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Navigating the fast-evolving landscape of work post-pandemic


By Dr Nina Jörden (Bennett Institute for Public Policy), Josie Beal (Birketts) and Henry Stark (Marshall)

The Cambridge Ahead Young Advisory Committee (YAC) has been exploring the experiences of younger people working in Cambridge’s ‘knowledge intensive’ sectors since the height of the pandemic, building up an understanding of the future of work through a series of surveys and roundtable events. In this blog, members of the YAC explore the results of their latest research and ask: “Is the tide turning on remote and hybrid work?”

Key takeaways from the latest research:

  • The tide is not turning completely, at least for desk-based workers in Cambridge - “we will not return to being in the office 5 days a week. Hybrid working is here to stay.”
  • Young workers seem to be choosing to go into the office or workplace more often than their employers are requiring them to.
  • The social capital offered by a physical workplace and team environment, and the associated wellbeing and productivity benefits of this, might be what is driving this trend.
  • Some employers are becoming concerned that working remotely the majority of the time poses risks to the long-term development and progression of junior staff.

Our latest survey explored the question, 'Is the tide changing on remote and hybrid work?' This was prompted by ongoing debates about the impact of remote and hybrid working on our work relationships, productivity, and wellbeing. In recent months, we’ve seen varying approaches by employers, with some adopting an increasingly robust stance to 'get people back to the office,' while others have fully embraced remote working. Questions are still being asked about when and where work happens. Many employers find themselves in between the extremes of fully remote work and getting employees back into the physical office setting, often citing productivity as a key reason to get people in the same physical space. Employers caught in the middle are actively seeking optimal approaches to govern and oversee hybrid working environments. They acknowledge the wellbeing benefits associated with working from home but express concerns about the potential impact on productivity, innovation, and creativity if face-to-face collaboration diminishes.

The YAC’s survey and roundtable revealed that the contemporary workplace is continually evolving in the post-pandemic period. While the majority of respondents currently embrace a five-day office week, three days seems to be the optimal balance for in-office presence. However, despite employer expectations of three office days, our survey respondents choose to spend more time in the workplace. What is influencing these choices?

Read the survey results here

Social capital's influence on wellbeing and productivity

We find the concept of social capital as a valuable lens through which we can understand the impact of flexible work on both productivity and wellbeing and the choices made by young people to attend the office more often than required by their employers. Workplaces are often perceived as vibrant ecosystems where relationships flourish. Within teams, bonding social capital thrives, nurturing collaboration and shared norms. Extending beyond departments and hierarchical levels, bridging social capital forms a diverse fabric of ideas and resources. Within this intricate social fabric, trust emerges as the fundamental pillar and acts as the adhesive bonding employees to their workplace and the organisation. It functions as the currency of cooperation and significantly influencing work performance, commitment, and the inclination to remain with the company. Trust also emerges as the driving force behind individuals choosing to get back into the office, as a roundtable participant shared:

“We faced resistance when we started implementing a mandatory return to the office. We realised that we needed to build trust and one of the ways we’ve done that is through leading by example.”

Research consistently highlights a correlation between workplace social capital, employee well-being, and productivity.1 2 3 Strong social connections act as a safety net, contributing to contentment and overall well-being. Moreover, the trust placed in leadership plays a crucial role in job satisfaction, initiating a positive feedback loop of collaboration and contentment. Nevertheless, orchestrating this delicate balance becomes more intricate within the context of workplace flexibility.

Support from coworkers emerges as a critical factor for employee productivity, overshadowing the impact of office attendance

Flexible work arrangements receive praise for various reasons, such as fostering organisational agility, reducing costs, providing greater flexibility and autonomy, and boosting morale. Notably, it is argued that flexible work aids employees in achieving a better balance between work and family life. Research insights indicate that flexible working arrangements are linked to improved physical health and reduced absenteeism, suggesting that such arrangements can help people to maintain their well-being.4Studies also provide evidence of a positive interaction between flexible working arrangements and improved performance in the workplace. This is mainly attributed to flexible working options leading to increased job satisfaction and organisational commitment, which could ultimately increase the productivity of the individual.5 6

The survey results found that support from peers and managers emerges as a critical factor for employee productivity. Individuals with lower support levels reported heightened feelings of isolation and concerns about strained relationships with colleagues. Physical presence further amplifies the support dynamic, with those spending 2-5 days in the office experiencing increased support compared to those with limited in-office time (0-1 days). Likewise, individuals spending 4-5 days in the office consistently express a deep sense of connection, feeling valued, and understanding managerial expectations. Notably, the results show a relationship between this support and self-reported productivity, highlighting the nuanced influence of emotional support on overall job performance. Therefore, while our survey found no direct relationship between self-reported productivity and time spent in the office – respondents generally reported high productivity irrespective of the number of days spent in the office – it does point to an indirect relationship, whereby people who are in the office generally feel better supported, and concurrently more productive. In relation to flexible work, what seems to matter is employees’ autonomy over their working arrangement and as opposed to rigid office attendance policies.

Participants in our roundtable discussion highlighted the role of flexible working arrangements in recruitment and retention, with flexibility found by the employers present to significantly decrease turnover. Flexible working can enable companies to attract and retain talent from diverse regions without necessitating relocation, as highlighted by a participant in our roundtable discussion:

"Hybrid and remote working have enhanced our organization's ability to recruit and retain talent compared to when a physical presence in the office was the norm. This flexibility allows individuals who might face challenges relocating to still contribute to the company. Consequently, we've successfully recruited professionals from various parts of the country without requiring them to relocate."

But concerns remain about the long-term impact of new ways of working

Hybrid working arrangements are not without criticism, with suggestions that they can negatively impact knowledge sharing, lead to work intensification, or impede collaboration within an organisation. There are fears that some skills will be lost if employees do not attend the office.

“It is important to consider the long-term impacts of junior staff not going into the office and the skills that will be lost as a result.”

Navigating the complexities of the hybrid work culture involves considerations of factors like housing, home-working environments, career aspirations, commuting logistics, and industry norms. There are ongoing discussions about the potential challenges in replicating the informal 'water cooler' moments in virtual environments and assessing their impact. For example, one roundtable participant revealed concerns about the performance disparity between employees onboarded remotely and those onboarded in-person.

Given these complexities, the effects of flexible and hybrid working arrangements must be approached with nuance, considering that certain groups, such as individuals lacking adequate resources at home, such as a dedicated workspace, reliable internet access, or appropriate technology, as well as those who struggle to self-motivate or with time management skills, or with a preference for a social environment, may benefit less.

Therefore, it is crucial to adopt a differentiated perspective when assessing the impact of flexible working on wellbeing and productivity.

What does the future hybrid work entail?

This latest survey and roundtable discussions emphatically confirm that the "future of work" continues to be a captivating topic and a consensus on the right way or where to work is yet to be reached. What remains clear is that hybrid working will maintain its pivotal position as a crucial strategy for employee recruitment and retention in desk-based roles. The discourse is moving beyond the binary comparison between working from home and working from the office and is shifting towards finding the ideal balance in a model that combines the benefits of working from home with the collaborative advantages of working from the office. As this dynamic work model undergoes further evolution, organisations will persistently seek the optimal equilibrium that enhances productivity while fostering and building social capital within the continually shifting work environment. The YAC remains committed to delving into the unique experiences and requirements of individuals under 35 in Cambridge as this transformative journey unfolds.



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Sarah Brereton, Director, Limewash
07796 583 223

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