The dark side of hybrid work

While flexible, practical hybrid work seems like the attractive option, make sure you're thinking about both sides of the argument

Pre-pandemic, one in 20 Americans worked from home all of the time. In 2020, those who could work remotely did, resulting in a seven-fold increase in full-time remote workers across America.

As vaccinations are rolled out, workers will gradually make their way back to the office and spend less time working from home. But according to research from Microsoft, we want the best of both worlds. Over 70% of workers want to keep the flexibility of remote work, while nearly two-thirds are craving face-to-face time with their work mates.

The stakes are high for organisations to get hybrid work “right”. Forty-one percent of the global workforce will consider leaving their current employer within the next year. If organisations can’t make hybrid work “work”, employees will vote with their feet.

So, is the move to hybrid work as simple as giving staff the option to work from the home or office whenever they like? Do organizations need to mandate which days employees must work from the office? And what impact will these decisions have on productivity and happiness?

Don’t fall victim to office favoritism

Many organisations are offering teams flexibility in whether they work from home or work from the office – and how many days they spend in either location. While this may seem ideal, managers may unconsciously favor those who come into the office.

Research has shown that employees who put in more face-time are perceived by their manager as more productive (regardless of whether they actually are) and are more likely to receive promotions and pay rises.

To overcome these issues, leaders need to set objective and clear goals or deliverables for their staff. This will help ensure employees are assessed for output, as opposed to inputs (such as the number of hours they are putting in at the office).

Will productivity take a nosedive?

The jury is out on whether working from home made us more productive. Some research suggests that we were producing significantly more output, while other research suggests that productivity declined due to the lack of social connection.

Many leaders are assuming that through being back in the office, at least some of the time, collaboration and innovation will increase. However, meta-analyses have shown that the virtual world is actually better for idea generation. This research showed that 70% of people perform worse in face-to-face brainstorming sessions compared to virtual ones.

When corralling staff back to the office, don’t assume that face-to-face collaboration is a panacea for innovation. Instead, continue to take advantage of virtual collaboration, at least for generating diverse solutions for problems your team is trying to solve.

Beware of the alienation effect

Research has found that virtual teams or people who work remotely are more likely to feel alienated or disconnected when compared to people who work onsite. Of course, when we were all working from home, everyone was on the same playing field. But now that some people are starting to go back to the office, managers need to keep an eye on those who are still predominantly working from home. They are at the greatest risk of feeling disconnected with their team.

Leaders need to prioritise checking in with those who spend the majority of their time working from home to ensure they are feeling connected to their colleagues. Make the time to have a video chat with no agenda other than to reconnect and ask how they are feeling. And ensure that you make yourself available when they need to check in to help them feel like a valued member of the team, despite not being in the physical office.

Ensure employees have a choice

As an employer, it’s tempting to mandate how many days employees need to work from the office. This gives managers the illusion of feeling in control, primarily through being able to actually see or witness their team working. However, according to self-determination theory, providing people with autonomy is one of the most important building blocks of employee motivation.

Resist the urge to dictate too many rules about how staff need to structure their working week. While guidelines are okay, err on the side of providing flexibility with where people work from and if possible, what hours they chose to work.

While the opportunities hybrid work presents are exciting, leaders need to be deliberate in how they create a fair, engaging, and productive work environment when teams are split between the home and the office.

By Dr Amantha Imber, founder of Inventium and host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful people