In theory, hybrid work is a wonderful idea for three reasons.
First, competent and motivated people should be allowed to decide how and where they work. Scientific research highlights a positive link between employees’ level of autonomy and their job performance.
In addition, activity (what people do and where) is less important than productivity (what they deliver or accomplish). The more meritocratic and objective you are measuring performance, the less you will incentivize people to engage in “performative” acts of work like impression management, politics, and style over substance. Clearly, it is not very useful to pretend to work when you are working from home and nobody is watching.
And finally, flexibility is generally better than rigidity, and in an age that values diversity and inclusion, it is logical to provide a range of working arrangements to fit people’s individual needs, preferences, and circumstances: one size does not fit all.
In practice, however, hybrid working arrangements also introduce new challenges and complexities for managers and organizations. This may explain why, with a few exceptions, we seem to have needed a global pandemic and extended lockdowns to allow more people to work from home.
Long before COVID-19 arrived, most employers already had the means, as well as known incentives, to give workers more freedom in regards to how and where they work, including video conferencing software, cloud-based IT infrastructure, and modern managers who understand the advantages of democratic and meritocratic leadership over autocratic or micromanagement.
Now, due to external pressures such as employee demands, morale, retention, and brand reputation, organizations have been pushed to increase freedom and flexibility for their workforce.
At times, you can end up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Anyone interested in making hybrid work really work will benefit from understanding the likely obstacles.
The more choice people have, the more their habits will differ. Paradoxically, this implies that a company that makes all rules flexible or removes all parameters will produce maximum variability in how people work. This reduces perceptions of equity. For example, if you tell managers they are free to decide how their teams work, some teams will have to come in more than others, which will cause resentment. Equally, if you allow some functions (sales) more independence than others (finance), it may be perceived as unjust. Even if you homogenize hybrid rules by, for example, telling everyone they must be in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, some employees (younger people, non-parents, people who live near the office, etc.) may still be in on other days, scoring brownie points for it, which takes us to the next point.
This is about allowing X but rewarding Y. Any hybrid work policy that is reluctantly implemented will co-exist with a preference for old ways of working, at times unspoken. If you tell people they have freedom but you still prefer them to come in, those who are able to correctly interpret that and less bound by personal circumstances and commitments (e.g., longer commute, parenting responsibilities, and a larger share of unpaid domestic work), will enhance their political cache and come across as more committed, loyal, ambitious. The point of hybrid work should be to improve work-life balance, not widen the gap between those who have responsibilities outside of work, and those who don’t.
Presentism and proximity bias
This is about giving preferential treatment for those who are in the office, assuming you as a leader also come in. It includes the assumption that “time in office” is indicative of productivity, which will encourage people to pretend to work, even if they are not in: Filling up your online calendar, joining tons of virtual meetings, and creating lots of slides are just a few common examples. When bosses prefer to manage in person, they will also struggle to connect with others virtually, include those who are remote during hybrid meetings (starting the meeting before they dial in, or only allowing those in the room to participate in the discussion), or give feedback remotely. In essence, if having direct access to your boss in person gives you an advantage, then the hybrid policy is not inclusive.
Many leaders worry about the potential cultural loss if people spend less time at the office, and they are right. After all, there is no substitute for in-person interactions, and the power of human connectedness cannot be replicated via Zoom or Teams. That said, culture is always changing, and ensuring that virtual work becomes part of the evolution of a firm’s culture, adding another dimension, is both feasible and important. If culture is “how we do things around here,” that should also include how we manage work outside the office, what we expect from virtual connections, and how we promote a sense of belonging even when people are far away, so that they still feel a strong psychological affiliation with their employer. Forcing people to come back into the office, conveying a sense of distrust, or not attending to employees’ demands, probably poses a higher risk of damaging the culture.
Change is always hard, but avoiding it is even harder. Making hybrid work really work is harder than people assume, and nobody has the secret formula for implementing a perfect policy. Ultimately, it is up to leaders, managers, and employees to create the conditions that enable a strong culture, high levels of morale and well-being, and performance. Acknowledging that things are hard, and having the humility to try things out, evaluate their impact, and correct as needed, is probably as good as it gets.