The Hybrid Model – Beware of These Dangers

You might recognise this to be a subject that we have considered in earlier blogs – and you would be right. The reason is quite clear – I have clients in all of the major continents and this is, without doubt an issue that is currently at the forefront of the list of matters to address and resolve.

Lockdown divergence

There is, without question, worldwide divergence by country regarding government lockdown strategies. In the United Kingdom, almost all restrictions are lifted apart for those returning from what the Government refers to as ‘red countries.’ In the southern hemisphere lockdowns in both Australia and New Zealand are still in place with Australia looking to come out of lockdown and travel restrictions – although a timetable has yet to be announced. Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand PM) has announced moving from level 3 to level 2 restrictions which allows people to return to work and school. However, the capital city of Auckland with a population of 1.6 million remains at the most restrictive level 4 which allows people to leave their homes only for essential work and to buy essential supplies – this will be reviewed today – 21 September. Meanwhile Australian states are reassessing their Covid elimination strategies with public angst continuing to grow as a consequence of what many regard as severe and excessive restrictions over these past 19 months.

Key point: In most countries uncertainty prevails. How much will northern hemisphere countries see cases increase in the winter? In the southern hemisphere, what will the case decrease look like? How will governments respond? Right now, we do not know for sure.

The past 19 months

Reports from my clients and those who also consult with accountancy business owners confirm that life in the office is far from returning to normal. In March 2020 everyone had to manage on a dime, taking and implementing decisions in an instant.

Some 19 months since the first lockdowns the new normal is emerging although that new norm varies from country to country. Some firms report having established rights regarding working from home – others are still holding back on making final decisions until this pandemic has ebbed.


PwC in Britain has resorted to financial incentives (or bribes as some have described their inducement) to its 22,000 employees offering a bonus of £1,000 each, theoretically to be used for gym memberships or new office clothes. In the USA PwC is delaying their reopening plans, fearing the risk of the Delta variant, especially for unvaccinated employees. As reports of breakthrough infections among even fully vaccinated people cause the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise the guidance for masking and social distancing, companies are struggling with the safest way to do business during the ongoing pandemic.

WFH considerations

Office based work has been the norm ever since I can recall. While I might have occupied a few years out on audits I always returned to the office – my place of employment. Here I was interviewed and offered a job. Here I found my work colleagues who were mostly friends. Here I drank coffee, chatted and caught up with the latest news. We chatted about clients as well as the firm’s partners. Here we discovered where the office manager had planned our next out of office adventure. My work colleagues were always there to point me in the right direction, provide a clear brief and review my work in real time. Whether in the office or out an audit I learnt the tricks and demands of the accountancy profession. In the office I absorbed the firm’s culture. I learnt that as a team we were always stronger together. I learnt better ways of doing my work. I learnt how I was important to my employer and my colleagues. I learnt to do what is right.

Key questions: How can working from home create that experience, that environment, those opportunities? I can ask these questions, you might have others – but only you can answer them. My view is that it is wise to step aside from taking decisions on this right now – after all you don’t have to – do you? If you must decide now, then limit your policy to maybe 6 or 12 months.

But, is the tide against WFH?

A recent survey of 1684 people by YouGov for the BBC reports that 79% of business leaders and 70% of the general public report that they see it as unlikely that people will ever return to offices at the same level as before the pandemic.

BT’s chief executive Philip Jansen, for example, told the BBC that it is planning to let most of its office workers work on-site three or four days of the week in future – although thousands of its engineers won’t be offered the same flexibility. “We are a people business so collaboration, dynamism, teamwork, creativity… is really important to us,” he said.

Case study

The BBC reports that Maisie Lawrinson who joined TalkTalk on a six month contract, reports that she is keen to be in the office as much as possible so she can make a good impression.

“I’ve never had a job where I’m speaking to people online or emailing,” she says, referring to her past experience in retail.

She adds: “I’m more productive when I am in the office because it’s more of a professional environment and you get to see people.”

Having started the role remotely, she only met her colleagues for the first time in person recently.

“We recently had team drinks and I was finally able to meet everyone. It was really nice, I got to see everyone in person and gain an idea of who they are, rather than just what their email is.” 

She says she will still take the opportunity to work from home some days, though, perhaps towards the end of the week.

Data survey

Data from the Centre for Cities showed that in July London’s footfall was running at 35% of its pre-Covid level, with just 15% of worker’s back. Other UK cities report similar results of pre Covid footfall – Birmingham – 46%; Manchester – 47%, and Leeds – 48%

This last quarter the UK office for National Statistics found that 36 per cent of employers expected most of their staff to come back, while 36 per cent of employees reckoned they would keep working from home for good. 

What does all this mean?

Most managing partners I have spoken with are desperate to have their staff back at their desks. Set against that, some of the larger accountancy firms have already downsized their offices. The savings on rent and travel are seen as being significant. One of my 500+ clients identified furlough payments, reductions in stationery costs, utility accounts and travel costs as the major reasons for having their best ever year.

Who has the right to decide?

Employers used to have the right as to where employees were based. Some have already made it clear that they expect staff to return (Goldman Sachs is but one prominent example), others have enshrined WFH into staff rights. Others – maybe most – are watching and waiting.

The UK the government has put the brakes on a large-scale return to the workplace during what is described as the third wave of the pandemic. So, employers should not interpret the lifting of the working from home instruction as permission to force an immediate return to work.

Once a wider return to workplaces is encouraged by the UK government, in theory employers may be able to insist that employees come into their normal place of work, and treat it as a misconduct matter if they refuse to do so. However, with the UK seeing high case levels, these are far from normal times and the legal position remains complicated.

Key point: Make sure you take appropriate advice before taking final action. 

Working from home is a privilege, not a right

The benefits of working from home (partial list only)

  1. Staff will reduce travel time and cost – that must be a big factor
  2. Staff may consider they will have flexibility as to when they work – will they?
  3. Staff may enjoy greater home/family flexibility – including not leaving home so early or arriving home so late

The consequences of working from home (partial)

  1. The standard workday may well stretch from early morning to late evening – that counters point 3 above
  2. On the job training may not be as effective
  3. The danger of screen fatigue is already being evidenced and this may well increase
  4. Interactions with colleagues have already changed – the lack of office banter is a challenge as is a lunch or a post work drink – social life is massively important to most 
  5. Workers from home are far more likely to be on the losing side of promotion. Some commentators hold strong views (with which I agree) that if you wish to be promoted, earn more and have fun – sidestep working from home
  6. Some of those working from home have reported mental health issues

Most popular days to work from home

Least popular days in the office are likely to be Monday, Tuesday and possibly Wednesday

Most popular days to work from home appear to be Wednesday to Friday (do your staff enjoy a drink after work on Friday? Or is that just a UK tradition?)