Two years after the pandemic hit, the world has woken up to the benefits of remote work.
Now, as we slowly return to our new normal, it’s clear that for most organizations, the days of spending 9-5, Monday to Friday in the office are gone. Hybrid is being billed as the future of work. But while at first glance it seems like it offers us the best of both worlds – part office, part remote, the perfect middle ground – many of us have become increasingly aware of the many challenges of hybrid working.
So why is it that so many of us, managers and employees alike, find hybrid work so exhausting and challenging? What are some of the most common hybrid work challenges? And how can we address these issues to ensure that hybrid work becomes easier for everyone? Let’s dive in and find out.
When talking about the challenges of hybrid work, time and again the same criticism comes up: hybrid work is exhausting. This isn’t just anecdotal; a recent global study on employee engagement found that 80% of people leaders reported that a hybrid working environment was exhausting for employees – and employees themselves said that hybrid was more taxing than either full-time remote or full-time in-office.
One of the reasons that hybrid work is so exhausting is because it can lead to overworking and a poor work/life balance. Multiple studies show that when the world moved to remote work in 2020, average working hours increased, employees were more likely to check and send emails outside of normal working hours, and the crucial boundaries between work and home slowly began to erode.
But while many hybrid work challenges center around feeling exhausted and drained, not all of that is due to working longer hours or not having enough downtime. Emotional exhaustion is a normal response to some of the other challenges of hybrid working – how hard it can be to communicate effectively, how frustrating it is to feel isolated or unseen, and how overwhelming it is to attempt to navigate what’s become a fractured working culture. So what are some of the other common challenges of hybrid working?
One big issue is that hybrid work setups can create disparate employee experiences. Because it involves working from the office half the time and remotely the other half, hybrid work by its very nature comes with a lack of uniformity; one person’s remote setup can vary vastly from someone else's, so companies can’t ensure equity of experience.
This imbalance isn’t only felt in the working environment; it also affects participation and opportunity. New hybrid workers just starting their careers won’t be able to access the same training and mentorship their in-office counterparts would have enjoyed, and they won’t make the same connections. Good working relationships are enormously important when it comes to employee engagement and happiness, so this isn’t something that can be overlooked.
Hybrid work can also create an uneven playing field, where employees who are in the office more than others are more likely to get promotions and recognition. The problem of proximity bias is very real, and it can directly contribute to other hybrid work challenges like presenteeism (or virtual presenteeism), which can in turn cause burnout, frustration, and resentment – all of which feed those prevalent feelings of exhaustion.
Other challenges of hybrid working involve communication. Employees who aren’t in the office miss out on spontaneous communication with their colleagues, and when employee relationships are largely built over Zoom or Slack, it’s easy for things to get lost in translation. Open communication is key for boosting employee morale, yet according to research, nearly 60% of remote workers miss out on crucial information because it was communicated in-person.
Aside from impacting morale, poor communication can create feelings of confusion and isolation among remote workers, which contributes to the cultural challenges of hybrid working. It shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that dividing employees between home and an office risks creating two very distinct organizational cultures: one that’s directed by in-office workers enjoying the perks of working, communicating and mixing in-person, and another where workers feel invisible and alone.
While this fragmented culture isn’t intended, it can nonetheless create powerful and harmful feelings of unhappiness and disconnection, which can cause engagement and productivity to quickly drop off – and then vanish entirely.
While this all might sound negative, it's important to recognize that hybrid working is a work model that’s still in its infancy. This means that without a ready-to-go rulebook, managers are often uncertain about which steps to take, or don’t establish enough firm policies to try and level out the experience. With a bit of knowledge and experience, though, this can change.
What’s great about hybrid’s experimental nature is that it offers employees agency – to work out what does and doesn’t work for them, to carve out more inclusive and healthy working practices, to actively shape the work environment and culture they want to see. This requires liaising with managers about which setups work best and understanding that boundaries need to be set by both employer and employees.
So what are some of the best strategies for approaching the challenges of hybrid working?
For hybrid working to actually work, you need a strong hybrid work policy.
What this looks like can vary for different companies, but generally it involves re-onboarding your entire team; it’s vital to set clear expectations, to ensure everyone knows who knows what, and to invest in emotional connection as soon as you can. You should also include employees in developing your hybrid policy as much as you possibly can, so people can shape the ways they want to work.
Next up, you need to build a strong hybrid work culture. As we’ve seen, hybrid work models can be extremely divisive, so it’s important to be proactive when it comes to ensuring equity of experience.
Take steps to ensure equal visibility, establish an even playing field, and make sure you’re providing fair opportunity. Establish a sound remote communication structure, think about ways to set healthy boundaries, be committed to building inclusivity, and prioritize a culture of psychological safety.
We already know that poor communication is behind many of the challenges of hybrid working, so it’s essential to take time to ensure hybrid meetings are effective.
Do your research on hybrid meeting best practices and identify what the most common challenges are, and how you can address them. For example, how can you ensure everyone feels included? How can you boost participation and engagement? How can you improve the quality of discussion?
Ultimately, rather than viewing hybrid work as an established model that has plenty of problems, it’s better to see it as an exciting working experiment. The teething problems may last years, and certainly, more challenges will, no doubt, emerge along the way. But if companies are responsive and flexible to the needs of their employees, and prioritize building a culture of trust, there’s no reason why many hybrid work challenges can’t become a thing of the past.