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Hybrid working: How Welsh businesses can support staff and return to work safely

Brian Andrews, Managing Director (South) at BizSpace shares his insight into how in the wake of the ‘firebreak’ lockdown, hybrid working can help Welsh businesses to support teams to get back to work safely and productivity.

Brian Andrews, MD (South), BizSpace.

Employee wellbeing has paid a heavy price during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health, in particular, has been hit hard by the long hours spent indoors remotely working – a trend likely only to be exacerbated by the long, dark winter months ahead. Further, more than 40% of employees are working longer hours remotely, with growing fears that burnout is on the rise.

Although an immediate return to the office seems unlikely, the recent end to the firebreak lockdown and small steps towards normality prompt questions about how Welsh businesses will work in the wake of COVID-19. The rise of “hybrid working”, blending traditional office working with more flexible, agile space closer to home, seems to hold a clear solution. In fact, the Welsh Government in September stated that up to 30% of the Welsh workforce could regularly work more flexibly after the pandemic.

For Welsh businesses looking to seize this opportunity, offering “near home” offices, facilitating safety measures, prioritising agility and empowering collaboration will be critical to delivering true hybrid working and creating a productive and happy workforce now and well after the pandemic has passed.

“Near home” offices

For many, the greatest benefit of working from home has been the elimination of the commute, saving the average Welsh worker 52 minutes a day. In the short term, this has helped immensely with halting the spread of the virus but maintaining this long-term would also allow for more time spent with family and less employee fatigue and stress during the working week.  In fact, a study conducted in 2019 by VitalityHealth and the University of Cambridge found that those who commuted longer were 33% more likely to suffer from depression.

As more Welsh businesses look to bridge the gap between permanent home working and full-time office work for the benefit of employee welfare, “near home” offices provide an exciting opportunity. A network of flexible space closer to workers’ homes would not only help eliminate the impact on wellbeing associated with the commute but would also provide teams with a professional space away from the inevitable distractions and isolation of home when they need it. Further, this model need not come at the expense of access to the amenities of a major business hub, with BizSpace’s Cardiff office, for example, ideally situated for near-home working on the city’s high street.

Safety standards

 A further element which Welsh businesses should consider when exploring future working models are the immediate safety implications and COVID-19 precautions. Studies have shown that crowded lifts, commuting via public transport and poorly managed office footfall are common concerns, with 65% of people reporting anxiety in returning to the office as a result. While a full return to pre-pandemic offices and traditional city-centre HQs clearly cannot accommodate changing safety requirements, a hybrid working approach can.

A broader “hub and spoke” network of locations, for example, can better cater to social distancing by increasing space for employees and providing them with a separate location to potentially crowded main offices. In fact, these locations are well suited to facilitate “bubbles” for businesses to minimise contact with other tenants, just as we have done at BizSpace’s office in Cardiff. At the same time, more flexible locations outside the city centre can better facilitate safer modes of transport through parking provision as employees understandably continue to avoid public transport.

Facilitating collaboration

A key component of office life that has been lost to the virus is collaboration. The ability to work and learn with your peers is an invaluable part of the employee experience, supporting worker motivation, productivity and also career development. As cited by the International Labour Organisation, studies have indicated that being unable to interact with friends and isolation from colleagues are key disadvantages of working from home. A further 30% of workers have complained of a loss of networking opportunities.

Whether Welsh businesses opt for home-working or a full return to the office, the importance of collaboration and socialisation for employee wellbeing cannot be overlooked. Flex space and hybrid working enables businesses to chart a ‘middle way’ between the hassle and safety risks of the traditional HQ and the isolation of home working. This maintains those ‘water cooler’ moments whilst not compromising on worker safety and work-life balance.

Ultimately, the strain of the pandemic and remote work has had a worrisome effect on worker wellbeing – a pattern that will have to be addressed whichever working model businesses choose in the future. What is certain, is that hybrid working offers the balance and empowerment which lockdown has robbed most workers of. Through providing safe, flexible working options closer to home that foster collaboration, we can ensure that not only the physical but also the mental health of our workforce is protected in the future.