As the new normal is slowly taking shape, many companies are bringing their employees back to the office two or three days a week. While it’s tempting to let employees choose their own hybrid schedules, there are some clear disadvantages to this approach. Adopting these simple best practices for hybrid work schedules can ease much of the pain around the return to the office.
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In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor of economics, reveals that about 70% of companies have made the transition to hybrid work or intend to in the near future. Working with his colleages Jose Maria Barrero and Steven J. Davis, Bloom queried hundreds of organizations, from tiny operations to vast multinationals, in order to arrive at this figure. (You can read more about his study at the National Bureau of Economic Research.)
Hybrid work is wonderful in theory, since it enables flexibility and gives employees and managers alike better work-life balance. That being said, there are still some kinks to work out. Bloom has identified two key issues for organizations to consider as they solidify their policies around hybrid work schedules.
While flexibility was crucial in the early days of the pandemic, we are entering an era when a workplace’s hybrid schedule is about more than simple social distancing. Through his research Bloom has found that managers are still struggling with some aspects of remote and hybrid work.
“One concern is managing a hybrid team, where some people are at home and others are at the office. I hear endless anxiety about this generating an office in-group and a home out-group. For example, employees at home can see glances or whispering in the office conference room but can’t tell exactly what is going on. Even when firms try to avoid this by requiring office employees to take video calls from their desks, home employees have told me that they can still feel excluded. They know after the meeting ends the folks in the office may chat in the corridor or go grab a coffee together.”
Setting specific hybrid schedules puts an end to the in-group/out-group dynamic for good. Even better, your team won’t have to wonder who will show up for the 10am meeting in person and who will call in, adding a sense of stability to the workday they may have been missing for some time.
Bloom and his fellow researches surveyed around 30,000 Americans between May and March of this year to get a truly broad sense of attitudes about hybrid and remote work. Their findings revealed a difference of opinions based more on personal factors than workplace concerns:
“32% of employees say they never want to return to working in the office. These are often employees with young kids, who live in the suburbs, for whom the commute is painful and home can be rather pleasant. At the other extreme, 21% tell us they never want to spend another day working from home. These are often young single employees or empty nesters in city center apartments.”
While it would be ideal to let people choose what works best for them, you might end up with an office full of single white men in their 20s and 30s — and their work could overshadow the equally good work being done by the rest of your workforce. Bloom calls this out as a risk to workplace diversity:
“It turns out that who wants to work from home after the pandemic is not random. In our research we find, for example, that among college graduates with young children women want to work from home full-time almost 50% more than men. This is worrying given the evidence that working from home while your colleagues are in the office can be highly damaging to your career.”
Happily, Bloom offers a simple solution that not only makes managers happy but allows equal visibility for all employees:
“So I have changed my mind and started advising firms that managers should decide which days their team should WFH. For example, if the manager picks WFH on Wednesday and Friday, everyone would come in on the other days. The only exceptions should be new hires, who should come in for an extra office day each week for their first year in order to bond with other new recruits.”
Even if there’s some inital pushback from employees, letting managers set hybrid schedules ensures fairness within the team and the organization as a whole. It can also help determine how much space will be needed for various departments within the company going forward. Before you crack the whip and tell your direct reports which days you want to see them, be sure that your office facilities can accommodate everyone. You may need to sell your plan up the ladder before you share it with employees.
Bloom also has suggestions for how this process can be managed at the organizational level:
“Firms that want to efficiently use their office space will need to centrally manage which teams come in on which days. Otherwise, the building will be empty on Monday and Friday — when everyone wants to WFH — and overcrowded mid-week. To encourage coordination, companies should also make sure that teams that often work together have at least two days of overlap in the office.”
In short, when managers pick the days that hybrid employees are in the office, everyone wins.
Ensuring fairness by regulating hybrid schedules is a battle worth fighting. Even if it takes some time to sell your vision to the C-level, the effort is well worth it. Who knows, you may inspire other managers to better coordinate their own teams’ hybrid schedules so that their lives are a little easier and there is greater visibility for everyone at your company.