BroadPath Blog

March 20, 2024 by Carol Verderese

Is Hybrid Work the New Normal or a Work in Progress?

It’s been four years since the pandemic upended our assumptions about how work should be done. In 2021, the Great Resignation brought us record-breaking quits and record-breaking new job openings. Then, 2022 ushered in the Remote-Work Wars, when leaders who’d viewed working from home as a temporary response to a public health crisis were surprised to find that many employees claimed it as their new normal.

And to this day existing research offers no definitive way forward. While some studies seem to validate leaders’ concerns about the effects of work-from-home on productivity, mentorship, creativity, and company culture, others demonstrate saved commute times, improved retention of workers with family responsibilities, and improved worker engagement.

For now, hybrid arrangements that balance two to three days of remote work with two to three days in the office are seen as a compromise that most return-to-office and work-from-home advocates can live with.

The State of Hybrid Work Best Practices

If there’s any conclusion to be drawn from the evidence to date—based mostly on self-reported employee surveys or academic research focusing on niche workers—it’s that hybrid work best practices are highly context-specific. As Harvard Business School professor and Future of Work scholar Raj Choudhury told Forbes: “The truth is the flexible way of working is going to stick, but it needs new management practices. There’s good hybrid—and there’s terrible hybrid.”

Terrible hybrid is easily recognizable. It’s having people commute to the office only to find themselves participating in virtual meetings the same as they would from home. Or, perhaps even worse, having some people on-site and others dialing in without feeling fully included in the conversation. Another common pitfall is presenteeism: the implicit or explicit favoring of those who show up, which can subtly incentivize  employees to channel their energy toward being seen or appearing busy rather than creating true value.

The elements of good hybrid are coming into focus more slowly as workplace practices and norms are being tested, with implications for everything from attracting and retaining talent to collaboration, resourcing, and productivity. Experts with on-the-ground experience and findings from the respected Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, which has polled 10,000 people a month for two years, offer these practical suggestions for creating a successful hybrid workplace:

  • Maintain a consistent schedule: Managers should decide which days and how many employees work remotely. The objective is to have teams in person on the same days each week.

  • Harness creative energy: Schedule meetings, events, and collaborations on days when team members are on-site together.

  • Be firm about attendance: Establish mandatory “anchor days” when teams must be present on-site with exemptions only for illness and emergencies.

  • Add a day of onsite work for new hires: Reinforce that mentoring happens in-person.

  • Conduct regular performance reviews: Base frequent performance reviews on employee output, including metrics, evaluations, and discussions.

  • Update the physical workplace: Reconsider the design of physical spaces and configurations to get the most out of working socially together.

More broadly, however, openness to reevaluating, resetting, and reimagining the work experience will be essential to realizing the opportunities that come with change.

The Value of Hybrid Workplace Pilots

Given the high stakes for companies undertaking the transition to hybrid work, some are launching pilot programs to understand what works in particular regions or within different business entities. The outcome of a pilot is not “success or failure” but to generate lessons learned so that workplace elements can be added, reduced, adapted, or refined before being applied at scale.

For some organizations, pilots are a way to test new approaches to the built environment. For others, they provide a platform for exploring the shifting expectations employees have for productivity, safety, belonging, purpose, comfort, and control over where and how they work. For all, they provide a measured, data-driven approach to demonstrating the art of the possible in times of uncertainty.

Pilots also serve as a canvas for exploring the multiple ways people interact in their work, in space, and with each other. Experimenting with a hybrid work model can, for example, catalyze understanding of employee wellbeing and uncover new ways to make work meaningful. A case in point is the growing movement toward “life-ing” which aspires to make the work environment much more participatory by inviting open and flexible engagement with communities. In fact, one design firm challenged their clients to bring the community into at least 10% of their footprint through programming that defines new purpose for the workplace.

From “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” to Intentionality

Until recently, hybrid work had been choose-your-own-adventure, but it’s becoming clear that successful hybrid work doesn’t just happen. Increasingly, leaders are adopting a learning mindset to harmonize work configurations to their organizations’ specific needs. Best practice is to find what works, and then continually iterate to fine-tune over time.

Leaders might ask themselves: “What experiments have we tried that we can share with others, and what are other companies doing that we can learn from?” From there, they should note what resonates, as well as what they want and absolutely do not want. By embracing this and other intentional approaches to hybrid work—all while eliciting feedback from employees, clients, and peers—companies may be better positioned to reap its still-unfolding benefits and, by extension, reinvent the workplace for the better.