Hybrid Work and the Energy Squeeze
After the Covid-19 pandemic there has been considerable discussion about the extent to which employees will be able, and want, to continue working from home. Some organizations, such as some Government Ministries have tried to insist that staff return to their offices. Whilst others have encouraged staff to stay at home. However, most organisations have decided upon some form of hybrid working, with greater time for home working than before the pandemic, but some continued use of a corporate office.
Until now the cost-benefit debate has centred upon the potential real estate savings available for companies, property and commuting savings available to employees who don’t have to live so close to major business centres and the alleged positive motivational benefits available to employees. Line managers have drawn heavily upon digital technology to manage projects, build teams and deliver performance. Yet there remain significant questions about the challenges and limitations of hybrid working. A key question that we will have to face shortly is how surging energy prices will impact upon hybrid work.
The Guardian, in the UK, is reporting that cities are preparing to open public spaces, during the winter, as warm spaces. Whilst an interesting move it is something of an outlier and, in fact, little consideration has been given to the fact that whilst working from home employees normally bear the cost of their own energy consumption, whilst at an office they do not.
Will companies start offering to pick up their employees' energy bills for them as a motivational benefit? If they do, will governments see this as a salary perk and seek to tax it, as they often do with cars? For employees whose company does not make such an offer will they demand the right to return to work, to avoid spiraling energy costs? What will happen if, in order to accommodate hybrid working, there are fewer desks now available compared to the number of employees seeking to spend their days in a warm office?
The emergent and complex nature of such problems is compounded by the fact that employers do not know how governments will react to rising prices. Some, such as France, have simply imposed an energy price freeze, but can it be sustained? Others may provide targeted support at the most vulnerable only. Whilst some may simply do nothing and leave it to the market to sort out. This patchwork of uncertainty is, therefore, beginning to overlap with the emerging complexity of hybrid work in a way that places human resources and finance managers in unenviable positions.
A casual glance at the Cynefin Framework immediately reveals that looking to apply any form of best practice that could be described as a simple solution will fail. Equally all the expert analysis in the world will struggle to provide a predictable way forward. Both the energy crisis and hybrid working are not driven by purely rational motives. Because the relationships between cause and effect are myriad, uncertain and qualitative, unpredictability goes beyond the complicated and can only honestly be described as complex.
Complex spaces require an experimental approach that is designed to seek signs and patterns of emergence that can be amplified. Being honest with employees about such a strategy is tricky, but actually most employees realise that such a situation is emergent and any response is likely to be also. In an uncertain world transparency of purpose and action may well be the best way of reassuring people. At least they will know that, whilst old certainties are under threat their employer is leading the search for new shores whilst all travel through a turbulent storm.
If you are an HR, payroll or finance manager this is an immediate issue that requires your attention, before line managers and employees frame it as a crisis. A word of warning; taking actions in complex spaces often creates unintended feedback loops. So do engage with the issue (frankly many of you will have little choice), but do it with safe-to-fail experiments and avoid the temptation to immediately rush to deploy a robust one size fits all. This is a situation that is already overwhelming robust models and requires more resilience, which is both flexible and adaptive. Good luck!