Hybrid work is a big, ongoing experiment. But we’re finally starting to draw at least some conclusions. Experts, businesses and workers alike have spent the past two years touting hybrid work as ‘the future’. And now, it seems, the future is here.
As many countries have eased pandemic-era restrictions, enabling employees to resume in-person work, the choice for many companies has been a hybrid set-up: a combination of in-office and remote days. Although it’s true a small number of companies have pivoted to entirely distributed models, an overwhelming number of bosses have called for their employees to start spending at least some time back at their desks.
As a result, we’re starting to learn what hybrid work actually means – at least to some extent. We’re past the point at which hybrid work was a fuzzy concept, and now have both research and worker experiences to understand more about what it means for people to work in hybrid environments, as well as what works and doesn’t.
So, as workers have returned to offices in growing numbers, here are some of the biggest things to know about our hybrid-work reality.
Many companies are trying 3-2 or 2-3 set-ups – but it’s not going seamlessly
One of the biggest decisions companies have had to take is how many days a week they’ll ask employees to be in the office. Companies embracing hybrid work have made many different moves, some requiring as few as a single day at the HQ, with others asking for four (often in more rigid industries, such as finance and consulting).
In a move for balance, many companies have tried policies bringing people back three days per week with two remote days (3-2), or two office days and three remote days (2-3). Google was among the high-profile companies who embraced 3-2 in early days, bringing workers back in April. But although some workers are happy to spend two or three days in the office – particularly those who are feeling isolated amid remote work or who simply don’t like being at home at all – these set-ups are not wholly going well across the board.
In some cases, workers who once saw three in-office days as a sweet spot have changed their minds as they’ve settled into remote work as the norm; other workers have never wanted to go back, and they’re making noise. Some employees are even leaving companies forcing their return; in the highest-profile case, Apple lost top-tier talent (and still hasn’t officially brought people back, though it’s unclear whether the extension of their remote policy is related to staff feedback).
Many workers – and subsequently companies – are calling these meet-in-the-middle set-ups ‘duds’. And research is beginning to bust the idea that approximately three days is the right in-office number: according to April 2022 Harvard Business School research, the sweet spot for office days may, in fact, be as few as one.
Hybrid work uptake is very different within companies
Even as companies make plans for when workers are coming back, there’s really no one-size-fits all model across a business. There are a few reasons for this.
First, some business functions mean groups or entire departments of workers aren’t offered any remote options – think people who work in research and development, or those who are client-facing. Additionally, on the other end, some companies are turning positions that used to have an in-office component entirely remote. This means hybrid rollouts are often uneven, even within a single organisation.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, these different situations mean companies are building in personal accommodations for workers, letting them enjoy some of the flexibility they’ve had over the past two-plus years – something that’s been a key desire for workers. According to June 2022 McKinsey research, this is especially positive for women, who take more remote time than men if they’re given the option (3.1 days per week versus 2.9 days, respectively).
However, there is a downside to this: the same research shows men are more likely to be offered remote work than women. And some workers are reporting being denied the customised arrangements other colleagues are getting, which can create tension and even stoke resentment. Additionally, handfuls of employees are going quietly off script: some workers report that colleagues – particularly managers – are abusing remote-work privileges, not heeding calls to return while their subordinates are.
What an ideal work set-up looks like for one worker couldn’t be a worse fit for another – and it’s virtually impossible to design a policy that accounts for every situation
Another type of tension is brewing, too, over pay levels for those working in different locations. A debate is raging as to whether in-office workers should make more than their remote counterparts. There’s no good answer quite yet.
Hybrid work has different emotional impacts
For some people, hybrid work provides a much-needed emotional boost. Employees who’ve been sorely missing human interaction are finding themselves recharged when they’re back with colleagues whose faces they haven’t seen in months. This has especially been the case for younger employees or those without children, some of whom have seen their wellbeing decline while working in isolation. Hybrid is also a welcome change for workers who’ve been stuck in poor living situations, or who’ve never met their colleagues, like many members of Gen Z.
However, this isn’t universally the case. For other workers, hybrid work is emotionally exhausting. Some people are finding switching back and forth between two types of schedules, workspaces and environments to be draining. “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,” UK-based office worker Klara told BBC Worklife in February.
Many of these discrepancies relate to workers’ personal and family situations as well as their personalities, so it can be difficult for companies to create policies that alleviate stress for every worker as a result.
It’s nearly impossible to design a fully inclusive hybrid work plan
If there’s one thing employers and employees alike have learned about work during the pandemic, it’s that people have very different needs.
What an ideal work set-up looks like for one worker couldn’t be a worse fit for another – and it’s virtually impossible to design a policy that accounts for every situation (and, no, fully remote work isn’t a universal panacea, either). In some hybrid work environments, nascent back-to-work policies are leaving some people behind, such as immunocompromised workers and those with long Covid as well as parents – and many people within these groups are having to take tough decisions about their careers.
On the upside, some companies are figuring out that they need to be flexible and accommodating, especially if they want to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. Those who aren’t doing this risk alienating entire groups of employees, and ultimately losing out on talent in a currently competitive landscape.
The purpose of the office has changed
Earlier in the pandemic, experts speculated that hybrid work would change not only what we used the office for, but also how it physically looked. And, in large part, they’ve been right.
Several companies say they are updating their offices to suit new hybrid models, including creating team-focused spaces, collaborative areas for those oh-so-touted watercooler chats and better technology integration for things like hybrid video calls and presentations. In the hybrid-work world, head-down, focus tasks are for home, while the office is meant to be a centralised gathering place to combat the isolation of working on one’s own.
This means that, in some cases, many of the so-called “kindergarten offices” with splashy perks meant to keep people at their desks longer will fade away, too. This doesn’t mean the hybrid office will necessarily be less welcoming – it just mean less ‘mandatory fun’.
This shift isn’t without its wrinkles, however; some workers have reported their colleagues have forgotten how to behave now that they’re back and figuring out what, exactly, an in-office day means in a hybrid world. (Don’t worry, though, say experts – things will settle down once hybrid feels a little more normal.)
The future of work – including hybrid arrangements – is still a moving target
As much as the haze has cleared around many elements of hybrid work, there’s still a lot we don’t know.
After all, both companies and workers are still in relatively early days of this strange new experiment – and researchers, too, still don’t have meaningful longitudinal data to be able to definitively draw conclusions. And, even when the research is robust, it may still be difficult to make broad, sweeping generalisations, since what works in a hybrid environment is so personal to each employee and business. In other words, there’s still a lot to learn – and it’s not even clear when, or if, we’ll know it.
External factors, too, are already putting pressure on what we’ve learned about hybrid work. For instance, as the economy threatens to recede in many countries, some experts are speculating that the levers of workplace power could shift back to bosses, which could fundamentally alter how companies form and enact hybrid policies. And, if the labour market contracts amid a recession, it’s impossible to know if the remote-work window will close, meaning workers could find themselves back in offices even more than they are now.
For now, however, focus will be on honing the policies and routines that normalise hybrid work, so this stage starts to feel more intentional and less like an experiment. Even if progress is slow, moves around the world will help us solve short-term hiccups and develop long-term solutions – and hopefully make hybrid work work.
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