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NEW NORMAL - The six big things we've learned about hybrid work so far

Posted 13th July 2022 • Written by •

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.

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