The trouble with hybrid work

Hybrid work — that's the answer! Employees can work part time in the office, part time at home, right? Problem solved! (Maybe not.)

hybrid workplace by piscine26 via shutterstock
Piscine26 / Shutterstock

The current thinking goes like this: Hybrid work is a great compromise between requiring all employees to either be in the office full time or requiring employees to work remote full time. Remote work is a great solution because employees can enjoy the convenience and focus of a home office, then go into the office for the real-world collaboration they can only get in person.

Many large Silicon Valley tech companies are embracing hybrid work, including Google.

It feels like a great solution. But I think the hybrid model may create more problems than it solves over time. So here are the potential issues with hybrid work:

  • Employee choice may result in imbalance. Some companies say employees may choose whether to come in or work from home on any given day. They may imagine half the office staff, on average, and the other half at home. But what happens when three employees come into the office and 300 stay home? Most employees who want to work in offices do so to interface with colleagues. But if some or all those other employees are at home, what's the point? Employee choice will evolve into its own unpredictable dynamic.
  • Lack of employee choice may not satisfy. One approach to hybrid work is to mandate days in and out of the office, downsize the office, and set up a hoteling system, where employees are assigned temporary desks. As a result, the company has just enough space for a fraction of employees scheduled to be in-house. While this is designed to give something to everybody, it could also be perceived as taking away something from everybody. Those who prefer to work at home may resent coming to the office. And those who prefer the office may resent being forced to work from home.
  • Location swapping may harm time flexibility. When employees request or demand flexibility, they want, above all - time flexibility - the ability to choose when to work and when to, for example, pick up the kids from school. Mandating hybrid work so that employees can work together during specific days reduces the time flexibility employees want. Consequently, Hybrid work may feel flexible in theory but may prove the opposite in practice.
  • Hybrid work keeps employees tethered to location. Remote work allows one significant benefit for employers and one big benefit for employees: Employers get to hire from a much larger pool, and employees get to choose their lifestyle and cost of living by living anywhere. However, hybrid work keeps employees tethered to location, which removes a crucial benefit of remote work.
  • Funding both office space and remote work may be costly. Work-from-home arrangements do cost employers, who have to fund home offices to greater or lesser degrees, depending on state law and company policy. And, of course, offices cost money. So it might prove needlessly expensive for companies to pay for both office space and home office space for every employee.
  • Hybrid work can be a minefield of unfairness. The biggest mark against hybrid arrangements is that they could result in unfairness. You'll find different people in any workplace — some with kids, some without, some new to the job, some veterans. Gender differences. Disability differences. Race and ethnicity differences. Employment status differences. And when you offer flexible hybrid work arrangements, you might get unfairness as a result. If employees self-select, for example, over time, different people are likely able and willing to work in the office. Women may be more likely than men to work from home, which can become a trap, resulting from cultural gender-based expectations for childcare and home maintenance. Older workers might choose the office more frequently than younger employees. It's not clear how hybrid work will shake out, but proximity bias is real; those spending time in the office with supervisors could be favored for raises, promotions, and other perks. In fact, hybrid-work poster child Google is already making news for complaints of unfairness by employees.

How to think about the hybrid work

Hybrid work may well be a solution for many organizations. My point here is only to point out that what looks like the best solution now may evolve into a new set of problems.

Avoid thinking about the new world of work as about location alone — where employees work and live. Instead, think about it as a new set of priorities.

In the new world of work, I believe business and organizational success calls for the following priorities in order:

  1. Fairness and equality
  2. Time flexibility
  3. Location flexibility

Full Remote Work might be better

Many companies may learn, over time, that hybrid work arrangements might just be the most challenging way to achieve these priorities and that full remote work for remote-able employees may be the easiest way to achieve them.

AT&T's and Dubber Corporation's State of the Industry: Future of Work survey found that 72% of businesses do not have a hybrid work strategy.

A thoughtful hybrid work strategy is a good place to start. Instead of assuming that it is best because it feels like a compromise, really think through the implications of all employee policies under consideration. Lay out priorities and objectives and work from there.

You may find that hybrid work isn't a solution after all.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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