every quarter we invite them to make a submission to tell us how much of their space is being used, how many desks are being used and how many people are attending the office and what their policy is on hybrid working.
And so the idea is that over period of time we're able to track what's really going on, as opposed to what is being put out there by various different parties who have their own commercial interests.
00:03:01 Karen Plum
OK, so let's find out a bit more about the survey itself. Josh, can I first of all ask you - are these companies, these thirty companies, just in the UK?
00:03:11 Josh Sumner
No, we've got submissions from across the globe. I think we've got around thirteen countries represented and as Andrew said, just under thirty companies. But actually that comprises around eighty offices, so we've got a really comprehensive data set to pull from.
00:03:24 Karen Plum
Right, and I guess some of those are multinationals, so they're reporting on different locations, but for the same company?
00:03:31 Josh Sumner
Absolutely, many of them are.
00:03:33 Karen Plum
So Josh, as far as this first set of organizations of thirty odd organizations that have taken part, are they all operating hybrid working, do we know?
00:03:43 Josh Sumner
Well, it's an interesting question. The data certainly suggests that they are. We do ask whether the organizations have any form of formal hybrid working policy and around 40% of the organizations do, but of the 60% of organizations that don't have any policy, they're actually the offices with the least attendance, so we can assume that they are operating in at least some form of hybrid working.
00:04:08 Karen Plum
So in terms of having a policy, I suppose that's likely to be the place where the organizations are mandating a specific number of days in the office is that what those policies typically are talking about?
00:04:22 Josh Sumner
That's right, typically they're expressed as a number of days that you're mandated to be in the office, so one, two, three, four, five. There's also the option for this to be varied by team, and to have a conversation about that at team level within the organization.
00:04:37 Karen Plum
Right, so I guess we should also be clear about what we mean by hybrid working when we're producing these reports and talking about this practice. Andrew, can you just explain what we mean when we say hybrid working, 'cause there's a lot of variation, isn't there?
00:04:53 Andrew Mawson
We've always seen hybrid working or it's forerunner, agile working, as being a kind of spectrum, a continuum of different sorts of models of working which are largely about varying the time and the place. But I think there is a lot of confusion around this actually at the moment, which is not helping the conversations.
Because we've got some people that think hybrid working is just the people that are spending a bit of time in the office and a bit of time at home. And then, you know we have home workers who have been predominantly based at home. And then we've got office workers who predominantly come into the office every day. And I actually think this is really not a helpful distinction, because a team is going to have to work in a hybrid working kind of way, regardless whether some of the team members are in the office most of the time or other team members are working at home or other team members are doing a bit of both.
And I think to make this kind of hard distinction between these three different categories is wrong. So I think it's much better to consider hybrid working both at an organization and a team level, if you're doing any of it, everything has to change. The way you communicate, the way you engage people, the way you create community, it has to be different with a community of people who are mixed in their occupancy mode it seems to me.
00:06:16 Karen Plum
Yes, and when we use the term, we're not just talking about where you work, it's also about how you work and how you work with your colleagues, which is why it's an all embracing term and we can't just say - those people are hybrid and those people aren't - which is something again, that some of the big corporates who are trying to adjust their position on the subject, that's where they tend to be moving to.
00:06:37 Andrew Mawson
I think the thing that ultimately will happen is that organizations will work out that they need to get their leaders into a place where they can hold sensible conversations with their teams about how we're going to work in the future. And that's not just going to be about how many days were in the office, it's going to be about how do we maintain the trust we have with each other; how do we maintain our relationships; how do we share information?
This is a time for taking a blank sheet of paper and working out how we can work in a way that supports the individuals’ aspirations, the organization’s drives and the team’s effectiveness, and I think it's a very healthy moment, but it requires leaders that have got the confidence to do that and the skills to do that, but I think ultimately should be seen as a virtuous moment, really.
00:07:26 Karen Plum
And when we don't feel the need to label it anymore, then we'll know we've got there, right?
00:07:31 Andrew Mawson
Indeed, yeah, exactly.
00:07:33 Karen Plum
I believe we've just completed the first round of this exercise, so I guess you've been learning as you go on this one, but can you explain a bit about how you've gone about capturing the data and how the organizations have provided it?
00:07:46 Josh Sumner
Absolutely, so we're really trying to strike the kind of delicate balance between having the data easy to submit for our contributors, because obviously we want the largest data set possible while still giving us interesting insights.
So really, we've done this by focusing on two key metrics, and those are attendance and desk usage, and it's probably worth very briefly defining those terms.
So very simply attendance, as the name might suggest, is the number of people who are attending the office, and we express that as a percentage of the number of people who come into that office every day. Desk usage, on the other hand, is the percentage of desks which are being used in the office if we assume that every person who attends the office has one distinct desk that they use per day and we express that as a percentage of the total desks in the office.
And so we're driving those metrics by asking our contributors to submit the population of each office, the number of desks that they have in that office and the number of people who are entering the building per day in an average week and they can do this for any number of offices in their portfolio.
We're also gathering information as Andrew said, on the hybrid working policy, which the contributing organizations are enforcing, if indeed there is one and then this allows us to form a picture of how offices are being used and also an accurate approximation of the spare space that might be in these offices if we think of this in terms of unused desking which is available in those buildings.
00:09:10 Karen Plum
So just so that I'm clear, we're looking at the total population of people that are associated with an office and then we're looking at what proportion of those people are actually coming into the office on any given day.
00:09:25 Josh Sumner
You're right in the first part, but what we're doing is we're asking for how many people are coming in per day in an average week. So if we think of an average week in the last month, how many people would have been coming in on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. And our contributors are gaining that information through badge swipes, through surveys and through various means which we also asked for, so we have that data.
00:09:47 Karen Plum
Right, OK, so we know how many people are turning up every day and we're getting more information about which days of the week are most popular. I guess we've always thought that Fridays and Mondays tended to be the days that people wanted to work at home even before COVID, so we'll get to those details in a little while.
I believe you've got the data from the first survey that you've been analyzing recently Josh, so can you give us a bit of an insight into what the key takeaways are so far?
00:10:18 Josh Sumner
We're seeing some really striking statistics coming through. Some of them aren't particularly surprising, and, for instance, we're seeing that the Fridays really are dead and across the data set attendance throughout the week tends to have a very distinct peak on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with Monday and Friday being quite quiet Friday, particularly so. Also very striking that attendance is on average very low, so we're seeing across the data set an average of around 26% of people coming into the office.
And of course the corollary to that is the desk usage is then very low and the offices have a lot of unused space so on average only 33% of desks that are being used. So 67% of desks unused as an average, and that's a pretty huge number.
00:11:02 Karen Plum
Yeah, I guess it's giving us some very solid data to show what we've suspected through this pandemic period and as all of this hybrid working settles down.
I guess you're not surprised at the outcomes, Andrew?
00:11:16 Andrew Mawson
No, not really. I mean, I've been hearing these stories anecdotally from people all over the world for the last three months, and I think in some geographies people are still thinking that maybe one of the reasons why people are not coming back is because they're still worried about COVID.
But it's particularly interesting in the UK, where we've been really unregulated around COVID for probably about four months now or something like that. And I think psychologically in the UK people are not worried about it at all. So the reason why they're not going back to the office isn't associated with their fear of COVID, it's predominantly because I think they tasted a different way of living and they see very little value in attending an office unless there is some serious purpose associated with it.
And I think this is the new world and the new world is going to require offices to be quite different and we have to think more carefully about how they are designed for a different purpose, 'cause there's really no point in doing the same things in the office that you would have been doing at home. Unless of course you're under some sort of supervision or training or whatever.
And so that's kind of one of the things. The other thing for me is, I mean, organizations are gonna have space awash and the question for them - it may not be a problem for the property industry right now because that space is rented and it's the occupiers really that are sitting on space, so perhaps they've got a lease on that space for maybe, I don’t know, 5 years, 10 years or something and they're gonna have to either find something useful to do with it, sublet it to a market which is in lower demand anyway.
Or they're gonna have to change its use somehow, so there are some really interesting challenges around this, something that we have to face up to, I think.
00:13:10 Karen Plum
Yes, and of course with the focus on climate change and carbon reduction targets, it’s another big area for them to be facing because they've got largely empty offices, consuming power and very few people actually turning up.
00:13:26 Andrew Mawson
Well, the interesting thing is in some parts of the world, you have to demonstrate that you are occupying the space, otherwise the liability associated with that space goes straight into your books.
So if you were to say, have a I don't know a 20 story building and you were only using say 4 floors for the fun of it and you've got 16 floors, you'd ideally want to mothball those 16 floors or find another use for them. But if you were to mothball them, i. e. , turn the air conditioning off and the lighting and all the rest of it, then the full extent of the liability on the lease would immediately hit your P&L, which can't be a very sustainable thing.
So the danger is that drives people to kind of keep these floors in occupation well, not so much in occupation, but keep them live, but of course the other thing is you don't really want to have a relatively small number of people attending your building scattered all over the place.
Because buildings are just going to be and they are, you know people are experiencing very dead spaces and low atmosphere and you know all those sorts, but that isn't going to be conducive to getting people to attend an office either. So these are new issues that the industry is going to have to address.
00:14:41 Karen Plum
Yes, and I guess if you have got a building that's occupied in that way, you've also probably got just proportions of different teams attending the office if they're not planning and coordinating when they come into the office to be with colleagues.
00:14:56 Andrew Mawson
Yeah, and I mean that's exactly right, and I think you know some of these situations where organizations have mandated two days or three days in the office, but that hasn't been agreed at team level, people are often turning up finding that the people that -they're playing the game, but their colleagues aren't there or their colleagues are turning up on different day. So that need to sort of create new agreements is really, I think what every organization will eventually wake up to.
00:15:26 Josh Sumner
In order to tackle some of the issues that Andrew just mentioned, one of the tools that we've been helping organizations to think about using are what we would call working together agreements. And really, the way these work is that you have an umbrella agreement, if you like, that comes from the top of the organization which gives the rules of the game for how you know how the workplace is going to be occupied in the future, and then within that framework, individual teams come together and decide how they're going to work. Do they come in on a Monday and a Wednesday because that suits the team; do they come in three days a week because they have certain meetings that are far better in person; do they come in far less than that.
And what this allows is both a level of individualization, which means that teams are actually doing what makes sense for them, and they're therefore much more likely to do it, but also gives a sense of ownership, and I think that might be the key thing that as they feel that they're co-creating the way that they're going to use the office and they're also therefore far more likely to actually want to do that in the future rather than being mandated.
And it's interesting, in our data set from the hybrid working index, those organizations who have some sort of mandate in terms of how many days people come into the office, but have that sorted by team, actually have the highest rates of attendance compared to even companies who have decided to make people come in three days a week for instance.
So I think it's quite clear that when you allow people to self-direct in that way, actually often the attendance increases because they're doing it for reasons that make sense rather than just because they've been told to.
00:17:04 Karen Plum
So it might be much more productive attendance rather than people just coming in because they've been told they need to come into the office, and then when they come in, there's none of their colleagues to engage with. So taking that approach of having an agreement and having agreed days in the office, Josh, is that going to allow organizations to assess the amount of space that they need and maybe reduce it if their leases allow?
00:17:31 Josh Sumner
Yeah, I would think so. I mean one of the difficulties that organizations may run into and I'm not sure how this can be addressed other than enforcing some form of smoothing method, is that teams may all want to come in on the same day and you may still be left with the scenario where on a Wednesday you've got far more people coming in than on your Monday and your Friday.
So in those instances there may have to be some form of smoothing or mandating from the top of the organizations to make sure that that doesn't happen. The process of creating working together agreements means that whatever is agreed in those teams then comes out into the open and the organizations at a higher level can have an understanding of when those teams are actually going to be coming in, and that can then allow you to troubleshoot and diagnose when you might have, you know, very busy days, for instance, Wednesday looks very busy because X number of teams all look like they want to come in on that day and then you can make an informed decision as to whether you need to smooth that attendance or make some sort of allowance to make sure that doesn't happen.
00:18:37 Karen Plum
So you're actually actively managing it rather than just saying everybody’s got to come in three days a week and sort it out amongst yourselves, or not manage it at all. And then that's going to give you a potentially much more chaotic situation. So we've got the first data - how often are we going to be running the survey, Josh?
00:18:57 Josh Sumner
We're going to be running the survey quarterly and we're going to be tracking the responses over time to keep our finger on the pulse on how the situation is changing and developing.
00:19:06 Karen Plum
OK, so Andrew for organizations that are taking part, and obviously we hope that we'll attract more organizations to get involved, how do you see them making use of this information over time?
00:19:19 Andrew Mawson
Well, I think a lot of people in HR and in real estate are being asked by their boards, what are we doing and how are we doing compared to other organizations? What does good look like?
And I think what we are able to do with the data is to slice and dice it in all sorts of different ways, but also to track things as we go forward because there's no doubt in my mind that organizations are learning here and we've already seen you know over the last sort of six months, different organizations gradually changing their position in terms of their policies and it's good to see how that's going.
And you can see that there are some organizations that have been ardent insisters on people coming back to the office like they did pre pandemic and they've sort of had to then soften that position and soften it again and soften it again.
And then you know, and I think it's quite interesting to see how that is happening both by geography, by different cities, but also in sectors. And you know, as we go forward, although at the moment we have thirty companies that are contributing, w're trying to build that so that that ends up being more like maybe sixty seventy eighty or something.
So that we're able to get a really strong signal about what's going on in each major city in the world and in each sector to help the discussions and bring out into the open what's really happening here.
00:20:51 Karen Plum
Some good solid evidence to inform their decision making and their policy making. So we're looking for more organizations to get involved - Josh, are there any criteria - do organizations that want to get involved – are there any sort of barriers they need to jump over, or do we welcome everybody? How does it work?
00:21:10 Josh Sumner
It's a broad-church Karen! So if you've got an office and you're anywhere in the world we would be very interested to hear from you and have you submit your data. As we said we had an excellent uptake for our first index survey and we really want to build on that, and so we'd be delighted to welcome any organizations who want to get on board and they can do this very simply by getting in touch with anyone from the AWA team or myself directly, Karen perhaps you can leave my e-mail in the show notes and then we'll get you on board for the next round of submission.
00:21:41 Andrew Mawson
I think it's probably worth just saying the data that we get from companies, it's very simple, it's very easy to submit. We're not looking for, you know, huge reams of stuff and also that the information that's provided is confidential. We won't reveal the names of organizations and the data that they provided – we’ll just be using it in an aggregate form.
And some organizations, quite reasonably have asked us to sign non-disclosure agreements and we've been delighted to do that, so you know, it's in a safe place,really.
00:22:15 Karen Plum
Yeah, I think that's really important for organizations to be reassured about, and I think the simplicity of submitting data is also important - as somebody that's worked in a benchmarking arena in the past, it's one of the barriers if you make participation too complicated, ask for too many complicated, different metrics, then organizations really struggle to provide those and it really turns them off.
So I think we're nearly done. I just wanted to ask, I know that we're producing a report for the participants, which will obviously give them a good level of detail, but I believe we're also producing a summary report that our listeners might be able to get hold of. Can we just say a bit about that, Andrew?
00:22:59 Andrew Mawson
Yeah, of course - we have a policy of being quite generous with the knowledge and the data that we collect and this is no exception to that. So we will be providing a relatively short report just summarizing some of the key findings and that will be available on our website - come to the home page, you'll be directed to the right place.
00:23:20 Karen Plum
Great, well we'll also put a link in our show notes so that people can find it in that way. And as we said, we'll also include Josh’s e-mail. Please get involved, find out a bit more about it from Josh if you have any queries or questions before you commit yourself. Then obviously we'll be very happy to answer those as well.
So thank you very much indeed to Josh and to Andrew for coming on the podcast today and telling us about this new, exciting hybrid index and I look forward to seeing how it evolves over the coming months. Perhaps you guys will come back and give us an update later in the year.
00:23:55 Andrew Mawson
Sure, thanks Karen.
00:23:56 Josh Sumner
00:23:58 Karen Plum
I was really interested to hear that those contributor organizations that are allowing teams to decide things for themselves, so the time they spend in the office, are those that are showing the highest levels of people coming into the office. When it makes sense to come into the office, people come.
It's become quite apparent that people have to be more intentional in how they plan their work and their interactions with colleagues. It takes time and practice to get good at this.
If you'd like to hear more, we discussed being intentional in Episode seven of the podcast, which is called “Virtual culture - it's intentional”. We also talked in depth about the working together agreements in Episode 12, “Don't slide into hybrid”. There's also a range of blogs on the AWA website if you'd like to read more, you'll find the link to the AWA website in our show notes.
That's it for this episode. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague.
00:24:58 CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.