Europe’s SMEs Lean To Hybrid Working – But Are They Prepared?

Reacting to a changing labor market, a significant percentage of Europe’s SMBs are considering a permanent move to hybrid working but allowing staff to alternate between home and office could require a fundamental shift in people policies.

Here in the United Kingdom the pressures on employers are particularly acute. There are currently over a million unfilled jobs vacancies in the United Kingdom, according to Government figures, and companies are struggling to find the people they need.

In one respect, that’s good news. At this stage in the pandemic, many people feared that unemployment would spike higher, driven by a wave of redundancies as the government-funded furlough scheme reached the end of its life. But instead, we have a different kind of problem. The high number of vacancies is not simply an indicator of a recovering economy. It also reflects an acute shortage of workers in the post-Brexit era.  

A Conundrum

That poses a conundrum for small and medium-sized business (SMB) owners. What – other than raising salaries to perhaps unsustainable levels – can you do to attract staff in a time of shortage?

Part of the answer might be a more flexible approach to working patterns. During the pandemic,working from home became the norm and – anecdotally at least – a lot of employees found they rather like swapping the morning commute for a brisk walk from shower to workspace. 

So arguably SMB owners and managers have an opportunity to embrace new working practices, offering improved work/life balance to their staff while perhaps also saving on costs and enabling themselves to search further afield for the skills they need. 

And according to a new survey on British and European businesses by technology provider Owl Labs, that’s exactly what a large percentage of SMBs are preparing to do.  

Now before going any further, it has to be said that Owl Labs has skin in the game in that it sells a video conference meeting device. But its new report – State Of Hybrid Work 2021: Europe Edition – does provide statistics suggesting that SMBs – are preparing to maintain the hybrid working that was forced upon them by the pandemic.  

For instance, despite government calls for British employees to return to town and city centers after around eighteen months of working from home, around 80 percent of employers are considering continuing with the hybrid model. 

Employer Goals

This is partly driven by the preferences of employees. As Frank Weishaupt, Owl Labs, CEO asserts: “Employees are happier at home, and they feel more productive.”  Arguably then, in the current labor market is makes sense for employers to take steps to keep their employees happy. 

But the report also suggests that SMB owners and managers might have their own reasons for pressing ahead with flexible and hybrid working policies. While around 42 percent of leaders believe hybrid working boosts employee wellbeing but, 49% said they thought a mix of home and office work would make their companies more profitable.   

The need to address skills shortages is a factor. Nearly half (48 percent) of those who responded to the survey said a hybrid working model would make it possible for them to tap into talent pools well outside their normal catchment areas. “It doesn’t make sense to limit your talent pool when you can recruit from anywhere in the world,” says Weishaupt.  

So on the face of it, it’s a win/win. Employees get an extra hour in bed – and those who have moved out of the big cities during the pandemic get to stay in their new locations. Meanwhile, employers can enjoy the benefits of a distributed workforce. 

Not So Simple  

In reality, things are probably not quite so simple. Working from home – all the time or for a few days a week – isn’t for everyone. Once the novelty wears off, workers can quickly succumb to feelings of isolation and they may also feel that being outside the loop is damaging their career chances. 

In that respect, employers may have to rethink not only working patterns but their entire approach to HR to ensure that good (and promotable) members of staff don’t get sidelined or forgotten.  “Employers will have to adopt policies. What days will an individual be expected to be in the office? How often is OK not to go in?” asks Weishaupt.  Those are decisions about day-to-day activities. Looking at the longer term picture, employers will also have to address career development issues.  

And yet the report suggests that just a quarter of SMBs are planning to rethink their HR policies.

A permanent shift to hybrid working may require a certain amount of investment in a range of technologies including messaging and collaboration tools and possibly also video conferencing equipment To date, however, only 38 percent of Europe’s SMBs are planning to invest in new tech.  

The hybrid age may be upon us, but it might not be a smooth transition.

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