More and more organisations are becoming aware of the risks and difficulties involved in effectively implementing a hybrid model of work. From time to time, statements are made in the media suggesting that remote working is just a fad and that organisations which take their business seriously should return to their offices. However, it often turns out that the hybrid model is not the cause of organisational problems, but merely reveals their existence.
Research by Colliers Define found that nine out of 10 organisations have decided to implement some form of hybrid working. For many companies, the model of approximately 2-3 days of remote work per week seemed like a safe compromise to reconcile the divergent expectations of employees and managers. Employees were given the option to work partly remotely, while their presence in the office for 2-3 days a week satisfied managers, who had concerns about team effectiveness, information flow or engagement.
However, the hybrid model is not a risk-free solution. Its successful implementation requires significant changes in the way the organisation operates. Preparing for hybrid work is similar to getting ready to function fully remotely. Regardless of whether 25% or 95% of the staff works away from the office, areas such as communication and knowledge sharing, task coordination or creating a sense of belonging within the organisation, need to be adapted. Implementing hybrid work without taking these aspects into account, may cause problems and, in the long run, do more harm than good to the organisation.
Criticism of the hybrid work model
Due to the above challenges, the hybrid model is sometimes criticised by business theorists and practitioners. These criticisms are often accompanied by the suggestion that hybrid work is a passing fad and a convenient solution for people who don’t treat their organisation or their professional development very seriously. Occasionally, these comments include research citations, showing that hybrid working can be the cause of, among other things, a deterioration in communication between teams, a decline in innovation, or adverse impacts on career development (e.g. remote workers being overlooked for promotions).
A closer look at such statements, however, raises some doubt. Is the hybrid model really the cause of these difficulties, or does it merely bring to light problems that already exist in the organisation?
Identifying the cause
If you observe deteriorating communication between teams in your organisation, it’s a good idea to check what that communication is based on in the first place. Are there formal channels of communication between teams, or has communication to date been based on the assumption that people will spontaneously start to communicate effectively, simply by virtue of occupying the same space? Do employees recognise the need to share information and is collaboration between teams based on clearly defined and consistent goals? What communication tools (including asynchronous communication) does the organisation have at its disposal? If informal conversations by the water cooler have so far been the primary channel for exchanging key information between teams, then hybrid work is not the cause of the problem. It merely reveals its existence.
Similar questions are worth asking if you observe a decline in innovation after transitioning to hybrid work model. It is worth examining the extent to which – in the opinion of employees – the organisation allows to experiment and make mistakes: conditions necessary to develop innovative solutions. Are there procedures in place that allow ideas to be submitted easily or even actively sought? Are submitted ideas then passed on for evaluation? Are adequate resources allocated to their testing and implementation? Or – similarly to communication – has the innovation policy to date been based on the assumption that it is enough to put people in the same space for innovative ideas to spontaneously emerge?
A 2015 study involving more than 16,000 remote workers from China found that remote workers were more likely to be overlooked for promotions. As one possible explanation for this phenomenon, the researchers proposed the ‘out of sight – out of mind’ principle: managers who didn’t have the opportunity to regularly see their direct reports at work were less aware of the results of their work and thus valued their contributions less. If such a phenomenon occurs in our organisation, this indeed is an important problem to tackle. However, as in the case of communication and innovation, it is not a problem of hybrid work. It points directly to issues with the company’s promotion policies. If regular eye contact with the manager in the office is a prerequisite for promotion, it means that the company’s promotion policy is based on discrimination and bias, not on merit. Hybrid working only reveals this fact.
Implementing a hybrid model of work is not an easy task, as it requires adjusting the way the organisation operates on many levels. For some organisations, this transformation will pose too much of a challenge and they will attempt to return to a fully office-based model of work. Others, however, will gradually develop ways to minimise the key problems and risks of the hybrid. Although more challenging, this path is also more beneficial in the long term. Over time, organisations that took on the hybrid challenge will develop a way of working that is optimal in their specific context. This will allow them to maximise the benefits of the hybrid model, such as flexibility, or asynchronous and location-agnostic work that widens the pool of potential candidates. The contrast between organisations operating in this way and those that refused to adapt to the new reality, will steadily grow and become more pronounced, both at the level of business performance and in the area of companies’ attractiveness in the labour market.