Don’t be fooled by headlines declaring that a cooling labor market will grant executives more control, pushing employees to return to the office. If you’ve been echoing headlines that claim hybrid work is being dialed back and shaping your company’s policy around this misconception, be aware that you may be erring.
Let’s start with definitions. Hybrid work is NOT entirely remote. And it’s also NOT a five-day stint in the office.
In our rapidly changing work landscape, the boundary between office work and remote work is no longer a rigid divide. Instead, it’s a fluid spectrum that extends from full office work, through various hybrid work models, to fully remote work. This reflects the myriad of working styles, organizational requirements, and employee predilections.
On one end of the flexibility spectrum, we encounter Occasionally Remote and Office-First. Occasionally Remote signifies that employees primarily work from the office, with the occasional option to work from home. Office-First means the office still serves as the primary workspace, yet employees are permitted to work remotely, typically from home, for a specified duration each week—often one day. These models preserve the structure and familiarity of a conventional office setting while integrating elements of flexibility. They can aid employees in achieving a more desirable work-life balance by offering flexibility on days when commuting is burdensome or personal responsibilities crop up. Additionally, they enable employers to gradually adopt the idea of remote work. However, when discussing the challenges of hybrid work, these models don’t necessarily strain our traditional work processes to the same extent.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we encounter Remote-First and Occasionally Office. In a Remote-First setup, employees work remotely most of the week, venturing into the office for team meetings or collaborative projects, perhaps once a week. If office visits are less than a day per week, we might classify the arrangement as Occasionally Office. Here, work is predominantly remote, with occasional office trips for team-building activities, client meetings, or brainstorming sessions. Both these options afford employees significant autonomy over their work environment and schedule and can lead to a wider talent pool unhindered by geographical limitations. However, the primary challenges echo those of a completely remote model, including maintaining engagement, fostering company culture, mitigating isolation, and managing performance.
Nestled between these two extremes, we encounter the real game-changers of our current times: Balanced Hybrid, often referred to as the 3-2 model. This approach strikes equilibrium, with employees spending roughly three days in the office and two days working remotely, or vice versa. It assigns equal importance to the advantages of in-person collaboration and the flexibility of remote work. This model can result in heightened employee satisfaction due to its versatility, and can also assist organizations in reducing costs by shrinking their physical office footprint. Nevertheless, this model does stretch our existing experience and processes and demands new tools for management, collaboration, and planning—with many issues still largely uncharted territory.
Now, let’s circle back to those 2023 headlines heralding a reversal of hybrid work policies and summoning employees back into the office.
“Amazon will require corporate employees to work in the office at least three days per week starting in May”
“Meta Requires Office Workers to Return to Desks Three Days a Week”
“Google HR sends warning email to employees, asks them to work from office 3 days a week“
“GM salaried employees must return to office 3 days a week starting Jan. 2023“
“Walmart workers will be asked to work in person at least two days a week“
“JPMorgan employees are required to have three days in the office”
All these instances are not examples of organizations reversing their hybrid work policies. Rather, they represent the near-total remote work mode of the Covid era, attempting to transition their employees into hybrid work models that involve 2-3 days in the office.
In fact, there are only very few full reversals of hybrid. Disney, for example, as of March 2023 is requiring employees to spend four days at their offices instead of the previous arrangement of two days of remote work per week. Goldman Sachs has been trying to get employees back into the office fulltime for a year now, many employees are still not showing up.
The latest survey by The Conference Board surveyed 1,100 corporate executives from various industries worldwide on their plans around hybrid workplace policies. Despite indications that many CEOs in Europe and the US wish to enforce a return-to-office policy, only 5% of US CEOs and 2% of European CEOs prioritize bringing workers back to the physical workplace. Instead, their primary challenge lies in optimizing a hybrid work model.
CEOs have valid concerns. From safeguarding collaborative culture and productivity to nurturing client relationships, our focus should indeed be on mastering the art of making hybrid work. However, in resisting change and defaulting to a full return to the office as the solitary solution, we run the risk of missing a crucial chance to re-envision our working models and set the course for a more resilient future.
To craft effective strategies, we must delve deeper and discern the true causes fueling these worries. How can we nurture a collaborative culture without watercooler chat? Are your productivity anxieties truly about a trust deficit and outdated performance metrics? And does the urge to conduct business in-person hint at an excessive dependence on past modes of operation, indicating a need for enhanced training in forging virtual relationships and comprehending evolving client preferences?
Addressing these anxieties by stepping back from hybrid work is not merely short-sighted but could also cripple an organization’s readiness for the impending world of work. Backtracking on hybrid work might appear as an instant remedy, yet it could impose heavy costs in the long haul. We risk missing out on diverse talent pools that cherish flexibility and autonomy. We might find ourselves inadequately equipped for future shocks requiring agility and adaptability. Most critically, we could fail to cultivate a culture that excels in change, innovation, and forward-thinking. Retreating to conventional office-based work primarily leaves organizations unprepared for upcoming upheavals as they neglect to leverage the advantages of hybrid work. The challenges posed by hybrid work are legitimate and urgent. However, we ought to view them not as hurdles but as springboards to innovate, develop, and reimagine our operations. These issues – fostering collaboration, ensuring productivity, maintaining client relationships – are not problems spawned by hybrid work. They mirror deeper, underlying issues like fear of change, lack of trust, and clinging to traditional work patterns.
Hybrid work is not a makeshift solution to a crisis but a gateway to a flexible, adaptable, and robust future. We need to learn to operate differently, collaborate in new ways, manage innovatively, and evaluate with a fresh perspective. A total return to office work, forsaking the advantages and insights of the hybrid work model, may seem like a comforting retreat into the familiar. But, we must question, is this the best course for our future?
The landscape of future work is transforming daily, and the choices we make today will dictate our place within this novel environment. Let’s be courageous and take a stride forward, not in reverse. Let’s interpret the challenges of hybrid work as springboards for development, and let’s morph our organizations into platforms prepared for any eventuality the future presents.