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'Striking a balance': How one company is rethinking the office for hybrid work

When in-demand IT professionals can pick and choose who they are for, the right working conditions are more important than ever before.

With huge demand for developers and their salaries at an all-time high, companies are focusing on creating the working conditions that will appeal to tech professionals in a highly competitive marketplace. 

While high wages will help attract talented staff and interesting projects will keep them keen, companies also need to ensure they foster a working environment that allows developers to work how they want to, where they want to.

That's something that resonates with Milena Nikolic, CTO at digital ticketing company Trainline, who says a key challenge for her company during the next 12 months is ensuring it can attract and retain the IT talent the business requires.

"For us to be an amazing tech company and deliver our vision, we need the best tech team," she says.

SEE: Building a better commute: How one ticketing company is rolling out new tech for riders

Nikolic recognises that ensuring access to technical talent is a constant battle. She says the market for tech workers in London, where Trainline is based, is "hot". 

"Plenty of people are looking at changing jobs, mainly on the back of all the restrictions around COVID-19. Many people are moving out of London," she says. 

"So, that's something where we really had to have a proper look and think, 'what do we need in order to be able to attract the tech talent that we want?'" 

In its continued efforts to attract the best talent, the company has implemented what Nikolic refers to as a flexi-first way of working, which supports both home and office work.

Trainline's approach focuses on two key areas: developing a hybrid-working model, which allows staff to work from home; and focusing on creating the office of the future, which means building a new kind of employee-focused space for those who do come into work.

Crucially, the company isn't setting quotas in terms of days and hours at either the office or home. Decisions over the location of work are delegated to teams, managers and employees.

"Among the tech people, my guidance to my team has been that, if you feel your team is operating well remotely, then that approach works," says Nikolic.

While this hybrid-working arrangement has been effective so far, she also recognises any change is always a work in progress. 

It's still far too early to tell if most people will crave a return to the office in the longer term, if most professionals will continue to work remotely, or if the most attractive offering for companies and their staff will be something in-between the two.

"We believe hybrid feels right and it allows us to reap the benefits of face-to-face collaboration that can really, in my opinion, only be reproduced in the office, as well as the work/life benefits that we all get from working from home," says Nikolic.

Other companies have taken a similar approach: it's now normal to hear of working weeks being split between the home and the office. Both Apple and Google, for example, are looking for staff to come in for a few days a week to benefit from in-person collaboration.

SEE: Worried your developers will quit? These are the 5 things that coders say keep them happy at work

Many employees have got used to working from home full-time. While isolation was a big concern for some during lockdown, others were at the same time delighted to turn their backs on the daily commute and spend time in ways that allowed them to be more productive at work and at play.

Still, some managers – whether home working has provided a productivity boost or not – are very keen to see their staff back at HQ. And companies that insist on a return to the office might receive an unpleasant surprise. 

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon has been a big proponent of employees returning to the office full-time. But Yahoo Finance reports that on the day the investment banking giant reopened its New York headquarters in February, just 50% – or about 5,000 of the building's 10,000 workers – returned, despite receiving more than two weeks' notice.

Research suggests other workers might be prepared to vote with their feet, too. A recent survey from Microsoft found that over half of employees would consider quitting their company if there was no hybrid-working option.

For many IT professionals, it's going to be tough giving up the flexibility that permanent homeworking brings. So, how will companies encourage IT professionals to get back on the train and spend lots more time in the office?

In a highly competitive marketplace, where workers can choose who they work for and how, managers will need to make the office of the future a compelling place to be. 

To this end, Trainline has spent the past few months refitting its office to create a space that isn't just fit for work, but which is a place where people will actively choose to go.

Nikolic says the company has focused on a couple of things. First, building collaboration spaces that are more casual, such as cafes and hangout areas, and creating co-working spaces, such as agile benches, whiteboarding spaces and stand-up areas.

Second, building an office that allows developers and software engineers to come into the office and benefit from a quiet working area, with a focused space and a good tech setup. 

SEE: Want to get ahead at work? Try using this often underrated skill

Nikolic says the key to success is listening carefully to IT professionals and business colleagues and creating an office that works for them and their requirements.

"I cannot overstate the importance of that," says Nikolic. "That was one of the things that people have been telling us very, very clearly. We make sure that everyone gets two screens and the right setup in terms of all the cabling and technical capabilities." 

The key message for all managers is that the old ways of working are gone forever. Companies must engage with staff about how and where they want to work, and they must develop office spaces that fit those demands. 

Companies that don't take that approach risk losing their talent, so the onus is on managers to develop a hybrid approach to work that is flexible in terms of location and working practices, says Nikolic.

"It's about striking a balance – so far, we think we've accomplished a reasonably good balance, but that was something that we spent a lot of time looking at."

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