2020 has been the year remote work became the unexpected new norm. When millions of people were sent home during lockdown, many found – to their surprise – that they were happier and more productive working remotely. Now, countless companies have decided to make this temporary way of working a permanent new reality.
But what works for one person doesn’t always work for another, and there were many people who felt isolated and bored working remotely, missing the camaraderie of the office, or feeling unable to do their best work from home. So perhaps the ideal solution is a compromise. Hybrid remote working has been dubbed the “future of work” – but what is it, exactly? And why do so many believe it offers employees the best of both worlds?
Hybrid working is, in its most basic form, part-remote working. While the past year has seen a upsurge of companies intentionally shift to remote-first, being an entirely remote organization isn’t always practical—or even possible. Even if it were, research suggests that 55% of US workers want a mix of remote work and office work, and in another survey, 53% of people said they planned to work from home part the week, even after remaining restrictions are lifted.
As companies become aware of these new expectations, many have started thinking about what the reality of modern remote work will look like. Devising robust remote work policies is only part of the puzzle. The fact remains that working from home will never be the best solution for everyone, and while many companies have already cancelled their office leases, others are thinking about purely minimizing their in-office presence rather than eliminating it altogether. This is where hybrid remote working comes in.
There are many possible forms of hybrid working, but most involve employees working from the company office a few days a week, and from home the rest of the time. It’s viewed as offering employees the best of both worlds, providing the structure and sociability of the office alongside the flexibility and autonomy of remote work. Many organizations are currently transitioning to hybrid and are speaking about their experiences: HubSpot says it’s the “right thing to do for our employees and candidates'', and Figma are “excited to adapt to the hybrid world”. Should transitions like these be a success, we can expect the popularity of hybrid working to soar.
While the “best of both” advantage is powerful, it’s not the only benefit of hybrid working. Post-pandemic, many organizations are looking to build more human-centric relationships within the workplace, and employee autonomy, happiness, and wellbeing have never been so spotlighted. Hybrid working generally allows employees to structure their work around the rest of their lives, rather than trying to squeeze their personal commitments around their workloads. By giving workers this freedom, an organization can send a clear message that they recognize their employees are human beings with personal lives that are important – not mere cogs in a machine.
From an employer perspective, the advantages are also significant. Hybrid working allows companies to be adaptable and diverse in their methods for hiring and retaining staff. The available talent pool will be much larger, and because employees who have greater flexibility over their working schedule tend to feel “a higher level of empowerment”, holding on to employees may become easier. As our work lives and personal lives continue to intertwine and the boundaries blur, hybrid working will seem increasingly attractive to the incoming workforce.
But of course, hybrid work isn’t all good news. The basic system of hybrid work means it comes with the possibility of “enormous socioeconomic and racial inequality”. Not everyone is able to work from home—and the WFH experience will vary drastically upon the level of comfort and space someone has access to. A powerful benefit to office-based companies is that they act as social levellers, ensuring a certain type of equity between employees. When you remove this, and when the WFH experience is markedly different for people, this disappears. Hybrid remote working creates two profoundly different employee experiences.
A company will need to think carefully about adapting their processes and systems to support hybrid remote working. What hybrid working actually looks like can vary greatly, so it’s important to ensure everyone is able to perform at the same level. For example, are employees simply allowed to work from home half the week, or is this mandatory? If it’s simply allowed, will employees who choose to work from home feel less visible than their always-in-office counterparts? Will they feel equally integrated? In hybrid working environments, leadership often continue to spend the majority of their time in the office – so will this mean remote employees don’t get promoted as fast?
If some people are working from home half the time and others aren’t, it’s possible that the remote employees will have less access to information, and incidents of wires becoming crossed or mistakes being made may become more common. They might also have fewer career and development opportunities, and feel inadequate compared to their in-office colleagues. Because remote workers feel less visible, they may also feel the need to work twice as hard, which can lead to stress and burnout. It’s possibilities like this that have led some to suggest that hybrid work in fact just “offers the worst of both worlds”.
But none of this means that when it’s carefully considered, hybrid working can’t be a success. A robust hybrid working culture will look different to a robust remote-first culture, or a robust office culture, and blindly sticking to systems and processes that made these other models work will be counterproductive. It will likely take a while to figure out how to navigate the hurdles surrounding hybrid working, but success will always hinge on having a solid policy, transparent communication, and some sense of structure and equity.