BP is gearing up for a permanent change in working styles and practices in the post-COVID age, says Chris Porter, Vice-President for Talent Acquisition and Matching, who urges savvy execs elsewhere to be thinking about the implications involved in this shift.
The conglomerate recently told office-based staff they will be expected to spend two days a week working from home after lockdown restrictions ease. Most employees will be asked to work from home 40% of the time, or two days a week for full-time employees. The new hybrid approach will affect 25,000 BP staff, with 6,000 in the UK.
This shift towards hybrid work forms another element in BP’s new operating model. Diana Kennedy, Vice-President for Strategy, Architecture and Planning at BP, explained to diginomica last year how BP is going through a transformation process that involves a shift from being an organization that generates and delivers energy to one that creates and develops integrated and renewable energy solutions.
BP has committed to transitioning to being a net-zero business by 2050 or sooner. Digital technologies are critical to this journey, helping to change the way energy is discovered, created and consumed. Porter, who is leading the company’s recruitment drive for data scientists, software engineers and cyber-security experts domestically and internationally, says BP has taken an engaged approach to the hybrid future of work:
We have been really smart at providing our employees with flexibility over recent years. And for us, it's more about that – if you have a role to do – it's up to you how you want to get the job done. And we're not going to force specific core working hours in most of our roles, certainly for our office-based staff. We try and keep a bit more of an informal approach and work around people, rather than the other way around.
Porter says individual sectors and companies are approaching the new normal in different ways. While some experts might envisage an increasing number of employees working permanently from home, he thinks what BP has recognised is that the value of collaboration and connectivity is still strong for many people:
If you take an apprentice, as an example, the opportunity to learn through Teams or Zoom is that much less than it would be if you're sitting in an office listening to people's conversations around you. So I think BP has wisely taken the middle road, and thought, ‘let's focus on being around each other for three days a week’.
In practice, the time split between home and office work is unlikely to be enforced and is better seen as guidance rather than a rule. While home working has been great for a lot of people, others have been left feeling isolated and burnt out. BP wants to embrace the best of the progress that’s been made around flexible working during the past 12 months while also continuing to recognize the best parts of being in an office environment. Porter explains what the approach looks like:
Let’s try and get together a few times a week, just so that we spend a bit of time together and reinforce the value of human connection. And then we can work from home from the other two days just to get the balance right, because we proved in the past year that we can do it.
The shift towards a hybrid style of working has an impact on the future of the office. Rather than just being a place to work, the office becomes more like a place to meet. Porter says success will be about ensuring that, when BP employees are together in the office, that they’re able to collaborate in a powerful way. He says that will mean making sure that the environments that people work within are fit for purpose:
So a bit more modern, a bit more of a relaxed feel. We've been tinkering with this pre-pandemic actually in our offices globally – just trying to create a nicer place to be. Our offices today look very different because we’ve modernised them; you've got your coffee and chill-out areas in certain offices around the world. So I think we're heading more to that vibe that feels a bit more like a collaboration zone rather than people sitting in cubicles, so it's going to feel quite different.”
Working from home, of course, won’t be right for everyone. Porter says that if employees desperately need a place to work, or it's better for them to be in the office, then that's something BP will offer as part of its hybrid approach to work. But if hybrid work is the new normal, then executives will need to pay much more attention to how their disparate workforce is feeling, particularly when it comes to issues of isolationism and burnout. Porter explains how he feels BP’s approach will help to ensure that people are still communicating and collaborating effectively, regardless of location:
I think that the balanced approach to being back in the office will help and give people a bit of respite. I think the other thing that's really important is the way that we are adopting a more flexible mindset to work. So if you do have to take your kids to school, work will fit around you to a certain extent to help you to do that. And then it's really all down to leadership.
Porter says BP has placed a strong emphasis on the role of the leader and the emotional connection that managers have with their people. He says that good leaders will work closely with individuals in their team and make sure that they feel comfortable with the new hybrid way of working:
It has been tough during the pandemic, because everyone in the world has been going through this thing and we've been adopting and adapting. But the response that BP has shown to the pandemic, and the support of its employees, has been first class. And I'm pretty sure we can get that balance right in the future.