Hybrid working: where are we?

With hybrid working becoming a staple feature of industry, Michael Bergin examines the advantages and disadvantages of this arrangement.

The COVID-19 pandemic, as we are all aware, changed everything. As entire nations shut down, businesses were forced to adapt to a challenge unparalleled in modern history. For many, it meant reliance on government supports to a previously unthinkable extent, while for some, even this was not enough to keep afloat. 

Naturally, as we have come out of the pandemic, we have been left with the world-changing aftereffects that many of us could never previously have imagined. Chief amongst them? The peculiar phenomenon of the hybrid workspace.

Hybrid working is officially defined as an arrangement with your employer whereby it is not necessary to fully attend during regular office hours, with it instead being permissible to work from home for a certain number of days in the week.

This arrangement came about initially as a matter of necessity, as businesses who could employ their staff from a distance overwhelmingly chose to throughout the pandemic. However, as restrictions eased, the desire amongst workers to get out of the house ultimately merited a blended approach, in order to comply with public health regulations and employee’s emotional needs.

However, this process has been far from simple. Many employers have struggled to determine what the correct balance is for employees. Of the many different formats that firms have experimented with, the most commonly touted is the “3-2” arrangement, with employees spending three days a week in the office, and two at home.

This model has been implemented by major technology firms, Google amongst them, and purports to offer the most balanced way of making hybrid hours work. This has not been a universal finding, however.

In a study conducted by Harvard University Business School, it was found that the ideal number of office days per week could be as low as one. This finding however, is illustrative of a much larger problem when it comes to remote working; there is little to no consensus on the best way forward.

Offering employees the ability to choose their office hours can lead to incoherency, a breakdown in staff morale, and an absence of social aspects that many professions enjoy. If an employee who is not particularly fond of their job can choose to work as often as possible from home, then it is difficult to see why such a person would ever show up in the office. Indeed, there are numerous stories of colleagues not seeing each other for two years, despite the fact that the worst of the pandemic restriction lifted over a year ago.

Once the choice is given, it is extremely difficult for employers to keep up the illusion that office work is important. This then creates a culture that alienates those who do genuinely enjoy time spent in the office with their colleagues, in particular those of a younger generation, who have not previously had much experience in office environments, but are nonetheless excited to adapt to an one. 

As a result of the complications stirred by hybrid working, they have no agency over their own work environment.

In a study conducted by Harvard University Business School, it was found that the ideal number of office days per week could be as low as one.

Aside from concerns surrounding morale, employers also need to beware of the effect that constantly changing work surroundings has on employees. In many cases, employees do not wish to be working from a different space each day. There is solace in routine, and when that is taken away, employees can face uncertainty, anxiousness, and frustration in their workplaces.

It is also universally accepted that working from home, where distractions are around every corner, is generally not as productive as working in an office environment. However, this argument, based on coldly calculated productivity, is generally made redundant by considering the amount of freedoms that working from home can afford.

Yet, despite the numerous gripes employers and certain employees have against working from home, working five days in the office is no Panacea either. Overabundant pressure, stress and the desire to outdo colleagues can lead to a very productive environment, but not one that necessarily serves the employee’s best interests.

Indeed, there are myriad workers who welcome working from home, and do not wish to spend much time in the office, simply for the relief from constant supervision and deadlines that it provides. 

As well as this, young professionals who wish to start families can now afford to care for their children to a much greater extent than before, with work from home allowing them to run errands, at the expense of productivity.

Once the choice is given, it is extremely difficult for employers to keep up the illusion that office work is important.

In addition, numerous disability rights organisations have been pushing to increase the viability of working from home for years, and now that we have the technology to do so competently, see no reason why we should force workers with disabilities back into offices that very often cannot accommodate for them.

As such, the issue with hybrid working is one that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but is essentially a problem stemming from the fact that one size will never fit all. 

Not all employees will welcome work from home, and yet, many will. In a similar vein, office work can put unnecessary stress on those who, if allowed to work from home, could avoid it.

It is an issue bound up in myriad inherent contradictions, and while brought to the fore by the pandemic, may well have become a talking point anyway, as technology rapidly confronts the traditional workspace.

There is a broad recognition that post-pandemic labour relations cannot and will not return to the old, established way of operating. That is inevitable. However, hybrid working does not pose as the solution to all of this, but as we have seen, is a difficult, complex, and oftentimes unwieldy policy, that cannot be easily applied to any one sector of the economy without major upheaval.