News Article

NEW NORMAL - We’re calling this ‘the worst return to office strategy.’ Why this hybrid approach won’t work

Posted 11th July 2022 • Written by LAURA CASSIDAY AND DAVID ROCK on •

In the annals of the return-to-office debate, many companies are taking the middle ground. Apple wants employees back in the offices three days a week, once COVID-19 rates stabilize. Citigroup, Google, and American Express are on the same track. A “three days in, two days out” or “two days in, three days out” hybrid model is emerging as a popular workplace plan, as a compromise between managers who want closer tabs on their people, and employees who feel happier and more productive working from home. But like most compromises, the 3-2 model leaves almost everyone feeling dissatisfied, prompting us to call it the “worst return-to-office strategy.”  

On the surface, the 3-2 model feels right: It provides a measure of autonomy that employees likely didn’t have pre-pandemic, and it increases the sense of status, certainty, and autonomy for leaders who feel the need to closely oversee their employees. In addition, many managers like it because they feel it’s easier to create and maintain a company culture when employees share a physical space. The 3-2 plan also plays into two common biases­:

  • Expedience bias, which prompts us to act quickly rather than taking the time to fully understand a situation
  • Experience bias, which tells us that our perception (work is more efficient from an office) is the objective truth 

Because the 3-2 model sounds so good on paper, it’s been a shock to company leaders that many employees just aren’t buying it. A recent survey found that 76% of Apple employees are dissatisfied with the company’s return-to-office plan, and 56% are looking at other options because of the in-office requirement. Even top execs—such as Apple’s machine learning director Ian Goodfellow—are resigning over the requirement that they spend at least a couple of days per week in the office. 

So why is the 3-2 model so deeply dissatisfying? It takes away the autonomy that many employees have grown to expect during the past two years: the freedom to set their own hours, integrate work and family life, and avoid stressful and costly commutes. Along with this comes increased control over the rest of one’s life including having better sleep patterns, being able to exercise more, even control your diet better. Taking away this amount of autonomy triggers a threat response in our brains that makes us feel frustrated, anxious, and uncertain. Doing this at a time when many of us are still emotionally raw can add fuel to the fire. 

In contrast, managers often experience higher levels of certainty, status, and relatedness when physically in the office, but these rewarding workplace feelings are overshadowed by the much larger threat responses experienced by employees. Negative emotions from a reduction in autonomy are likely to be stronger than the positive emotions from gaining a similar amount of relatedness. 

Another downside of the 3-2 model is that it could actually harm overall productivity. Many people feel that they’re most efficient when working from home, and estimates indicate that productivity levels of employees working from home have risen anywhere from 5% to 29%. Meanwhile, others (particularly extroverts) thrive in an office environment. Force either group to spend a proscribed number of days in the office or at home, and productivity suffers. 

To be sure, there are real benefits to meeting in person, which include getting to know your coworkers, building social capital, and creating a sense of community and connectedness. Also, some jobs, like lab technicians or aircraft mechanics, simply can’t be done at home.  

For positions that can be performed remotely, though, the question comes down to the right dosage of time spent in the office. If the 3-2 model isn’t the answer, companies can navigate the choppy waters of hybrid work by trying these ideas. 

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