July 15, 2021

Are we making the wrong assumptions about hybrid work?

The transition to the “next normal” is moving even faster than expected. According to an April 2021 Accenture report, 63% of high-growth companies have already adopted a “productivity anywhere” policy. While it’s increasingly clear that the hybrid model is the future of work, there are still open questions about what it will entail, and anxieties abound. 

For most companies, hybrid work is uncharted territory, so it’s natural that many are making “common-sense” assumptions. But how does common sense stand up against the data? As we redefine the future workplace, let’s look to the lessons of the past 16 months.

Who wants to come back to the office, and why?

A Harvard Business Review survey found that 81% of employees either don’t want to go back to the office or would prefer a hybrid schedule going forward, citing increased flexibility, work/life balance, and productivity while working online.

This finding makes sense: many have become attached to the freedom afforded by a work-from-home arrangement. However, in a Bloomberg survey of knowledge workers ages 21-30, 60% said that “working in a modern, collegiate office environment has become more important to them over the past year.”

While 81% of employees don’t want to go back to the office full-time, 60% of employees ages 21-30 say working in an office environment has become more important to them over the past year.

For these young professionals, the impetus to return to the office is the fear that they won’t be able to progress in their careers otherwise. While these fears might be founded in workplace cultures that give outsized value to in-person work and face-to-face interaction, it shouldn’t have to be the case that remote workers feel disadvantaged. 

Examine your current pathways to promotion. First, find and eliminate opportunities for bias in your advancement policies. Then, communicate the pathways explicitly across the team.

Think about how relationships are built on your team, especially cross-functionally or between junior and senior staff. Relationship-building is part of early career development; you may need to introduce new opportunities for less-experienced employees to build relationships while working remotely.

Why do our offices matter?

The past year finally put to rest the long-standing fear that productivity and performance suffer in a remote-first workforce. Pre-COVID research backs this up: a 2015 remote work study by Stanford found that working from home increased productivity by 13%. This increase in performance was attributed to a quieter, more convenient working environment and fewer breaks and sick days. In this same study, workers also reported improved work satisfaction, and attrition rates fell 50%.

More prevalent now is the fear that “office culture” will be lost. Nicholas Bloom, the lead researcher on the aforementioned Stanford study, posits that while productivity can flourish at home, creativity does not. A common hypothesis is that the collaboration and spontaneity of face-to-face interaction in an office breeds more creative thinking.

While this may appear true on the “big-picture” scale, it can’t be ignored that only 3% of Black employees are eager to return to the office, suggesting that these environments haven’t been comfortable, safe, or welcoming to them. Offices, especially those in which microaggressions go unchecked or in which employees from marginalized groups experience “onlyness,”  don’t have the same positive creative impact for everyone.

As you design and iterate on what “hybrid work” means at your company, look for variance in what different groups say they want or need. Take those needs into account not only in setting policies and practices, but in communicating them.

Again we find ourselves in a fertile moment of change, with an opportunity to analyze and assess what the needs of our people are and how HR professionals can support every employee in feeling included and valued. Some people may have felt more psychologically safe in remote work than they did in the office — your objective as a people leader is to ensure that everyone can feel psychologically safe in any working arrangement available to them.

Ultimately, responsible leaders must think beyond physical location as they shape the future of work. The responsibility to give people resources tailored to their needs isn’t limited to an office, and you won’t know what those needs are if you don’t ask.

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