It wasn’t long ago since hybrid work was being touted as the future of work”—as a working model that finally gave us the best of both worlds. But as 2021 came to a close, new questions were being raised about hybrid work that cast doubt on its sustainability. The fact that hybrid work can vary so significantly—not just across organizations but between individual employees—lies at the heart of many of the issues surrounding it, including its impact on work-life balance.
Initially, it was believed that hybrid work would help promote a healthy work-life balance; after all, there’s no mandatory five-day commute, and workers are generally able to better structure their work around the rest of their lives. But, almost two years after the pandemic hit, considerable research suggests otherwise.
So how exactly does hybrid work affect our work-life balance? And if it's still true that hybrid is the future of work, what steps can we take to ensure we’re maintaining a healthy work-life balance?
How hybrid “tanked” work-life balance
In December 2021, Dawn Klinghoffer, head of Microsoft’s people analytics function, wrote that hybrid had tanked work-life balance. After studying the productivity trends of millions of Microsoft users around the world, they found that since going remote, the average person sent 42% more emails outside of working hours, and the time spent in Teams meetings had more than doubled. Between April and November 2020, people’s satisfaction with their work-life balance fell by 13%.
Of course, when the world was first sent home to work, it seemed like a good idea to stay connected as best we could—regardless of whether that meant more meetings, calls and online chats. Millions of people had never worked remotely before and were struggling to adjust, and in the face of global stress and uncertainty, many managers overcompensated for the lack of face-to-face support with things like daily Zoom catch-ups, too-frequent team meetings, and on Fridays, the dreaded virtual happy hour.
But as Microsoft’s research shows, in hindsight we can see these actions were counterproductive. The major drivers of the reduced work-life balance were related to the fact the employees were over-collaborating and couldn’t enjoy periods of uninterrupted focus. The more that people collaborated—whether attending meetings or sending emails—the lower their work-life satisfaction rate was when compared to colleagues who didn’t collaborate as much.
Another driver of work-life dissatisfaction was that people were skipping time off. Among Microsoft’s US employees, the average vacation time recorded dropped by a whopping 83%, and we know that when people work remotely they’re more likely to skip lunch breaks and work late. The Microsoft data showed that employees who were able to take some time off in either March or April 2020 were 8% happier with their work-life balance in May compared to employees who had no time off.
Strategies for a better hybrid work-life balance
So, based on these findings, we can say with some certainty that the key to maintaining a good work-life balance lies (at least in part) in attending fewer meetings, having more space to focus, and taking vacation time. But if hybrid work really is going nowhere, and these are all problems that have risen precisely because it was rolled out, how can we protect the wellbeing of our employees?
Being able to prioritize is one of the most important steps we can take to protect our work-life balance. No matter how hard we work or how many hours we put in, the simple truth is that we’ll never get everything done. So to keep workloads manageable and avoid overwork and burnout, it becomes necessary to prioritize the work that’s most important to us.
Microsoft's data supports this, showing that employees who didn’t receive prioritization support were much less satisfied with their work-life balance; 81% stated they felt dissatisfied. This means managers must make helping employees prioritize one of their own top priorities.
2. Rethink meetings
The next step is rethinking meetings. Aside from asking yourself whether each meeting is actually necessary, you should also think about who really needs to be there. It’s also important to give employees a chance to breathe between meetings, to be able to gather their thoughts properly before launching into the next session, so make sure meetings are never scheduled back-to-back.
On a similar basis, try to avoid scheduling meetings for first thing on Monday or last thing on Friday; employees should be allowed to transition in and out of work mode comfortably without worrying about having to immediately be “on” for a meeting. It will be helpful here to get feedback from your employees; do they think meetings could be shorter? Should they be recurring or ad hoc? Who really needs to be there?
3. Protect focus time
Feeling fulfilled at work and as though you’re doing something meaningful strongly hinges on having time for deep work and being able to focus on what’s important to you. Employees should be encouraged to carve out blocks of time each week to work on their own priorities – and they should be further encouraged to protect that space with passion.
No employee wants their managers or colleagues to think they’re slacking or ignoring emails, so think about implementing ‘focus hours’ where everyone knows not to expect responses from emails. Consider using tech to help protect your focus time too —whether it’s manually hitting mute whenever you don’t want to be disturbed or allowing AI-powered tools like Dewo to do it for you.
4. Encourage time off
And finally, actively encourage employees to take time off. With normal travel still a way off, vacation time might look different now, but employees don’t need to get on a plane to have a break. Talk to your employees about the different types of break they can take – whether it’s a staycation, a mental health day, a sick day, or just a day where they can laze around and not feel bad about it.
Remember that many employees are reluctant to take time off because they worry they’ll be inundated with work when they get back, or they feel like certain tasks or projects will struggle while they’re away. Speak to your team to make sure you understand any concerns, then find ways you can help them feel reassured and find the right cover.
Ultimately, if hybrid work is our future, it does mean we’ll need to do a lot of reevaluating. Hybrid environments are very different from in-office environments, so we can’t expect the same systems to work—and we can’t realistically expect to find a successful system without a bit of trial and error.
So now, let’s put what we’ve learned over the past two years to good use, and work towards creating a hybrid environment that not only empowers employees to work in the ways they want, but actually helps them live the lives they want, too.