Hybrid work has been at the bottom of the biggest debates about work this year. We've seen months of back-and-forth over whether or not workers should return to the office, complemented by reams of research studies that consistently find hybrid or remote work is a non-negotiable for large numbers of employees and candidates.
As 2022 winds down, many leaders have come to grips with their own biases, and agreed to compromise on hybrid work. Some are still experimenting; it's a work in progress for them. Others are not even trying to experiment, and continue to reject any notion of change to the traditional 9-5 model. And of course, the most progressive – some of whom had embraced hybrid work even before the pandemic – are heading into the new year with their working model long since polished to its best shape.
So what have we learned about the hybrid working model this year?
Not that many people actually want 100% remote or 100% in-office work
For all the hype around younger workers demanding remote work, the truth is that after two years of lockdowns, people do want to go back to the office every now and then. They want to be able to socialise with their co-workers, engage in collaborative discussions of work in person, and generally have human contact with people who are working in the same space as them.
As Anmarie Forrester, APAC Regional Human Resources Director at Experian, told us earlier this month: “Being with colleagues not only inspires collaboration and innovation, but helps people learn from one another and build relationships which are key for career development.”
Surveys have also generally shown that the number of employees wanting fully remote work has dipped since 2021, most likely because the downsides of being fully remote have emerged: isolation and disconnection, not being able to collaborate effectively with team members, and even coming out on the wrong side of proximity bias so that career advancement suffers.
That said, even fewer people want to go back to the office full-time – and those who do are overwhelmingly the bosses.
There's more to hybrid work than WFH
Today, we most frequently think about hybrid work as a mix of working from home and working from the office, or flexibility of location. But there's also flexibility of time, which dates back to well before the pandemic.
Open-minded companies have always allowed employees some leeway in when they started and ended work – taking half an hour in the morning to bring children to school, perhaps, and making up for it by staying half an hour late, or skipping lunch break in order to leave early for a personal appointment.
And demands for hybrid work may in fact be grounded in flexibility of time rather than in flexibility of location – we're just not seeing it because flexibility of location often automatically allows flexibility of time.
“While most conversations about workplace flexibility have centred on location—where people work—the question of when people work may be even more significant,” says Brian Elliott, the executive leader of Slack's Future Forum.
Discussing the need to redesign work with us earlier this year, he pointed out: “Schedule flexibility is highly correlated with positive employee sentiment, satisfaction, and performance, and leaders have an opportunity to gain a competitive edge by providing schedule flexibility more broadly.”
Focus on the work that's being done, not the activities outside it
When leaders and managers oppose hybrid work, it often stems from a deep-rooted suspicion that employees won't work without a boss watching them. And various surveys over the course of 2022 suggest that it's not entirely unfounded: remote workers do spend varying amounts of time on non-work-related activities during work hours.
However, surveys carried out before the pandemic also suggest that in-office workers spend just as much time – anything from 30 minutes to 3 hours – on non-work activities.
The lesson here seems to be that non-work activities will happen whether or not people are in the office, and leaders and managers should put their focus on the work that is actually being done.
Are employees available when they are needed? Are they completing the work they have been assigned, and completing it on time? Are they meeting their individual targets and contributing to the team's targets?
“The new way of working means performance strategy is not about clocking in/out times,” remarked Alstom's Vice President of HR for Asia Pacific, Eo-Kyung Moon, in a conversation with us earlier this year. “It involves finding ways to measure remote work...The traditional meanings of 'productivity' and 'performance' are still valid. Both are directly related to satisfying customer expectations – it is all about prompt and efficient delivery of what has been promised.”
Yes, people continue to be highly productive in the hybrid model!
Perhaps the most important takeaway from 2022's experience of hybrid work is simply this: People can be, and are, productive even when they aren't physically in the office.
Research over the last three years has repeatedly shown that productivity does not fall when a worker moves from in-office to remote, or to hybrid work. In the majority of cases, it increases; and where it does not, it is typically because the person's work requires a greater degree of collaboration than remote work can provide.
Leaders are increasingly acknowledging this – even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella weighed in on the question, making headlines by calling the mistrust of hybrid work 'productivity paranoia' in a September comment.
“All of the data we have shows 80% plus of individuals feel they’re very productive – except their management thinks that they’re not productive,” he said. “That means there is a real disconnect.”
What will it take to close that disconnect? Only time, perhaps, and the insistence of employees who consider flexibility a make-or-break factor in staying with their jobs.
2022 brought us chaos, but also the opportunity to review, renew, and advance. Read the end-2022 issue of People Matters Digital Magazine for a look back, and some key takeaways to bring forward.