It’s safe to say at this point that the flexibility being offered by the hybrid work model is TBD. Hybrid work, which is usually more accessible to white-collar employees, has been rolled out in varying forms among companies around the world. There are those organizations who say hybrid is spending a minimum number of days per week (usually 2-3 days) at the office, and then there are those who say you can choose to work anywhere you like, anytime, as long you visit the office from time to time.
We will not spend any time categorizing companies around the world based on how they have rolled out the hot new thing in the world of work called hybrid work, instead we’ll simply discuss why executing it has been tricky for both employers and employees. Organizations who have been on-top of this trendy new setup have been quick to establish hybrid work rules, policies for which the degree of strictness and adherence again vary. On this list below are 7 things making hybrid work tricky.
1. Managing onsite employees together with those working remotely
Quick rewind to the first two quarters of 2020, the novel coronavirus hit pandemic proportions, governments implemented draconian measures, and most private companies sent their workers home. Work-from-home became the new working model for companies and/or employees who had the luxury to do it, and it was hard at first, until everyone adjusted and realized that productivity was still pretty good even though employees weren’t working inside offices. Seamless as the transition to remote work may sound, the adjustment was actually hard, especially for leaders who were used to managing team members face-to-face.
With more flexibility being introduced by the remote work setup came more need for accountability and connectedness – managers had to ensure more face time with colleagues to ensure alignment, some resorted to micromanaging, etc. In short, bosses kept a closer eye to their subordinates than they used to because they weren’t physically around. When offices started opening their doors and inviting (or forcing) workers back, there had to be a transition in managing employees now that they were around more and could be held more accountable. Letting both management schemes come together in the hybrid work model, it can be very tricky for the ones in charge of ‘managing.’
First, as a superior you can’t treat employees unfairly just because they’re working at home while their other colleagues are working in the office. Second, presenteeism is a phenomenon you should be concerned about – that’s when an employee is coming to the office just for the sake of it, but not really being productive. And third, finding balance. As months go by, surely there will be an organizational expert out there who has studied the hybrid work model thoroughly enough to help employees, bosses, teams, and companies figure this all out.
2. Allocating space
Did your organization just up until recently implement hot-desking? Or do you know of someone who works for a company that doesn’t assign workstations to specific persons anymore? Allocating space in the hybrid work model is another tricky thing. Social distancing guidelines aside, facility managers are still trying to optimize the workplace for hybrid. If workers are allowed to come in any time, any day, that could mean a lack of space on some days and a surplus on others if no workstation reservation system is around. Common spaces such as meeting rooms and some conference rooms will be converted into semi-workstations in case space on the main office area becomes scarce.
But the latter is for the operational side of implementing hybrid. How about for the strategic side? Will companies invest in less office space because they don’t expect workers to be in-office all the time? Will they instead invest in more co-working arrangements where, while it’s an expense add-on, it provides for more modularity and ability to adjust to business needs?
3. Hybrid meetings
Before I was ever exposed to hybrid work, I thought that hybrid meetings were straightforward and painless. I thought that two or three people could just gather in a room together and dial up the rest of their colleagues working at home, and then the meeting would run just as smoothly as either in-person meetings or virtual ones. It turns out that accompanying hybrid meetings are both expected and unexpected technical issues, whether it’s audio, network, or equipment. A company actually needs to invest in making hybrid meetings not only possible, but also seamless and efficient.
Hybrid meetings take some time to getting used to, and there will be some leaders or team members who simply can’t avoid making the ones sitting at home feel guilty for not showing up inside the office. The resentment that accompanies the hybrid work model is another tricky thing, which will be discussed further down this list.
4. Establishing the right number of hours to work
In a remote work setup, is an 8-hour workday truly possible? Some companies have been proactive in making sure employees completely log out once it’s off-hours, but then we see this movement growing today called the right to disconnect which is an interesting topic for another day. Not to get sidetracked, establishing the right or appropriate number of hours to work was tricky enough during work-from-home, and it will continue to be while in hybrid.
Organizations should be careful not to create a system where some workers can choose to show up more than others, just to prove their commitment. Because in such a system, there seem to be no winners. On hand you have employees so eager to show their worth that they put in the time and effort to show up at the office as often as they can, even staying longer hours than they used to. And on the other hand, you have employees working remotely who perceive that they are not being treated well (not praised enough, not promoted, guilt-tripped) just because they stay at home more often.
5. Compensating employees properly
Work-from-home logically allowed for work-from-anywhere, especially those who could afford it. This meant that some remote workers were getting paid a salary that accounted for higher costs of living, despite the workers no longer living in a place that demanded higher domestic spending. And then there’s the issue of differing tax rates across jurisdictions (state-to-state and even country-to-country). There was this podcast episode from National Public Radio’s The Indicator called ‘WFH in Barbados’ encapsulating the trend where remote workers emigrate to tropical countries where they’ll be able to perform their job while vacationing on the side. As expected, there were complications which the employer had to grapple with because of an employee working at a different country, such as tax filings and other government documents.
Compensating employees properly while implementing hybrid work will be tricky if proper guidelines aren’t set. An employer wants to be able to not only manage employees well, but also administer compensation and benefits properly and efficiently. We are already seeing Google and other big tech companies make compensation more variable because of workers not coming from, or living near their headquarters. As one analyst put it, ‘you shouldn’t expect to get paid New York money while staying in Colorado.’
6. Taking real time-off
What is real time-off in the hybrid work model? There are chunks of breaks within the day, especially while working from home, where you might consider as ‘time-off’ when it actually isn’t. Because depending on your role, you could still be called on anytime, and God knows how many workers during the pandemic were woken up in the middle of the night to accomplish a deliverable.
Real time-off inside of a hybrid work model is also tricky, because in this workstyle, employees are empowered to work flexibly and be able to attend to personal matters when the need arises. And so, when an employee’s away on vacation, is the employer or its representative allowed to take some time away from the employee in order to answer something quick? Or are the lines in a hybrid work environment too grayed out where real time-off doesn’t anymore exist?
7. Resentment: not everyone can work a hybrid model
Last but not the least – and certainly one of the more overlooked facts in the world of work: not everyone can work a hybrid model. Some experts argue that it was preposterous to even accept outright that hybrid work would now become the new normal, when in fact a good portion of workers, both in the public and private sector (notably those in service delivery) simply aren’t able to work a hybrid model.
Do you think workers at an assembly plant operating 24/7 can afford to have hybrid workers? How about a call center for a hotline on domestic emergencies? How about our healthcare workers?
The hybrid work model, it seems, is only accessible to a select few. Essential workers, dubbed heroes of the pandemic, can hardly adopt anything resembling hybrid. This differentiation – the line separating those who can work hybrid and those who cannot – creates resentment. And I’m not just talking about differing industries, as most workplaces have a mixed workforce made up of employees who can work hybrid and those who, because of their role, simply can’t. Creating two different working classes within an organization, the “hybrids” and the “essentials” breeds a lot of resentment and envy. Employers and employees alike, have to tread lightly on this very tricky issue.
Is working from ‘anywhere’ here to stay?
My quick answer to this question is No. An interesting point was made at the beginning of the 2015 Steve Jobs movie starring Michael Fassbender, where in black-and-white TV a man predating personal computers predicted that someday, business could be conducted from anywhere around the globe, where office-centricity would disappear for good. But really, the more you listened to what he said, the more you realize that such a privilege would only be available to those in such high positions that they could afford to be away from the workplace whenever they liked. Remember that very crucial members of a white-collar workforce – IT support, building engineers, office administrators, to name a few – have to be physically present at the place of work in order to support those who are working from wherever. Some organizations can claim that they are 100% remote or 100% hybrid, but at the end of the day, whether they outsource it or pay for the service – they can’t run their workplace without the onsite workers making their flexible work possible.