Are Hybrid Workplaces the Wave of the Future?
The benefits (and pitfalls) of a work-from-anywhere mentality
During the lockdown phase of COVID-19, many full-time office workers were suddenly forced into a full-time remote working situation. As restrictions were gradually lifted, some people returned to the office, while others continued working from home. Meanwhile, another group adopted a hybrid setup, where they spent part of their time working remotely and another portion of their time visiting an office. Although it was a struggle at first, plenty of people came to discover that the flexibility of a hybrid workforce had its benefits. As time passed and it became clear that the pandemic was not just a quick blip on the radar, some professionals have become reluctant to give up the newfound benefits of hybrid employment.
The Home as an Office?
There is no question that COVID-19 had a major impact on knowledge workers and disrupted their lives in a variety of ways. The digital transformation is penetrating all areas of business, with a focus on restructuring the architecture of work with new tools and technologies. Some business leaders have found that their employees appreciate the flexibility of being able to work from home at least once in a while, so implementing a hybrid work structure may boost morale and improve employee retention.
According to Keypoint Intelligence’s Future of the Office Survey, 30% of office workers reported a desire to adopt a hybrid work schedule (where they split their time between the home and the office) once the pandemic had passed. Another 30% wanted to work from home full-time. In addition, our IT Decision-Maker Survey indicated that most IT respondents from medium-sized or large companies expected to see at least a semi-permanent increase in the share of knowledge workers who worked from home.
|Share of Knowledge Workers Working from Home|
There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how many employees—and business owners—feel about a hybrid workforce. It remains to be seen what the workplace of the future will look like, but some businesses are considering a hybrid model (for at least the short term). Fortunately, many companies have recently released services, solutions, and technologies that may help support hybrid work longer term.
An Uncertain Future
The fluid nature of the pandemic has many wondering when (or even if) COVID-19 will fully subside. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’ll someday be able to put this incredibly persistent global health crisis behind us. When this occurs, what will the workplace of the future look like?
While there are certainly benefits to being able to work from home (including no commute time and an infinitely more casual dress code), there are benefits to regularly visiting an office, too (including a sense of belonging and a greater ability to collaborate). There’s also a lot of gray area: some people swear that working from home makes them more productive, while others feel equally strongly that they can accomplish more in an office setting. The same can also be said about the work/life balance and employee morale—offering the flexibility to work from home at least occasionally might improve employee satisfaction, but too much isolation, endless video calls, and an inability to “unplug” from work obligations aren’t good for anyone’s morale.
Remote work (at least on a part-time basis) certainly has its benefits, but there are disadvantages as well. These include fewer networking opportunities for employees, difficulties associated with monitoring/supervising/evaluating work, the potential for lower productivity among some employees, and feelings of isolation. Some people argue that there are fewer distractions when working at home, but parents of young children or those with noisy roommates/spouses/pets would likely beg to differ.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind?
In a Boston Globe article, author John Levy argues that hybrid workplaces would likely not last when the pandemic is officially over. Levy asserts that having some people work from home while their colleagues are in the office runs counter to much of what makes organizations tick. Back in the 1970s, MIT Professor Thomas J. Allen discovered that “communication between people in an office increased exponentially the closer their desks were. If they were about 50 meters apart, they might as well have been on different planets.”
Even in today’s age of e-mail and video calls, out of sight is often out of mind. Factors like vulnerability and trust become basic parts of human interaction when people are face-to-face. Those employees that are only seen on video simply won’t be able to achieve the same level of camaraderie as those who regularly gather in an office. They’ll miss the inside jokes and the subtle nuances of interaction that naturally happen when people are together.
There’s also the issue of trust. Traditionally, trust is fostered via small actions that are more fluid in person. When people are face-to-face, the vulnerability loop—where people come to trust one another by revealing their own vulnerabilities—is a basic part of interaction with the side conversations that are had at the water cooler. Periodic Zoom meetings might alleviate a few issues, but even the richest virtual experience won’t foster the same level of connection as a face-to-face encounter. According to Levy, “A weekly Zoom happy hour where the extroverts talk over everyone won’t cut it. Camaraderie tends to come out more naturally when people are in the same physical space.”
Our workspaces have clearly changed due to the pandemic. Some have already returned to the office full-time, and some essential workers never left their offices in the first place. Others have embraced a fully remote work setting, and still others express a desire for a hybrid situation where they have more control over where their work gets done. Different employees can have vastly different ideas about the ideal work situation, and matters are further complicated by the fact that some of these employees will likely work for the same company!
Only time will tell what the future of the workplace will look like. Managing a group of employees isn’t getting any simpler, particularly when some are eager to return to the office (at least part time) and others never want to set foot in an office again. Much like your customers, employees will have their own unique perspectives and opinions. Employees’ preferences are certainly a factor, but the health of the business must be considered too. As we move forward, business owners will need to balance their employees’ (often differing) preferences with the tactics that make the most sense for profitable business growth.
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