Are we seeing the great hybrid reversal?
- 6 Min Read
Despite very consistent employee demand for more remote and flexible work, are attitudes toward hybrid work in reverse?
We are all familiar with the ‘great homeworking experiment’ and its outcomes. In late 2019, less than 5% of the UK population worked regularly from home. By the end of April of 2020, as the government sought to stop the spread of Covid-19, nearly half of the UK working population was doing their job from their home offices, kitchen tables or sofas.
We thought it would be a temporary measure until the crisis abated. However, what emerged was a loud, global and very consistent employee demand for more remote and flexible work. Even in the midst of crisis and the complexity of those early weeks of the pandemic, employees were able to see the potential benefits of retaining at least some aspect of remote work in future.
At the heart of this demand was a desire to reduce commuting and repurpose that time towards something more meaningful. Repeated surveys clearly indicated that employees would, if not given the opportunity to work remotely for at least some of the week, look for opportunities elsewhere.
The idea of hybrid work was born, and many employers responded… but not all of them. There were notable exceptions to the idea of remote work from government to big business. The CEO of Goldman Sachs famously referred to homeworking as an ‘aberration’. The ‘office is best’ voice has also been loud; it has been suggested that remote work will negatively influence organizational culture, teamwork, creativity and innovation, albeit little hard evidence is presented to substantiate such claims. Government ministers have even engaged with ‘flex shaming’ – micro-aggressions towards those that were working from home, inferring that perhaps they were not really working at all if they were not in the office.
For many organizations, the experience of working digitally during the pandemic was better than expected. This, along with the potential to reduce facilities and overhead costs may have helped them along the journey to hybrid adoption. For others, hybrid was an opportunity to improve employee wellbeing or maximize productivity. However, we should consider that some organizations may have embraced hybrid out of necessity rather than choice, especially if they believed a potential talent drain was imminent.
Return to office
Recent weeks have seen several high-profile organizations push, or even outright mandate, a return to office for their workers. For the most part, this is a requirement to attend for just some of the week, often with a minimum in-person attendance requirement. What is notable about some of these mandates is the accompanying narrative. There is no suggestion of evidence, organization-specific or more generally, to support the decision. There is no indication that hybrid has somehow failed, or resulted in undesirable outcomes. Instead, we see mention of vague suggestions like benefiting culture or the often fabled water cooler conversation. What we see are the beliefs, opinions, and personal worldviews of those in positions of organizational power.
If it isn’t a failure of new ways of working that result in businesses and leaders wanting their employees back in the office, we must look elsewhere for motivations. There is no single factor behind this remote resistance but a complex mix of biases, beliefs and traditions.
Barriers to hybrid
One barrier to flexible working adoption has always been the belief that, given the opportunity to work from home, employees will be less productive or outright skive. This issue has been prevalent since the very beginning of remote work, when technology first made it feasible. This belief also appears to be impervious to evidence. It endures, even though there is now a body of evidence from before, during and after the pandemic that suggests employees are at least as productive as when they work in the office, if not more so. Of course, such ratings are often self-assessed, and many managers just do not believe them.
Organizations, and many of their managers, are hardwired for presenteeism. In the days of scientific management, work was reduced to its component parts, and individuals were watched and timed. It was assumed employees would do as little as they could get away with unless there was supervision and the promise of pay. It could be argued our attitudes remain stuck in that era, as we continue to conflate presence and performance. Microsoft call this lack of trust ‘productivity paranoia’. In late 2022 they found that 85% of managers still felt it was hard to be confident that people were productive when they were working from home. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges to the sustainability of hybrid work.
Productivity paranoia however is not the only reason for opposition to hybrid work.
In our culture, we consistently value the ‘ideal worker’. These are employees who are committed to their organization and role, who work long hours, and who have few outside commitments to interfere with their job responsibilities. Flexible workers contradict this stereotype, and this results in the stigma that flexible workers still face. They are judged to be less motivated and committed; a further reason to diminish or be suspicious of those who wish to work flexibly.
For some managers, especially those for whom trust does not come easily, hybrid work presents a challenge to their status and certainty, which can result in a threat response. Traditional workplaces are replete with symbols of status – consider for example the coveted corner office. If employees are not present in the office, who is there to witness their rank? If they are not required to advice or physically supervise, do they even have a future role at all?
Privilege is also at play here. There is no doubt that the office works well for some people – and those people are often at the top of the organizational hierarchy fulfilling the ideal work stereotype. Some leaders simply cannot empathize with the experiences or challenges of others, for whom hybrid work might solve considerable difficulties such as living and working with a disability or struggling with childcare. At a basic level, we tend to be biased toward our own experiences, favoring them and believing that our perception is the universal truth. So if a leader personally prefers or benefits from the office, they might just believe that this is the best approach for everyone else too.
What lies ahead?
Access to hybrid work is often informal, rather than contractual. As we have seen in the recent examples highlighted in the media, continued access to it could depend on the attitudes of a single individual or small leadership team. Whilst we have undoubtedly made progress in the last three years in terms of flexible work acceptance, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before it is truly normalized – and employees’ ongoing access to it can be assured. Only time will tell if attitudes toward hybrid work are in reverse, and the homeworking experiment is finally over.
Gemma Dale, Senior Lecturer, Liverpool John Moores University