As the world adapts to living with COVID-19 long-term, one thing is clear: hybrid work is the new future of work. At least, that’s what countless headlines have declared—and it seems that most employees are on board. One study by Accenture found that 83% of employees wanted to go hybrid after the pandemic, and according to a CNBC survey at the start of this year, just under half of companies (45%) planned to have moved to a hybrid way of working by the second half of 2021. But hybrid work isn’t without its critics, and there are many people who believe a hybrid work model simply isn’t sustainable. As businesses develop long-term hybrid work policies, what should they be wary of?
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that when we use the term “hybrid”, we’re not talking about one specific way of working. There are many different ways a hybrid working model can be implemented—and it’s actually this very variety that creates most of the issues surrounding hybrid work. The set-up and level of individual control can vary greatly. You have hybrid models where employees work mostly remote, and only sometimes come into the office, and hybrid models where employees are mostly in-office but work from home once a week. There are models that provide complete flexibility—where employees can come and go as they wish—and models where employees work remotely or in-office based on mandated schedules from management. Hybrid work can also take place in lots of different environments. Alongside former HQs, there’s growing adoption of hybrid hubs and sponsored workspaces, like WeWork-style coworking spaces. For those returning to an office, the experience can be very different depending on how much the space has changed. Many companies are refurbishing their offices to assume a more modular design that can adapt to different work needs—think moveable furniture, Zoom call suites, and breakout spaces. For others, the office may seem identical to pre-pandemic working.
As we’ve already stated, the lack of uniformity involved in hybrid work is behind its biggest issues. Most potential long-term problems center around a company not being able to ensure equity of experience—not only in terms of work life, but also in relation to company culture and opportunity. The social aspect is a big one. Employees who are “majority remote” may mourn their lack of interaction with colleagues, and feel like they’re missing out on forging those all-important social connections that make the work experience infinitely more enjoyable. Studies show that people who feel connected to their coworkers don’t only collaborate better in teams, but also report being generally happier and more engaged at work. The problem of proximity bias may also rear its head. Proximity bias refers to the tendency humans have to look more favourably upon those whom we see more frequently—and in the office, this can cause serious issues. Employees who are mostly in-office are statistically more likely to get promotions and climb the career ladder, causing mostly-remote workers to feel like they have to come into the office just to be visible. This creates problems like presenteeism (including its newest strand: virtual presenteeism) which can in turn lead to burnout, frustration, and resentment.
There’s also the logistical and emotional challenge of flitting between two (often very different) workspaces. “It’s almost impossible to set up two workspaces that are well-equipped for all the different work tasks [employees] need to do,” says Anita Woolley, professor of organizational behaviour at Carnegie Mellon University. “Books or other information sources are always in the wrong place.” Even if you manage to organize your hybrid schedule in a way that means you’re usually in the best environment to complete certain tasks, the daily reality of switching between two different working spaces can be frustrating for employees. This can be compared to the pitfalls of hotdesking, where employees lament the fact they don’t have a dedicated workspace, or feel disheartened by the fact they don’t have their own personal workstation. The impermanence and lack of a clear sense of belonging needs to be addressed. Then there’s the issue of employees who’ve just stepped onto the career ladder. For these young, inexperienced workers, the hybrid model is unlikely to offer the opportunities they may have enjoyed in a physical office. They won’t only miss out on the same training and mentorship they could have sought just by wandering over to a coworker’s desk, buoyed by the deeper connections they would have forged in-person, but they’ll also miss out on the anchor of having an office, and being able to step in and out of work-mode as easily as they step in and out of the office. And finally, there’s the fact that dividing workers between home and an office risks letting two very separate organizational cultures emerge: one that’s dominated by in-office workers enjoying all the benefits of working, collaborating and socializing in-person; and another where employees feel isolated, invisible, and adrift. Though unintended, this can lead to a very real feeling of unhappiness and disconnection at work, which can cause motivation and productivity to erode away entirely.
While this may all sound as though hybrid work is doomed to fail, that’s by no means the case. No working model is perfect, and it may be that both employers and employees feel that the benefits of hybrid work outweigh the drawbacks. Just as creating a successful hybrid work policy takes time, so it will take time for people to adapt to this way of working, and—hopefully—devise effective solutions to some of these problems. Employers will have to continue to keep their finger on the pulse of how employees feel about hybrid work, involve them in shaping new ways of working, and take steps to counter any issues when they can. They’ll also need to take active steps to build a working environment that actually supports remote work—which involves taking time to think about logistics like proper team planning, remote work organizational tools, and how communication and collaboration can be made easier. In the meantime, hybrid configurations, policies and experiences will continue to be extremely diverse, and vary organization by organization, employee by employee. Injecting individualism and involving employees in shaping new ways of working is certainly a step in the right direction, but ultimately it might come down to one question: Does your organization have the tools, resource, and ambition to properly manage and enable hybrid work long-term?