People thought they’d prefer hybrid work from home and going into the office, but 80% are finding it exhausting

Emerging data is beginning to back up such anecdotal evidence: many workers report that hybrid is emotionally draining. In a recent global study by employee engagement platform Tinypulse, more than 80% of people leaders reported that such a set-up was exhausting for employees. Workers, too, reported hybrid was more emotionally taxing than fully remote arrangements – and, concerningly, even full-time office-based work. 

Why hybrid work is emotionally exhausting

By Alex Christian, 20th January 2022

A part-remote, part-office schedule has been hailed as the future of work. Yet in this hybrid set-up, some employees have never been so tired.

When Klara was offered a hybrid working arrangement, she thought it would be the best of both worlds. The account manager had initially joined her London-based firm on a full-time office contract, only for successive waves of Covid-19 to force her to work from home. 

Klara’s boss introduced the hybrid policy in September 2021, when UK government guidance recommending home working came to an end: Tuesdays and Thursdays would be home-working days, with the remainder of the week spent in the office during normal contracted hours. 

“Having a permanent hybrid set-up initially came as a relief,” says Klara, whose surname is being withheld for job-security concerns. “After years of full-time office work, it felt like I finally had control over my work schedule and busy home life.” 

As the months rolled by, however, the novelty of hybrid work soon gave way to hassle and a jarring one-day-in, one-day-out routine. “I feel settled and focused on the days that I work from home,” says Klara. “But by the evening I dread having to go back in: sitting at my desk for eight hours a day in a noisy office, staring at a screen, readjusting to exactly how it was before Covid.” 

Klara feels she now has two workplaces to maintain – one in the office and one at home. “It involves planning and a stop-start routine: taking my laptop to and from the office every day, and remembering what important things I’ve left where,” she adds. “It’s the psychological shift – the change of setting every day – that’s so tiring; this constant feeling of never being settled, stressed and my productive home working always being disrupted.”  

Emerging data is beginning to back up such anecdotal evidence: many workers report that hybrid is emotionally draining. In a recent global study by employee engagement platform Tinypulse, more than 80% of people leaders reported that such a set-up was exhausting for employees. Workers, too, reported hybrid was more emotionally taxing than fully remote arrangements – and, concerningly, even full-time office-based work. 

Given many businesses plan on implementing permanent hybrid working models, and that employees by and large want their working weeks spent between home and the office, such figures sound alarm bells. But what is it specifically about hybrid working that is so emotionally exhausting? And how can workers and companies avoid pitfalls so that hybrid actually works?

Constantly switching workplaces - and the planning associated with it - can leave workers drained, research suggests (Credit: Getty)

Constantly switching workplaces – and the planning associated with it – can leave workers drained, research suggests (Credit: Getty)

Why hybrid can be taxing  

As the pandemic has dragged on, and workers’ flexible working habits have become more ingrained, a full-time return to the office seems a relic of the past. But while some companies have implemented work-from-anywhere policies, a large swath of businesses have landed on hybrid as the default working model, once it’s deemed safe to return to offices in large numbers. 

In theory, hybrid offers the best deal for both employer and employee. It combines pre-Covid-19 patterns of office-based working with remote days, in a working schedule that would allow both in-person collaboration and team building, as well as greater flexibility and the opportunity for focused work at home. It seemed a win-win for workers; in one May 2021 study, 83% said they wanted to go hybrid after the pandemic

There was a feeling that hybrid would be the best of both worlds,” says Elora Voyles, an industrial organizational psychologist and people scientist at Tinypulse, based in California. “For bosses, it means they retain a sense of control and that they can see their workers in person. For employees, it offers more flexibility than full-time in the office and means they can work safely during the pandemic.” 

However, as the novelty of hybrid working has faded, so too has workers’ enthusiasm. “We found that people were less positive about hybrid through 2021 as the year went on,” explains Voyles. “In the spring and summer months, many organizations were really keen to implement it. They brought employees on to a hybrid schedule, but then quickly ran into difficulties.” 

Organisations that had never implemented hybrid before were suddenly making up policies on-the-fly, often without consulting employees. So, as in Klara’s case, part-office, part-home arrangements were thrust onto the workforce. 

The longer I did hybrid the more I felt it was just an extra hurdle to doing my job: from the commute to knowing that I’d be working elsewhere the next day – Klara

Optimism among workers soon gave way to fatigue. In Tinypulse’s survey of 100 global workers, 72% reported exhaustion from working hybrid – nearly double the figures for fully remote employees and also greater than those based fully in the office. Voyles says the small sample size reflects a wider trend; she believes it’s the disruption to employees’ daily routines – and the staccato nature of hybrid – that workers find so tiring

A predictable, consistent routine can help people cope with feelings of stress and uncertainty – especially during a pandemic,” says Voyles. “Hybrid, however, requires frequent changes to those daily habits: workers have to constantly switch things up, so it’s hard to find a routine when your schedule is always in-and-out the office.” 

A familiar routine can act as a well-worn groove that allows flow, but carving out new daily habits – involving a less consistent schedule between workplaces – can chip away at cognitive resources. “Moving to hybrid has the potential to disrupt someone’s home-working routine,” explains Gail Kinman, a chartered psychologist and fellow of the British Psychological Society. “Hybrid practices haven’t become second nature yet, so it takes greater energy, organization and planning. You have to form new strategies – hot desking, planning commutes – that you wouldn’t need if you were fully remote or in-person.” 

Physically carrying work back-and-forth between home and the office may also come with a psychological impact for some. A recent study found 20% of UK workers reported difficulties switching off from work and feeling ‘always on’; struggling to adapt to hybrid, and the permeable boundaries between home and work, was cited as a major factor. 

Hybrid can also come with a greater risk of digital presenteeism, adds Kinman, compared to fully remote jobs which imply employer trust from the get-go. “If an employer sets up hybrid without trusting their workforce, it can become little more than a token gesture: workers feel pressure to show their boss they’re not taking advantage of home working. That could lead to overwork and burnout, the effects of which can be devastating but take a long time to show up.” 

Companies are still defining hybrid - and experts say avoiding one-size-fits-all policies is key to succeeding (Credit: Getty)

Companies are still defining hybrid – and experts say avoiding one-size-fits-all policies is key to succeeding (Credit: Getty)

Defining hybrid 

For some workers, frustrations with hybrid mean they’re gravitating towards jobs that allow them full control over their schedules. 

“I thought hybrid was for me – but splitting my time between home and the workplace was just too disruptive,” says Klara, who is soon to begin a new, fully remote role. “I find the office distracting – you can be bothered at any moment. The longer I did hybrid the more I felt it was just an extra hurdle to doing my job: from the commute to knowing that I’d be working elsewhere the next day. It quickly became a chore.” 

Yet Klara’s experience doesn’t necessarily mean that workers should head back to their office desks five days a week, or seek jobs that are permanently remote. 

Hybrid can still be a perfect harmony for workers – so long as their employer gets it right. “Where the arrangement goes wrong is when it’s a hybrid schedule dictated by a supervisor,” explains Voyles. “Employees end up with a working week they have no control over: it’s like the fixed full-time office schedule of old, which just happens to be in the worker’s home twice a week.” 

Kinman says it comes down to what organizations mean by ‘hybrid’. “It’s a broad definition that can be interpreted in many ways: from going into the office three days a week, to once a month. Hybrid can still be the future of work and represent the best of both worlds – but it still needs refining.”

Hybrid practices haven’t become second nature yet, so it takes greater energy, organization and planning – Gail Kinman

Hybrid can be successful when managers liaise with staff, likely on an individualized basis, about how the set-up would work best for them. “It’s both employer and employee who need to set boundaries,” says Voyles. “But there needs to be autonomy for the worker to self-manage their schedule – flexibility needs to be dictated by the individual, not the boss.” 

Furthermore, hybrid staff could be aided by more robust remote-working set-ups, helping to ease the psychological shift between the office and home. “Hybrid is a state of mind,” says Kinman. “It’s the idea that we seamlessly move and work from setting to setting. Therefore, mechanisms have to be in place to ensure employees have the right home-working software and tools.” 

Kinman says that we’re in the midst of a great working experiment: she predicts that the teething problems of hybrid will last for years. “Currently, we know more about full-time remote working through a health crisis than we do about hybrid working in the long-term,” she adds. 

However, if workers are allowed a degree of choice and control over their working patterns, the rewards could pay dividends. “Both people and organizations claim they want hybrid,” says Kinman. “So, there is a great opportunity to change how we work. But it has to go further than the hours bosses set – it has to be a mindset that works for both employer and employee.”

A woman working at home

By Katie Bishop9th January 2022

Employees with non-traditional working arrangements have been punished in pay and promotions alike. As flexible work becomes the norm, can we end the penalty?

It’s almost hard to remember a time before the pandemic when working flexibly was the exception, rather than the norm. Whether flexibility meant keeping different hours to the normal 9-to-5 structure or the ability to work outside the office, those whose jobs were structured atypically stuck out as different to their colleagues. 

And often, they paid a price; those who did secure a flexible role were likely to find that their working pattern came with a pay or progression penalty linked to negative perceptions of flexible work. This especially impacted women, who were twice as likely to work flexibly as men. 

Yet the upheaval we’ve experienced over the past two years – and the fact that millions of employees of all kinds across many industries have proved that flexible work can be highly productive – may have shifted these perceptions. Leaders and decision-makers who might previously have frowned on flexible working have had the chance to experience a different way of working themselves, and many found they liked it. In fact, numerous major organizations have stated they do not plan to make a full-time return to the office, in spite of easing lockdown measures in some countries. 

With such a significant shift, those who want to work flexibly may well be hoping that negativity associated with non-traditional working patterns will have disappeared. But it may not be so simple; presenteeism remains a powerful force, and work cultures still favor those who spend more time with managers. 

With these factors in play, will the flexible work penalty come back into full force when workers are asked to return to the office, however many days a week – or have the last two years changed perceptions around flexible work for the better? 

A “want” rather than a “need” 

Traditionally, unconventional work set-ups were much more likely to be the preserve of mothers juggling childcare with the demands of their career. Yet the enforced shift to widespread remote working – and the fact that many people have subsequently embraced it – has meant that flexible work is no longer reserved for female caregivers. 

Three-quarters of UK workers now say work-life balance is more important to them than it was pre-pandemic, and employers are starting to respond to this. The number of jobs advertised as remote has increased by roughly 20% since 2020, as demand increases, and both companies and staff alike have begun to understand that wanting to work flexibly is not necessarily negative or due to a lack of commitment. For many workers, it’s become about how their career fits with their lifestyle – it’s a ‘want’ rather than a ‘need’ that can help increase their quality of life.

There will always be a bit of a premium for being physically in the office – Alok Alström

Flexible work carried much more stigma pre-pandemic,” says Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder of Flexa, a company that assesses the flexible working policies of major organizations. “Before, those who hadn’t worked regularly from home assumed that it meant working less hard. Now, because everyone has been forced to work from home and they’ve still been productive, those pre-conceived notions of what working from home means have been dispelled.” 

The number of newly created flexible roles reflects this mindset shift; pre-pandemic, finding a flexible role could be a battle, with demand vastly outstripping supply. In the UK only 15% of jobs were advertised as flexible in 2019, significantly less than the 87% of employees who wanted flexibility in their role. Now, however, millions of roles have that flexibility built in, whether shifting to entirely remote or hybrid set-ups. 

This could be good news for women – the comparatively high uptake of part-time work, remote schedules and reduced hours among working mothers has always been a key contributing factor to the gender pay gap. Yet demand to work flexibly from men increased by 30% during the pandemic, and research suggests that the number of men requesting to work remotely is now comparable to their female counterparts. 

Although widespread remote working hasn’t been the norm for long enough to observe progression and pay patterns among newly flexible workers, experts are hopeful that increased normalization of flexible work could potentially reduce its negative impact on careers and even lessen gender pay gaps. 

“Flexible working was historically associated with women more than men, and particularly working mothers,” says Johnson-Jones. “By removing the need to have a ‘reason’ to request flexibility and giving everyone the freedom to choose how to work, we can make true progress on gender equality.”

Presenteeism remains a powerful force – and flexible workers may still miss out on opportunities to build strong ties with colleagues and managers (Credit: Getty Images)

Presenteeism remains a powerful force – and flexible workers may still miss out on opportunities to build strong ties with colleagues and managers (Credit: Getty Images)

The problem of presenteeism 

Yet, as employees trickle back to the office and more workplaces initiate hybrid working policies, some worry familiar problems of presenteeism might stifle progress. 

“There will always be a bit of a premium for being physically in the office,” says Alok Alström, founder of the Future of Work Institute, a think tank based in Sweden. Working remotely could prevent workers from developing a strong relationship with “the person who is controlling your salary and role, particularly if you haven’t met key decision-makers. It also means that you are less likely to be invited to social events, which are often where relationships are built within companies.” 

Enforced remote working offered up an idealised version of a more equitable workplace – after all, it’s difficult to penalise someone for spending less time at the office when everyone is working from their kitchen table. As yet, however, there’s little evidence to show that the level playing field wasn’t simply a temporary benefit of lockdown. As Alström argues, it’s possible human nature might win out, with office bonding mechanisms offering a natural advantage to those who choose to show up to the workplace in person. 

Experts also point out that, far from being a utopia for flexible workers, the post-pandemic office environment could heighten competition between at-home staff and those who show up to the workplace. 

“The democratisation of flexible work might make those who don’t go for this option stand out even more,” says Thomas Roulet, an associate professor in organisational theory at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. “It’s perfectly intuitive to believe that the flexible work penalty will lessen as everybody gets access to flexible work, but it might simply mean that those who stay away from flexible working make an even stronger signal of commitment to their employers.”

The post-pandemic office environment could heighten competition between at-home staff and those who show up to the workplace

Presenteeism is a powerful force that’s been blamed for everything from the widespread burnout of office workers to the productivity lag in many economies. The idea of “showing up” is so deeply ingrained in working culture that Roulet believes some employees may continue to pursue it, even when less rigid work structures are an option, deepening the divide between flexible and non-flexible staff. And this wouldn’t just be a problem for people who choose to take advantage of newly adaptable workplace policies. 

“Hyperflexibility might become the norm, but there are implications for how people take advantage of these policies,” he says. For office-based workers, too, “it might actually generate more burnout, as some employees feel more responsible and engaged, and so might be less likely to take time off, for example, whilst others take full advantage of the flexibility options available to them.” 

Preparing for change 

The only way for workers to know if the penalty is mitigated for good – or perhaps even worse than ever, as Roulet fears – is for working patterns to stabilise in some way so employees and experts alike can collect data. 

Of course, work hasn’t yet settled – and with the rise of a new virus variant, it seems increasingly likely we’ll stay in flux for some time. It may be a while until we can see how the flexible work penalty plays out in a world that is newly – and seemingly – permanently accommodating to formerly unconventional work patters. 

But that’s not all bad. This holding pattern gives companies time to continue evaluating their policies and practices as well as examine their biases, as workers are pushing them to do. It creates some hope that we’ll soon find a fairer and more equitable way of working, whether workers are at office desks or kitchen tables.

(Credit: Getty Images)

By Maddy Savage

13th September 2021

Many managers are itching to get staff back to the office, despite employees championing alternative set-ups. Why – and how will this change workers’ futures?

As we head into 2022, Worklife is running our best, most insightful and most essential stories from 2021. When you’re done with this article, check out our full list of the year’s top stories

Leaning across their desk to ask a colleague a quick question, spontaneously heading out for a walk-and-talk brainstorm and knowing that everyone’s logged on to a stable Wifi connection. These are just a few of the reasons James Rogers, 26, loves managing their team from the office, instead of the kitchen table. 

“We as a business are very much office first, and personally I believe we can be a stronger workforce when based in the office full time,” says Rogers, a digital public-relations lead in the London branch of a British-American global content agency. The firm started giving employees the option to return to the office part-time in April. “Our aim is to have as many of our team back in the office as often as possible in the coming months.”

Human-resources experts say Rogers’ attitude is indicative of a broad trend. Despite numerous global surveys indicating remote working has been a positive experience for a significant portion of employees, and that many (though not all) want it to continue, plenty of bosses disagree.

In the US, a whopping 72% of managers currently supervising remote workers would prefer all their subordinates to be in the office, according to recent research for the Society for Human Resource Management, seen by BBC Worklife in July. A June poll of UK managers for the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) showed that about half expected staff to be in the office at least two to three days a week.

In Sweden, data-driven employee engagement firm Winningtemp, which serves clients in 25 countries, says it’s already noticing signs of a back-to-the-office push, particularly in markets where there are high levels of vaccinations. “I see a lot of companies forcing it right now,” says founder and CEO Pierre Lindmark. “They start saying, ‘OK, now, you took the second vaccine, you need to be at the office’.”

All this is fuelling debates about why exactly bosses are turning their backs on remote setups faster than many experts predicted, what it means for the future of remote work and how it will impact on employees who want to cling to their pandemic working routines.

"We as a business are very much office-first ... I believe we can be a stronger workforce when based in the office full time" – James Rogers (Credit: Courtesy of James Rogers)

“We as a business are very much office-first … I believe we can be a stronger workforce when based in the office full time” – James Rogers (Credit: Courtesy of James Rogers)

A need for control

Although the uptick in home working during Covid-19 proved that employees could be productive outside the office, human resources experts point out that many managers experienced a loss of control compared to pre-pandemic times. Reversing remote-working policies and promoting a back-to-the-office mentality may, at least in part, be down to a keenness to regain some control. 

“If you meet people, you feel that you can have control,” says Lindmark. “You’re not judging people by just seeing each other on camera, you’re judging by seeing the productivity, seeing what’s going on [in the office].”

Now that in many countries lockdowns are over and vaccination rates are high, he says bosses are making a more “emotional” choice to get everyone back to the office. But he warns this is often happening without them looking closely at individual or company-wide performance during their home-working phase, or having a strategy for how this will impact on employee experience.

“Managing a remote team is harder. It demands new skill sets. And a lot of people were thrown into it unready,” adds Maya Middlemiss, an author on remote working based in Valencia, Spain. “So, it’s not surprising in a way that we’re having a backlash and people who didn’t adapt well to that from a management point of view would much rather have everybody back.”

Other observers have taken a less diplomatic tone, with business and media blogger Ed Zitron recently claiming that many middle-managers are keen to claw back a sense of status. He says some simply miss the opportunity to look important as they “walk from meeting to meeting” and monitor what their teams are up to. “While this can happen over Zoom and Slack, it becomes significantly more apparent who actually did the work, because you can digitally evaluate where the work is coming from,” he wrote in a June newsletter.

In the US, a whopping 72% of managers currently supervising remote workers would prefer all their subordinates to be in the office

Unsurprisingly, managers themselves aren’t queuing up to share that perspective. But pro-office bosses like James Rodgers do accept that “more visibility” of those they line-manage is a core part of their pro-office mantra. “Not so that you can micromanage and ‘keep an eye on them’, but so you can understand where they might need more support,” they argue. “It’s easier to discern whether a team member might be struggling with a task when they’re sat in front of you. You just don’t get that visibility when they’re sat 30 or 40 miles away from you in their own home.”

Aside from visibility, bosses championing a shift from remote working also tend to highlight the social and creative possibilities for office-based employees. For instance, ice-breaker chats by the water cooler, in-person inductions for new hires, team-building after-work drinks and spontaneous brainstorms.

“We did our best over lockdowns to try and be as creative and free-flowing as possible, but it’s pretty hard when you have to schedule a call for every single thing,” says Daniel Bailey, 34, CEO of a London-based footwear-research company that’s moving into an office in the city’s new Design District in September. “Working remotely has absolutely massive benefits, [but] I don’t think it’ll ever be better than being in one place together, for the creative process,” he says.

Kerri Sibson, director of the development company behind the new neighbourhood, says other bosses are prioritising a return to office spaces for their staff to be able to host and attend physical networking events again, or connect with other industry professionals in the same area. “New businesses need to find opportunities for growth that often come from these chance encounters,” she argues.

Pierre Lindmark believes managers' desire for control is a big part of the call back to offices (Credit: Courtesy of Pierre Lindmark)

Pierre Lindmark believes managers’ desire for control is a big part of the call back to offices (Credit: Courtesy of Pierre Lindmark)

Out of sight, out of mind? 

Whatever managers’ motivations for shifting away from remote work, stating a clear preference for ‘visible’ employees raises important questions about equity in the workforce, if some staff are still working remotely, or spending a higher proportion of their time at home than others.

Pro-office bosses like Rogers are often quick to insist that businesses can and should work to ensure “there are equal experiences and opportunities for the team whether they are office based or not”. But the Society for Human Resource Management’s recent survey suggested that around two-thirds of managers of remote staff believe full-time remote work is actually detrimental to employees’ career objectives. A similar proportion admit to considering remote employees more easily replaceable than onsite workers. 

“The adage, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ explains perfectly why this sentiment exists among people managers and it explains how deeply-ingrained the idea of face-to-face work is in our culture,” argues Johnny C Taylor, the organisation’s president and CEO.

The SHRM survey suggested around two-thirds of managers of remote staff believe full-time remote work is detrimental to employees’ career objectives

Other research suggests some managers still struggle to trust employees who are working from home. Findings from an online survey of 200 US executives in August suggested they didn’t have full faith in a third of their staff to correctly utilise the collaborative remote technologies needed to make remote working successful. Earlier in the pandemic research for Harvard Business Review showed that 41% of managers were sceptical about whether teleworkers could remain motivated in the long-term.

Middlemiss warns there’s a “genuine risk” these kinds of attitudes towards remote office employees will amplify pre-existing biases, such as those linked to race, class, disability and gender. Even before Covid-19, women were more likely to request flexible working due to caring responsibilities, for example, says Middlemiss, and are therefore likely to be disproportionately affected if companies prioritise retaining or promoting office staff. 

Retaining top talent

On the flipside, employment experts predict that despite some managers’ resistance to remote working, they might simply have to make it an ongoing option as companies seek to keep and recruit employees.

“The pandemic has proven that employees can successfully work from home, and they want to continue this flexibility,” says Taylor. “Ultimately, benefits like telework and flexible schedules are critical to attracting and retaining top-tier talent, and employers are aware of this.”

“If you could work remotely, for one person, you can actually remote work for anybody else, including potentially employers not in your immediate area,” adds Middlemiss. “So, if you know now that’s how you want to live and work, it’s important to be aware that there could be lots more opportunities open to you.”

Olga Beck-Friis, co-founder of a Stockholm-based digital legal-advice platform, says she plans to keep the ability for remote work in place (Credit: PocketLaw)

Olga Beck-Friis, co-founder of a Stockholm-based digital legal-advice platform, says she plans to keep the ability for remote work in place (Credit: PocketLaw)

There is already overwhelming evidence of increased job-hopping as workers emerge from the pandemic with a sharper focus on what they want their work and home routines to look like moving forward. In the US, a new survey from PwC suggests that nearly two-thirds of workers are on the hunt for a new position, while figures from leading UK jobs site Totaljobs suggests that more than three-quarters of Britons are actively searching.

Managers who are continuing to champion remote working are quick to argue that their approach is already having a positive impact on recruitment. “We have had developers applying to work for us from France, from the UK, from Belgium. And that is because we have this flexibility in place,” argues Olga Beck-Friis, co-founder of a digital legal-advice platform based in Stockholm. “We currently have no plans to adopt a full-time back-to-work policy.”

Meanwhile, Lindmark at Winningtemp argues some of the managers who choose to return to the office full-time may end up reassessing their decisions. He says the switch away from remote working could have an impact on productivity levels and profitability, if staff choose to stay in their jobs, yet aren’t on board with their company’s strategy.

“If people have been home-working for a long time and they really enjoy that – coming in, they’re feeling that they are just controlled… they’re losing autonomy.” Instead, he argues bosses need to take a closer look at individual and team output and how employees are feeling to help co-create hybrid models that people are comfortable with.

“A flexible work programme… it has to work mutually for employees, employers and organisations alike,” agrees Taylor at the Society for Human Resource Management. “There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. And that’s key.” 

But in London, pro-office manager Rogers remains confident that other companies will come round to their way of thinking. “I do think there will be a large number of businesses who underestimate the power of having their workforce together in one space who may shift their initial stance on moving to remote working in the future,” they argue. “We found that the majority of our staff were excited about being back in the office together.”

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Workers may find they're going back into the office more than usual, even as they've requested increased flexibility during the pandemic (Credit: Getty Images)

By Bryan Lufkin

21st September 2021

Across the world, workers are rallying for hybrid arrangements. But, for some, the new workplace may end up more frustrating than flexible.

H

Hybrid has been heralded as the future of work. Research shows the majority of employees want their organisation to offer a mix of remote work and in-office time, and many see the hybrid workweek model as a path to better work-life balance.

Right now, companies around the world are experimenting with different types of hybrid set-ups, to see what suits their organisation best. Some companies remain on the fence, and when the possible downsides of hybrid work are discussed, most people generally assume pushback will come from the companies who decide it doesn’t suit their needs.

But there could be reason to believe employees may actually be the ones who fall out of love with hybrid, despite its widely touted advantages.

Employees who often work from home could perceive a negative impact on their career, linked to a lack of interaction with colleagues and managers. Those who want to climb the ladder could feel compelled to spend more time in the office, so they’re visible to the powers that be. Some people, meanwhile, could experience difficulties switching seamlessly between home and office work environments.

It’s possible, some experts suggest, once we’ve tried hybrid arrangements for a while, some might find the set-up a less attractive option. 

Younger workers particularly may increasingly reject remote-work arrangements, as they don't have ideal set-ups for ergonomic working (Credit: Getty Images)

Younger workers particularly may increasingly reject remote-work arrangements, as they don’t have ideal set-ups for ergonomic working (Credit: Getty Images)

Why hybrid’s appeal may fade

First, the daily reality of juggling two workspaces could prove frustrating for workers.

“For the employees themselves, it is almost impossible to set up two workspaces that are well-equipped for all the different work tasks they need to do – books or other information sources are always in the wrong place, or they don’t have a photocopier or fax at home,” says Anita Woolley, associate professor of organisational behaviour and theory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, US.

“So, no matter where they are working, they are almost always someplace trying to do something without some necessary tools.” Even if employees are able to choose their working location every day, Woolley says “it is nearly impossible to schedule tasks such that you are in the best place to complete them”.  

Of course, some people may believe that these are inconveniences worth putting up with. But others – particularly younger workers with poor home-working set-ups – may well feel that the office is a better place for them to be productive. And some workers may feel like they genuinely collaborate more, get more done and come up with better ideas when they’re able to communicate freely in person with their colleagues, especially when they’re just a swivel of an office chair away. So, even if an employer offers remote-work days, some people may come in, anyway – or at least more than the minimum days mandated by management.

No matter where they are working, they are almost always someplace trying to do something without some necessary tools – Anita Woolley

Additionally, even if workers are highly productive at home, they risk no-one noticing that output. Without regular, sustained input from managers, employees who spend more time working remotely could begin to feel that they might become undervalued, even dismissed, if they continue spending less time in the office.

“[As a manager], I begin to say to myself: ‘Remind me, who’s Bryan? Can we not replace Bryan with cheaper labour someplace?’” says Anat Lechner, clinical associate professor of management at New York University.

Even if more staff are working from home more frequently than they did before the pandemic, the possibility of feeling marginalised, invisible and expendable is real – and some workers will take steps to avoid that. “People who are afraid of being totally forgotten will want to go into the office,” adds Lechner. 

The power of facetime

Along with logistics, getting face-to-face with colleagues plays a major part in where people want to work.

Employees will likely feel compelled to go into the office to connect with their colleagues; making those social connections that facilitate workplace communication among teams, and make the work experience more enjoyable. Research shows people who feel more connected to their colleagues report a better overall experience at work, and that feeling lonely or disconnected from others has a correspondingly negative effect.

But employees will also have another crucial reason to get facetime in the office: climbing the career ladder. Studies have long shown the effect of ‘proximity bias’, means that workers who spend more time with managers are more likely to rise through the ranks. While it leads to problems like presenteeism and burnout, experts believe that some workers will think that showing up to the office is a sacrifice worth making, if they want to get ahead.

Workers may find they're going back into the office more than usual, even as they've requested increased flexibility during the pandemic (Credit: Getty Images)

Workers may find they’re going back into the office more than usual, even as they’ve requested increased flexibility during the pandemic (Credit: Getty Images)

Research chimes with these concerns: studies show that in-person workers are more likely to get promoted. Remote working also hinders workers’ ability to network and meet new people; research has shown that during the pandemic, professional and personal networks alike shrunk by 16%. It’s unclear whether connections will contract in a long-term hybrid situation, too – but it’s clear that the less time you’re spending in the office, the harder it is to advance your career, whether it’s buttering up your boss or introducing yourself to others in the industry.

“If I’m looking for a promotion, it’s in my strategic interest to be present,” says Loran Nordgren, professor of management and organisations at Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University, in Illinois, US.

To that end, if companies don’t set clear expectations about who comes into the office on which days – or limit the number of days people can come in – some staff might come in more than others to chase those promotions. The result of this, believes Nordgren, is that hybrid could fade out quickly once it’s recognised by employees as a working model that could potentially slow career growth.

“Forget about the stated policy,” he says. “It’s really what the underlying reward systems are that are going to guide what people do.”

Ultimately, experts and workers alike have painted the hybrid work set-up as almost universally desirable – an inevitable model for the future of work. Workers want the arrangement – but, as companies around the world are still rolling out a patchwork of various return-to-office strategies, we don’t actually know how long they’ll want it. 

In the immediate, experts suggest employers need to keep a pulse on how workers are feeling about the hybrid-work model – and make sure they’re actually building new workplaces that support it. This means thinking extremely carefully about logistics, including proper scheduling, good project management tools, effective communication and more. Otherwise, some workers may find the new normal more frustrating than flexible.

(Credit: Getty Images)

By Krystin Arneson15th September 2021

Companies are trying to work out the best post-pandemic working model. What can we learn from these four companies?

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The pandemic has triggered seismic shifts in how we work, causing many companies to transition from an office-centric culture to more flexible ways of working. This shift is largely still in the experimental phase, as businesses try to conceive of and test effective post-pandemic working models for their operations and staff.

Of course, no one knows what the ‘right’ answer is. What works for one company may not work for another; business needs will vary depending on sector, size and structure. Many organisations, however, are doing their best to make working more flexible – as well as less burnout-prone, thanks to recent conversations about mental health, work-life balance and burnout.

Some companies are going fully remote, while others are opting for different visions hybrid work environments. Here’s what four companies in four different countries are choosing to do.

Chargebee: Switching to fully remote

Before the pandemic, Chargebee, an India-founded subscription-management company, used to have offices in San Francisco, Amsterdam and Chennai. Today, it’s gone fully remote with a completely decentralised work structure that allows employees to live and work where they want.

Chargebee had been moving toward an asynchronous working model before the pandemic, anyway – meaning the focus wasn’t on everyone working the same hours, but on having teammates overlap a few hours to facilitate communication. But “like every other company during the pandemic, we had to adapt to the realities of the world and shift to a fully distributed model faster and more completely than we had originally planned”, says founder and CEO Krish Subramanian. 

With meetings kept largely to overlapping hours among teammates, employees have a lot of flexibility around when they work – though meetings, of course, still need to happen. To help reduce Zoom fatigue, on ‘Focus Wednesdays’ meetings are kept to a minimum so staff can attend to their to-do list. In case projects are staggered across time zones, the company has an intranet that’s “up to date on all activities”, with conversations, meetings, documentation, meeting notes and decisions open to everyone. There are also apps, including Wingman, where employees can access customer calls and channels on Slack where employees can post questions – making “as much information as possible accessible to our employees”.

We focus on performance and output – the talent creates the lifestyle and structure that works for them – Natalia Panowicz

Subramanian says that giving employees the freedom to manage their time is aimed at reducing remote-work stress and helping them disconnect from work. But with no set hours comes the possibility that people will have a hard time logging off, too.

“We found that many employees weren’t taking advantage of the unlimited PTO [paid time off] programme we offer, especially during the pandemic, but no one should stay plugged in all the time – even if they are just taking a ‘staycation’,” says Subramanian. To help protect wellbeing, employees get the first Friday of each month off to recharge, and there’s a mandatory two weeks of PTO each year.

The company is sticking to a fully remote work model for the foreseeable future, now that it’s their standard operating procedure. “With this transition, [upper management has] learned a lot about the value of empowering our employees,” says Subramanian. “The more traditional model of having an HQ and a manager who works in the same office as employees and having set hours and a lot of meetings just isn’t the most efficient model for most people.” 

Instead, “as we have allowed our employees more freedom to work when it is optimal for them and reduced the number of meetings, we have found that their productivity has grown exponentially,” he says. “Additionally, people are generally happier and more motivated because they have more control on how work fits around their personal lives.” 

Codility: Mostly remote, with hybrid hubs and sponsored workspaces

Based in Warsaw, but with major hubs at WeWork spaces in San Francisco, London and Berlin, Codility, which helps engineering firms hire talent, has more than 150 employees from 30 countries. Before the pandemic, the company was already flexible with structure: employees could rotate among these hubs and work from home when needed. Others were already hired to work remotely, and even CEO Natalia Panowicz was splitting time between the Bay Area and the offices in Europe. But in March 2020, Panowicz made the final shift to a remote structure.

As the company transitioned, Panowicz and her team “simply asked” employees what they wanted to do their best at work and tailored policies accordingly. Using their feedback, the company has adopted a work structure that’s both completely remote and gives employees the chance to work in a hybrid format.

Some companies are opening up wider access to co-working spaces across the globe to enable more worker flexibility (Credit: Getty Images)

Some companies are opening up wider access to co-working spaces across the globe to enable more worker flexibility (Credit: Getty Images)

Some staff, for example, decided to move cities or even countries. So, to facilitate their free movement and help them remain productive, the company gave all employees WeWork access to any location of the co-working company’s 800-plus outposts, so they can have a desk to work at anywhere.

“We’re monitoring closely how our team uses the dedicated office space so that we can scale up or down accordingly,” says Panowicz. “In the cities where we have a high concentration of people, 30% of staff would come to the office each week (but not each day), and the rest occasionally for workshops and get-togethers.”

The company has also chosen to set salaries across one salary band, so what you’re paid is based on the role versus your location. In the US, all employees are paid a “San Francisco salary”, while plans are in the works for EU-based employees to be on a London-based salary band. 

“It’s up to the individual to decide where to live for their best life,” says Panowicz. “With freedom comes choice, this immediately opens our talent pool to a much wider net and more importantly, gives our existing talent more freedom. We focus on performance and output – the talent creates the lifestyle and structure that works for them.”

TomTom: Activity-based working

When the pandemic hit, TomTom’s leadership made a conscious decision to reshape how their 4,500-plus employees worked, rather than just copy-and-pasting the workflow to a virtual setup. By October, the location-technology company gave its W@TT programme a test run – a model that places the focus on the actual activity of work and not where it’s done. By January 2021, its new hybrid-work structure, in which employees decide if they want to work in an office or home office, officially launched.

“A lot of companies are mandating how many days an employee is allowed to work from home, while others have decided fully remote is the way to go; we believe that decision is best left up to our employees,” says Arne-Christian van der Tang, TomTom’s chief HR officer. He says this “complete flexibility” is the most important part of the new working model. To that extent, the physical offices are still part of the company, though they’re being transformed or rebranded into “hosting centres”, where employees can collaborate and surroundings are designed to support how they’re working.

The choice is theirs to make. The expectations are quite simply to get the job done – Arne-Christian van der Tang

“Our employees know what’s best for themselves,” says van der Tang. “If they need to collaborate with colleagues, it’s probably best to meet up in the office, but if they need some quiet time to buckle down on an urgent task with a deadline, perhaps working from home is best. The choice is theirs to make. The expectations are quite simply to get the job done.”

Although the company had always had offices around the globe, employees can now live abroad for up to three months a year. “We’ve learned that our work location is less important than we thought it was,” says van der Tang. “So, we’re preparing for a post-Covid world where we can combine the best of both worlds – a world where choice and flexibility are key.” 

Paddle: ‘Digital-first’ strategy 

After a more than a year of remote work, Paddle, a British software start-up, has decided to go hybrid with its work structure. It recently rethought the traditional office setup with its new office in London: the new digs cater specifically for hybrid working. Amenities include moveable furniture, breakout spaces, a recording studio and Zoom integration with cameras and microphones for connecting with employees abroad. 

For Chief People Officer David Barker, this embrace of flexible working is something he never saw coming. “At the start of the year, we thought about recalling everyone to the office on a permanent basis. However, since March, we’ve been asking ourselves, ‘Why is it so important to have everyone in the office?’” 

When the company asked staff for input, it found that there “was a great desire for flexibility”. “Looking back on the remote working of the past year and a half, we could see that the flexible model enhanced and even accelerated our business, so we moved away from an office-based or hybrid approach, and replaced it with our ‘digital first’ strategy,” he says.

Some companies are focusing more on adopting the new tools workers need, enabling them to do their best work both at home and in the office (Credit: Getty Images)

Some companies are focusing more on adopting the new tools workers need, enabling them to do their best work both at home and in the office (Credit: Getty Images)

That means that whether they’re in the office or not, team members should have the tools they need to collaborate seamlessly in-person, via video or asynchronously, he says. “They can choose to work in the way that is best for them; whether that’s coming into the office, working from home or some combination of the two.”

‘Digital first’ has meant investing in tools designed to foster innovation, even if the traditional view is that creative behaviours suffer with remote work. “We’ve used Miro, for example – a virtual whiteboard solution – to brainstorm ideas and capture thoughts and feedback,” says Bianca Dragan, a brand and event manager at the company. There’s still room for playfulness, too: “To maintain our company culture, we’ve also had to become very creative over Slack – we’ve had Paddlers create custom music videos and we’ve paid to have Cameos [personalized videos made by celebrities] done for us to celebrate big milestones.” 

Barker viewed the increase in productivity during the pandemic as a potential sign that home and work boundaries were getting a little too blurry, so the company has both in-house and outsourced mental-health services available for employees. It also has meeting-free days and a quirky policy in which 30-minute meetings now end after 25, giving employees five minutes to take a breath between tasks.

“Embracing the way of working we’ve all been forced into over the past 18 months has forced us to re-evaluate what it means to work,” says Barker. “It’s been a journey and mindset change, even with our leadership team, but hugely positive for our business. We’ve honed a great medium where we feel that we can support our people wherever they are, fit around their lives and still achieve our results.”

Constantly evolving

While not every business will be making sweeping changes to the ways employees work, companies will be looking to each other for inspiration as well as trialling new models and practices to see what’s working.

However, it’s clear that those who are making changes can see productivity and employee-wellbeing benefits that will endure far beyond this initial post-pandemic back-to-work phase. “The repercussions of the pandemic have shocked the world into a more equitable and balanced workplace that is a far better fit for the future of the workplace,” says Codility CEO Natalia Panowicz. “Simply put, for work to be at its best, it needs to fit into life.”

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Hybrid work: How ‘proximity bias’ can lead to favouritism

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By Mark Johanson8th August 2021

Research shows that we look more favourably on those whom we see more often. What does that mean for managers in newly hybrid setups?

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While financial institutions around the world have called for a full return to the office in the coming months, Synchrony Financial is moving in the opposite direction. The firm, based in Connecticut, US, has told its leadership team that they cannot, in fact, return to the office five days a week. Instead, they’re required to work at least one day from home. 

DJ Casto, chief human resources officer at the consumer financial-services company, says one of the main reasons they adopted this rule was to put home-working and office-working staff on a more equal playing field. “From a leadership perspective, we want to make sure we look like we’re supporting both groups,” he explains, noting that 85% of employees in a company-wide survey expressed a desire to work from home full time. 

To address concerns that those same workers might feel pressured to come back into the office to get more face time with their bosses (and thus more recognition), Casto says leadership needed to role-model the non-traditional plan. “The executive leadership team has a lot of influence on the behaviours of the workforce,” he explains. “So, we said, if we set the tone at the top of the house to say, ‘it’s OK [to work from home],’ and candidly, ‘we’re going to do it, too,’ then it gives people a lot more trust.” 

Synchrony is now working to ensure all employees – whether in the office or at home – feel seen. “What we’ve told our leaders who have chosen to come back to our hubs is that they have a responsibility to have this remote-first mindset,” says Casto, adding that they should make sure remote-working employees keep them honest in terms of engagement. 

Companies like Synchrony who are moving to a hybrid-work model are grappling with how to best ensure workers physically present in the office don’t reap benefits due to their proximity to bosses and colleagues. Academics call this phenomenon ‘proximity bias’, which is an unconscious – and unwise – tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. Once a matter of location within the office, the lines of what define proximity are now evolving, leaving workers and leaders in search of new ways of tackling the issue to guarantee that those who choose to work from home remain both an included part of the workforce and on track for promotions. 

Accidental favouritism 

Proximity bias, like any bias, is a natural instinct. It’s an evolutionary part of our cognitive decision-making process that we’ve used for generations as a mental shortcut to prioritise what feels safest. Yet “that prioritisation of safety doesn’t always lead to accurate judgements”, explains Ali Shalfrooshan, a UK-based occupational psychologist at workplace-solutions provider PSI Services. Instead, we end up making decisions based on biases rather than knowledge or data.

We all can reflect on occasions where the people we sit near are the people we know the best and feel the most kinship to – Ali Shalfrooshan

Shalfrooshan says proximity bias existed in the workplace long before the pandemic. “We all can reflect on occasions where the people we sit near are the people we know the best and feel the most kinship to,” he explains. 

This bond can create a halo effect, where we build an inflated view of those nearby while overlooking more qualified individuals further away. A 2015 study, for example, showed that remote workers at a Chinese travel agency had higher levels of performance while simultaneously losing out to in-house staff on performance-based promotions. 

This halo effect can also cause leadership to excuse the poor performance of those in their proximity, while not properly valuing the skills and expertise of those with whom they have less contact. Long-term favouritism like this can break down trust and negatively impact productivity, with employees who don’t see their output adequately acknowledged having little motivation to do more than the bare minimum. 

The very notion of proximity is changing in the hybrid workplace. On the dramatic end, bosses might view those around them in the office as harder working and more trustworthy than their remote counterparts, rewarding them accordingly. Less explicitly, leaders may be more inclined to hand an in-person employee an assignment or ask them for input, rather than jump on Slack or Zoom to do the same with someone working from home.

Workers - and managers - subconsciously gravitate towards the people they know best, which has implications for getting ahead (Credit: Getty)

Workers – and managers – subconsciously gravitate towards the people they know best, which has implications for getting ahead (Credit: Getty)

This could make proximity bias an even bigger issue than before. “I think it will become more pronounced when there will be, say, individuals coming into the office and they will start to create some kind of in group, like ‘we are the office people’,” says Shalfrooshan. “Then, there will be the other group which will be people who may be fully virtual, so the lines might become more fraught.” 

New ways of interacting 

What can leaders do to make sure out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind? Alison Hill, CEO of Australian leadership training organisation Pragmatic Thinking, and author of the new book Work from Anywhere, says the first step is to recognise that it’s an issue. Then, leaders can brainstorm ways to change their methodology for connecting with teams. This might mean running a meeting virtually for everyone, even if half of the participants are in the office, in order to create a level playing field where everyone feels included. 

“It’s really important for leaders to think about how we are interacting quite differently now,” says Hill. “If we just lead the way we’ve always done, and there are a few people on virtual meetings but they are kind of positioned in awkward places and we don’t really engage with them, it’s more of a token effort. Then we are thinking of that methodology through an old lens.” 

Hill believes it’s important for leaders to have a system ensuring they’re connecting with everyone in their team, regardless of physical location. It might be as simple as reflecting at the end of the week on whom you’ve had ad hoc conversations with in recent days, and whom you haven’t. It may also be important to take an objective tally of which projects are going to which individuals. There may be trend whereby those getting more work and praise are also the same people you’ve done a better job connecting with, both personally and professionally.

Leaders will need to be systematic about connecting with all staff - not just the ones they can see at the office (Credit: Getty)

Leaders will need to be systematic about connecting with all staff – not just the ones they can see at the office (Credit: Getty)

“One of the things high-performing hybrid teams do is have a skill to be able to talk about the emotional element of work, and I think it’s a skill that’s going to be required much more for everyone,” Hill adds. This can mean having open and honest conversations about what’s working and what’s not in the hybrid office. 

A sense of not belonging, either culturally or in the team, can lead to workplace loneliness which, studies show, negatively impacts job performance. If it’s a matter of work not being properly acknowledged, Hill believes a proactive move might be for an employee to ask for a conversation with their boss where they can nail down what good work looks like to them and also how they might virtually raise their hand for more projects. 

Shalfrooshan says workplace dynamics are going through a huge shift, “so there needs to be a bit of openness about people sharing their frustrations, but also acknowledging that managers are trying to work out the best routes forward right now”. 

Like all aspects of hybrid working, businesses are still testing out the best ways to foster a fair and equitable work environment. “Anyone who is going to be honest and transparent knows that this is kind of a grand experiment,” says Casto of Synchrony Financial. 

The company plans to continue testing its inclusivity-based hybrid model over the coming year, helping leaders reimagine how to best engage with both remote and in-person staff to avoid any feelings of favouritism or neglect. “To make sure people are recognised and feel seen is really important in these early days,” says Casto. “This new way of working has to work for all.” 

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The case against hybrid work

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By Bryan Lufkin

10th August 2021

We’ve hailed hybrid as the future. But there are powerful arguments against it as a working model.

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It’s the model that’s being hailed as ‘the future of the work’. Hybrid is being viewed as a happy medium, combining working from home and going to the office – and it’s rapidly coming down the pike for industries worldwide.

But just how viable is it? We know it’s supposed to bring benefits, like more flexibility and autonomy for workers. We also know that it’s a working model that many employees want – some studies show that up to 83% of workers want to go hybrid after the pandemic. Yet, is it really something that we can pull off successfully? Just how numerous are the downsides – and what can we do to avoid them if we’re going to pull of the hybrid model successfully?

Fair for everyone?

First, the potentially unwelcome truth is that not everyone can work a hybrid model – something that could lead to resentment across workforces.

“I am baffled by the extent to which hybrid working is presented as the ‘new normal’,” says Michael Smets, professor of management at University of Oxford. “For many, hybrid working will remain an elusive dream. It may become the new normal for a select, even privileged, group of jobs. This is more than a little reminiscent of the old division of ‘white collar’ and ‘blue collar’ work.”

According to Anu Madgavkar, a partner with the McKinsey Global Institute, who’s been researching the future of work, “around 50% to 60% of work across different occupations need to be done in a site-specific way”, where you have to be present at a certain place to do it. And even within the same office, some teams may have duties – like IT – that demand they come to the office full-time.

Companies are “wary about this ‘two-track’ culture”, says Madgavkar. After all, analysts say that splitting workers at home and in the office could create two separate, incohesive organisational cultures, in which one group feels more on the outs than the other within the company.

A mix of some team members working remotely and others in the office can lead to miscommunication, less collaboration and other problems, experts say (Credit: Getty Images)

A mix of some team members working remotely and others in the office can lead to miscommunication, less collaboration and other problems, experts say (Credit: Getty Images)

Investment needed?

Next, there are some practicalities to consider.

Hybrid, for example, could involve extra costs. Madgavkar points to massive spikes in potential cybersecurity spending – “you have to scale up your investments on all sorts of data security”. That’s because hybrid working as been described as “a hacker’s dream”; many workers with many devices constantly coming and going through company networks.

Companies could also incur extra costs ensuring employees’ workstations are fit for purpose, because they may now be held responsible for workers’ home set-ups, as well as their office spots.

This could potentially be offset by downsizing on office real estate. If fewer people are coming in, offices can be smaller. One potential downside of this, however, is that employees might end up hotdesking, rather than having a dedicated, permanent spot. But employees could feel demoralised by a lack of personal space, plus transitioning between home and the office could feel harder if staff need to set up their workstation each time.

There are remedies for this; Madgavkar says she’s seen some companies begin to invest in ‘intelligent desks’ that can remember your settings like seat height every time you come in. But other experts warn that a switch to hotdesking could leave workers fighting for ‘good’ spots.

How to structure it?

Then there’s the fact that companies are trying out different forms of hybrid work.  

Some are testing a casual hybrid system, allowing workers to decide when they want to come into the office. Others have asked workers to spend a certain number of days in the office each week, without specifying which days. But experts say that problems could arise if teams don’t coordinate their schedules. For example, if you come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but your teammates come in on Mondays and Wednesdays, everybody misses out on the greatest benefits of in-person office time.

I am baffled by the extent to which hybrid working is presented as the ‘new normal’ – Michael Smets

Christoph Siemroth, a professor of economics at the University of Essex, who’s studied remote work and productivity, flags up possible communication issues if workers don’t coordinate their in-office days. Having a mix of at-home and in-office workers makes it harder to ensure team communications are distributed effectively; after all, if you’re having in-person consultations with some colleagues, it’s easy to forget to update remote colleagues with the same information via Slack or other virtual platforms.

That’s why managers need to have a strong, centralised system in place where resources, documents and up-to-date information can be accessed anytime, he says, though this could potentially cause more work for managers.

The social aspect is also a consideration. Experts say office time helps build deeper, more collaborative relationships with colleagues. Feeling disconnected from your team – either because you’re missing them in the office or you’re working from home – could potentially affect your job performance. For example, one 2020 survey of over 12,000 workers in the US, Germany and India showed that workers who felt less socially connected to their colleagues during the pandemic were less productive on collaborative tasks, compared to before the pandemic.

Those who might work at home more often could feel “cut out of the loop”, says Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose research on hybrid working systems predates the pandemic. He strongly recommends that team members show up on the same day, so that even if the office is still half-empty, those with whom you work closely are physically in the room with you.

The perils of presenteeism

Another potential long-term issue is one of fairness. Presenteeism is a powerful force, and so there are legitimate concerns that in-person workers will benefit from more face time with managers, something that could feed into promotions and pay. “People who go into the office are more visible, they put in the time and the effort to come into the office, and bosses appreciate that,” says Siemroth.

Burnout and presenteeism are already rampant across organisations, and a hybrid model might make things worse as workers try to prove their commitment, either in person or from home. In fact, 54% of British workers reported feeling pressured to come into the office during the pandemic (even when officials told them to stay at home), while average working hours also increased by an extra 30 minutes during the pandemic as remote workers stayed logged on longer.

Smets, of Oxford University, believes that a system in which some workers can choose to show up more than others can create “artificial siloes and cliques”, meaning managers will have a fine line to tread. “Ensuring that biases are avoided, presenteeism is not rewarded and projects and promotions are awarded fairly will take some learning – and data. Building empathy for the situations under which staff work from home and building the trust to use these data responsibly is key.”

With a hybrid model, the team members who show up in the office may be perceived as harder workers, or build relationships in a way remote workers can't (Credit: Getty Images)

With a hybrid model, the team members who show up in the office may be perceived as harder workers, or build relationships in a way remote workers can’t (Credit: Getty Images)

Different demographics, different needs

Yet who shows up to the office and who doesn’t isn’t all about ambition. There will be groups of workers who, for legitimate reasons, prefer certain ways of working, potentially impacting on office dynamics.

For example, remote work can be a good option for parents who need professional flexibility to accommodate caring options. This is something that particularly impacts women, who take on a disproportionate share of household and childcare responsibilities. Given what we know about presenteeism, the fact that more women opt for home working, some experts warn, could lead to a situation where men significantly outnumber women in offices. “You wind up with a two-tiered system and begin to treat women as second-class citizens,” warns Pozen.

Young people are also a group who may have particular workplace needs. Statistics show that younger workers are far less likely to have a good home working set-up; UK workers aged 18 to 34 were twice as likely to work from their beds during the pandemic than older workers. They are also the group who have felt most adrift from colleagues and particularly managers during the pandemic, with many missing out on crucial mentorship during the early stages of their careers. Balancing their need to be in the office with other workers’ requirements could pose problems.

“We have a generation of young workers desperate to return to the office to escape unproductive work-at-home settings, overcome isolation and learn,” says Smets. “And we have senior staff who enjoy the comfort of their home offices and the absence of any commute. How are organisations going to bring everyone together?”

It’s also worth thinking about those workers who – for a variety of reasons – prefer working in the office. Smets suggests these workers “may feel an even more acute sense of isolation than they did at home, simply because they suddenly find themselves in vast open spaces or empty corridors deserted by their colleagues who are working from home”.

Caution needed

It’s still too early to tell just how things will go. But experts say that being anything less than extremely careful with how hybrid is structured and rolled out across companies could spell disaster.

“Done well, hybrid working has the potential to offer much-needed flexibility that allows more participation across a more diverse workforce,” says Smets. “Done badly, hybrid working can set back advances in workplace equality by years, if not decades.”