Is the Hybrid Workplace the Future of Work?

Post-pandemic, employers are currently assessing the best way to move forward with improving employee engagement while ensuring smooth operations continue, and the hybrid workplace is the top attention-getter. Is the hybrid workplace here to stay for the long term? Multiple surveys of the younger generations of workers find the answer is a resounding “yes!” Many job candidates and employees make at least partial remote work a requirement for remaining in their jobs or accepting a new position.  

This has not always aligned with the employer’s expectations, as some companies ordering workers back to the workplace full-time discovered when employees vigorously objected. For employers, the hybrid work model has become an employee engagement challenge and an operational challenge. The many surveys of employees and employers on this topic indicating the hybrid workplace is the future of work means employers will need to adapt going forward to remain competitive in the labor market.  

future of work

Redefining Work Leads to Redefining the Workplace 

In 2022, organizations have had to become more people-centric in response to so many changes that include a labor shortage, technology enabling mobility, and a need for elevated collaboration to remain innovative. At the same time, five generations of workers are now in the labor force, with millennials and Gen Z accounting for the largest percentage of workers. Combined, Millennials and Gen Z already make up approximately 40 percent of the U.S. workforce, but by 2030 that number will change to 74 percent.   

Though there are differences between the generations, they have one major common attribute – a love of technology. Millennials are considered the first digital natives, and Gen Z grew up with some of the most advanced technologies to date. Surrounded by technology from birth, the younger generations of workers have expectations about the role of technology in the workplace. For example, they don’t like creaky legacy systems still used by so many businesses and want to work with state-of-the-art technology. Both generations like remote work, even if for different reasons.  

Millennials embrace virtual tools for work and collaboration. An Axios Harris poll found that 84 percent of millennials say remote work is important. One reason is that many in this age group have children, and they spent considerable effort making working at home a success during the pandemic. Yet, despite being just as technology connected as millennials, multiple surveys have found that Gen Z wants to do some work remotely but also wants to network and socialize with coworkers. The 2022 Career Interest Survey found that only 13 percent of the 11,500 high school and college-aged individuals favored remote training and onboarding. They want flexibility. One of the reasons is they grew tired of years of remote schooling.   

Another difference between the generations is that Gen Zers are more comfortable forming online relationships than millennials. But what about baby boomers? A McKinsey & Co study found that workers aged 18-35 years old were 59 percent more likely to leave than employees in the 55-64 years old group if their employer didn’t offer a hybrid work arrangement. The survey also found that 75 percent of survey participants said they prefer a hybrid working model. So, all generations, to some degree, want a hybrid schedule.  

During the pandemic, employees got comfortable working remotely full or part-time, or they decided they didn’t like working remotely. For employers, the challenge is developing a hybrid workplace model that attracts younger talent yet promotes employee retention of workers of all ages. Many employers planned on requiring employees to return full-time to the workplace, but McKinsey & Co also found that 85 percent of employees already working in a hybrid model want to continue working that way.  

What is a Hybrid Workplace?

There are three types of work models. Employees must work in a work setting, work remotely or work in a hybrid workplace. In the hybrid model, work schedules are a mix of onsite and remote work. There are three types of hybrid work models. 

Employees work in-office for designated days and remotely for the remaining days, i.e., three days in-office and two days remotely. 

  1. Except for basic home office staff, employees work remotely and periodically check in, i.e., field workers. 
  2. Distributed model in which all employees work remotely, and there is no physical office, so “onsite” is wherever it’s practical to physically meet. 

Another form of the hybrid workforce is one in which home and office work time are flexible. For example, an employee can utilize a flexible schedule that allows working six hours one day in-office, leaving to take care of a personal matter, and completing another 2 hours of work at home. 

The hybrid workplace model in which employees work a few days in-office and a few days remotely is the easiest for leadership because they know exactly when employees will be in the office for meetings and collaboration and for employees who like a set schedule.  

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Facing the Challenges of the New Workplace Going Forward 

Not all work is suitable for hybrid work, and not all employees are candidates for remote work. Many employers assumed that post-pandemic forced remote work would end, and the hybrid workplace would cease to exist. Everyone would return to the workplace. However, there was a lot of pushback from employees who liked working all or part of the workweek remotely and had learned to balance work and their personal lives. They had set up home offices, established computers connected to the workplace, and developed schedules that supported important personal activities, like picking up children from school. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) surveyed 1,200 U.S. office workers and 120 executives in 2020 (during the pandemic) and found:  

  • 73 percent of the executives said employees working remotely was a success 
  • 72 percent of workers wanted to continue working at home at least two days a week  
  • 32 percent wanted to work from home permanently 

Before COVID, there was a slow move towards allowing hybrid work, but COVID accelerated it. The initial concern was that employee productivity would decline, but studies have found that people who enjoy working remotely are more productive because they have less stressgreater flexibility, fewer distractions from coworkers, no commute, better focus, more time for family and exercise, and a better work-life balance.  

There are benefits for employers too. They include increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and reduced turnover. Employee engagement is strengthened when employees are more fulfilled and satisfied.  

Some of the challenges employers face in accommodating employees include: 

  • Need to develop a shared workspace 
  • More complex scheduling  
  • Change in the way employees are engaged 
  • Change to the company culture 
  • Change in the way work gets done 
  • Ensuring employees can collaborate and continue to build relationships 
  • Identifying the employees who can successfully work remotely part-time or full-time 
  • Establishing opportunities for employee-manager meetings 
  • Implementing technologies for long-term utilization to support remote work 

Of the executives surveyed by PwC, 29 percent said that keeping a strong organizational culture would mean employees should be in the office three days a week; 18 percent said four days a week, and 15 percent said two days a week. What works for one company may not work for another. Some companies may not be able to implement a hybrid workplace because of the nature of the work, i.e., grocery store workers, some retail workers, restaurant workers, construction workers, etc. The strongest candidates for instituting hybrid work are the technology industry, call center industry, and customer services industry, where work is mostly done on a computer. 

Making a Plan for a Hybrid Workplace 

How do you approach planning for hybrid work? What are the best practices for adapting Human Resources policies post-pandemic? Establishing a policy on hybrid work is a potential source of conflict between employees and management, and surveys and employers could lead to some of the younger employees leaving your company based on survey findings.   

For example, Marcey Uday-Riley, Senior Consultant at IRI Consultants, has clients who have told her job candidates are turning down job opportunities when they are expected to work onsite. There are also current employees who worked remotely full-time during the pandemic and want to remain full-time remote employees, but their employer wants them to work in the office at least 2-3 days a week.   

This is a topic that can’t be ignored. The FlexJobs’ 10th Annual Survey conducted in mid-2021 found that 58 percent of survey participants seeking jobs want to work full-time as remote employees and 39 percent want hybrid work arrangements. Add these percentages up, and 97 percent of workers want some amount of remote work. Survey respondents said that company culture is a top factor in deciding whether to accept a position, and an employer that isn’t concerned with work-life balance would influence their decision on whether to apply for a job, accept a position, or quit. 

Following are some points to consider when developing a hybrid workplace model to take your company into the future of work.  

  • Establish an HR policy for hybrid work, including the degree of flexibility allowed, i.e., can get 8 hours of work in a 24-hour period, must work 8-5, etc.  
  • Clearly and transparently communicate the policy to the workforce so that realistic expectations are established. 
  • Develop an onboarding process that accommodates the hybrid work model 
  • Develop a streamlined attendance system to minimize leadership time spent tracking and enforcing the hybrid work schedule 
  • Determine the degree of flexible schedules that support operations and the ability to deliver excellent customer service; common flex work schedules include: 
  • fixed onsite and remote days for everyone 
  • schedules made at the team level, so there may be different schedules across the organization 
  • Each employee sets a consistent schedule. 
  • Employees work whenever and wherever they want at any location. 
  • Ensure the technologies provided by your company support remote work and minimize security risks  
  • Establish policies on the utilization of the remote worker’s personal technologies for conducting work 
  • Assess and restructure onsite workspace for workers to share for purposes of collaboration, teamwork, and socialization and for working onsite when visiting the office 
  • Develop virtual water cooler opportunities and other networking opportunities for employee interactions 
  • Develop a digital communication system that enables hybrid workers to easily and efficiently connect and communicate with the rest of the organization so that silos don’t form and to reduce the risk of some employees being excluded 
  • Conduct regular employee surveys to engage employees and stay on top of their needs 
  • Train leaders on managing a hybrid workforce, including ensuring all employees have the same opportunities for work, networking and collaboration with coworkers, training and development, rewards and recognition, and career advancement, and are assessed on productivity in the same manner as onsite employees without regard to the work location. 
  • Train leaders in digital communication skills for engaging remote workers and hybrid team members, including video calls and video conferences that promote knowledge transfer and collaboration
hybrid workplace

Don’t Allow Faultlines to Form 

Leadership training is crucial to implementing and maintaining hybrid work. The hybrid workplace has the risk of some remote employees being excluded or their work unfairly assessed for different reasons. Researchers have discussed the risk of “faultlines” that can develop between people working remotely and those working on site, which applies to a hybrid workforce in which some people will work onsite, full time, while others are hybrid workers coming and going.  

Employee engagement is just as important for the remote and hybrid workforces as it is for the onsite workforce. Your leaders need specialized communication skills to ensure they understand how to engage a successful hybrid team. For example, they need to be intentional in explaining why some onsite work is necessary and not just hand down HR policies on a 3-2 workweek split. The head of people analytics at Microsoft, Dawn Klinghoffer, says managers need to maximize work-life balance by helping teams prioritize work to create production stability and empower the team to have a voice in the prioritization.  

Clearly, developing a hybrid workplace is more complex than it appears at first glance. It involves a lot more than just saying, “You can work two days a week at home or another location.” A management consultant can help if the process seems too overwhelming, given all the other challenges your leadership team is likely facing.  

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.