With vaccination rates on the rise and health restrictions loosening, many businesses look forward to a return to the office. At the same time, however, many workers hesitate—or outright refuse—to abandon the benefits of remote work. At first glance, adopting a hybrid work model seems like an easy solution.
It’s not that simple though. According to early adopters, researchers, and other experts on remote work, there is little common ground between fully remote and fully on-site work. And when businesses approach hybrid work as a compromise—as many do—it sets them up for failure.
Hybrid Work Models: No Easy Compromise
The main problem is that hybrid work isn’t a comfortable middle ground between remote and office work. The two approaches rely on vastly different processes, standards and structures with little overlap. For a hybrid model to work, you have to bridge those approaches.
“The moment you force a subset of people back into the office, with another subset that is always remote, you have two playing fields to administrate – and that will be extremely difficult.”
Darren Murph, Head of Remote Work, Gitlab
Unless companies take steps to bridge that gap, one side — usually remote workers — ends up disadvantaged. The exact problems vary depending on how the company implements hybrid work. There are two typical approaches:
- Some employees work predominantly from the office, while others are entirely remote
- All employees have a flexible work arrangement, with a minimum number of days each week to work in the office
The underlying issues hold true for both, but manifest in different ways. Here’s what those look like.
Remote and Office Teams: Who Gets Left Behind?
Some businesses think having a remote team as well as an on-site team gets the best of both worlds. In practice, however, the two approaches to work clash in fundamental ways. Businesses that initially see it as a compromise soon find little common ground to stand on.
What usually happens is that managers stick to whichever style of work they were already more comfortable with, leaving the other side without much support.
When office workers are prioritized, the office follows conventional practices that leave remote workers in the lurch.
- Office workers exchange information and make decisions through spontaneous, unstructured communication. Much of this never reaches remote counterparts. Even if it does, it’s often too late for them to weigh in.
- Standards for assessment focus on attendance, perceived (not actual) efforts, and in-person impressions — all of which favor on-site employees.
- Remote workers are therefore overlooked for promotions — observed as early as 2014 and in more recent instances too.
- These disadvantages exacerbate issues already faced by many people who prefer remote work, such as those who care for children, or are disabled or chronically ill.
When remote workers are prioritized, it’s usually because a minority have roles that can’t be fulfilled remotely, while everyone else’s can.
- Office workers may resent a lack of support/compensation for their more rigid working conditions and the costs of living near the office or commuting to it.
- They may chafe under the need to keep all conversations on record for remote counterparts, especially if not given leeway to adjust to this new setup.
What’s clear in both cases is that business can’t simply allow both approaches to working and expect them to somehow align. Creating a hybrid model with remote and office teams requires them to bridge the gap deliberately.
Flexible Work Arrangements: The Illusion of Choice
The other common hybrid work model involves setting a minimum number of days employees have to work on-site. It’s seen as a way to offer flexible work without overhauling daily routines.
One of the biggest problems with this approach is the spirit in which it’s undertaken: that of bitter compromise. This framing paints remote work as an evil — if a necessary one — to be held against employees who actually avail themselves of it. The choice to work remotely turns out to be an illusory one, and advancing the ranks requires coming to the office as much as possible.
This sort of bait and switch may seem excessively cynical, but business owners have all but said it out loud.
Businesses that are serious about offering employees a hybrid arrangement need to overhaul the ways they communicate, collaborate, schedule their work, and assess their workers — which is all too often what they were hoping to avoid in the first place.
“[People] assume that because we know how to work together [and] how to work apart, then we can do hybrid. But hybrid is a third way. It’s incredibly difficult to do.”
Kristi Woolsey, Boston Consulting Group
Making a Hybrid Work Model that Works
Overall, there are major problems inherent to hybrid work, but they’re not insurmountable. Indeed, for businesses with roles that cannot be fulfilled remotely, overcoming is a necessity. But far too many businesses see hybrid work as a shortcut, compromise, or readily available middle-ground. They believe it will allow them to reap the benefits of remote and office work without investing any effort. And this is the biggest problem with it.
For hybrid work to succeed, businesses must acknowledge that it is an entirely different approach. It requires its own strategies, structures and adaptations. Getting it right is, quite possibly, harder than going fully remote or fully on-site. Only by acknowledging this can businesses find a way to get past it.