Remote workers | Is hybrid working destined to fail?

Is hybrid working destined to fail?
Is hybrid working destined to fail?

By Emeric Kubiak - Head of Science @AssessFirst

The loneliness experienced by some remote workers remains a very real psychological problem. However, exclusively associating loneliness with working remotely would be a misleading shortcut.

Many office-based employees felt lonely and isolated, long before the recent popularisation of remote work. Even open-plan offices, which were expected to promote communication and collaboration, surprisingly contribute to decreased face-to-face interactions.

So, loneliness is an issue regardless of the place - physical or virtual - that people find themselves working in. Teamwork can improve the quality of a person’s working life: but the structural problems within teams (e.g., team composition, interdependence between coworkers, working hours), contribute to increasing the levels of loneliness in employees.

As a result, we should resist the temptation to say: ‘humans are social’ in order to justify a mass return to the office, particularly in the sense that the latter has never turned out to be the hoped-for catalyst for social bonds. The office allows people to meet, but not necessarily connect; putting people in the same place is not enough to create and sustain high-quality connections at work.

Hybrid work can be divisive

Hybrid work - asymmetrical by nature - could accentuate feelings of isolation for remote employees, who are likely to feel disconnected from on-site employees. Think about hybrid meetings: where half of the team is in the office whilst the other half is remote dialling in via Teams or Zoom; it is unbalanced.

Hybrid work settings provide the most fertile ground for the development of siloed, ineffective cliques and networks, by creating two distinct work experiences, cultures, and groups. This leads to a high risk for a dominant group to be created: a group made up of those coming back to the office, contributing to the centralisation of information, knowledge, and responsibilities.

An open door for discrimination

Traditionally, the physical office is a place ruled by power and hierarchy: a place where each one of us sought to build a positive reputation, to be seen working by others, and where everyone had an interest in managing impressions: just think about those days of turning up to work even when sick, or the boring and useless meetings we have all attended with the sole objective of ‘showing off.’ Even if these behaviours can be easily criticised, they still are highly profitable for those displaying them. Just getting noticed at work, no matter the objective performance, is considered a strong signal of commitment, and improves career opportunities. Employees taking coffee and smoking breaks with their manager are promoted at a higher rate, even if they display the same level of effort and performance as other employees. Being physically available and being seen offer competitive advantage in building one’s career and pay.

What the studies say

In an experimental study, researchers from Stanford University concluded that, even if employees working from home are 13% more efficient than on-site employees, they are 50% less likely to be promoted.

A study by the UK ONS, from 2011 to 2020, showed that employees who mainly work from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other employees, and were around 38% less likely on average to have received a bonus compared to those who never worked from home.

In a world that values perception, it isn’t surprising that 50% of people are feeling an implicit pressure to return to the office - especially younger employees, even if they are encouraged to work remotely.

Hello discrimination, goodbye to equality of opportunity

Most surveys report that men are more likely to consider returning to the office than women, in part due to the disproportionate share of women with what they consider to be family responsibilities. This trend could lead to the development of male-dominated offices, with men being more visible than women, and succeeding - even more than today, in advancing their careers at the expense of equally qualified women.

The same logic applies to ethnicity and race. Black employees are seven times less likely to want to return to the office than white employees, in order to escape a work environment that is more toxic for minorities. If these biases are confirmed through time, there is, therefore, a high risk to see more discrimination in hybrid work settings, with already underrepresented groups being even more, sadly and unfairly, penalised.

What must companies do?

Organisations should consider several actions to head off disaster.

(1) Communicate your strategy. Only 32% of companies clearly communicate their vision of hybrid work, leading to increased employee' anxiety and burnout risk. Successfully carrying out a hybrid policy requires efforts to actively respond to employees’ concerns, and ease the understanding and ownership of the strategy.

(2) Educate managers. Unfortunately, research shows that only 28% of managers know the strategic priorities of their company. There is a disconnect between strategy and execution. While 44% of employees say their companies have a hybrid policy, only 18% feel encouraged by their manager to take advantage of it. Making hybrid a success requires managers to understand the strategy and be empowered to execute it in small and manageable ways with their teams.

(3) Be data-driven. Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) can help companies to better plan return-to-office strategies by mapping employee work patterns and relationships: to know which teams should come back to the office at the same time to improve engagement and performance. Also, our studies at AssessFirst show that we can effectively prevent feelings of isolation for remote employees by measuring psychological data, and proposing personality-based interventions.

(4) Define rules. While hybrid is presented ‘ideal flexibility’, it seems to be more effective when implemented with more rigid rules: preventing the development of cliques, discrimination and silos. For example, to avoid an imbalance between groups returning to the office or not, some researchers advise managers to decide which days their team should work remotely and which days they should be on-site - the first limit to real flexibility. Managers should also, for example, prevent hybrid meetings and encourage everyone to connect in an individual space as soon as a single member of the team is remote.

(5) Measure objective performance. Performance reviews should be independent of employee location. Today, evaluations are too often biased with rewards going to employees coming back to the office, rather than to those who have made a real contribution. Hybrid work urges for more accurate and objective performance assessments and companies have a long way to go: only 36% of employees believe their manager conducts accurate and objective reviews.

(6) Increase psychological safety. The most effective teams are those that develop a strong sense of psychological safety or group trust. In hybrid working environments: in a system that naturally blurs the lines between private and professional life, everyone must feel free to express their opinions, needs or personal constraints, without the fear of judgement.

Hybrid work can be more detrimental and less attractive than at first it seems. Often presented as the future of work, hybrid policies can also act as an anchor to our past, as an exacerbation of long-standing problems in the workplace, rather than the solution to them.

Seeking stability and certainty in a constantly changing world through hybrid policies that encourage the creep of office-based activity is understandable, but it would be a gloomy organisational and human failure. We have an amazing opportunity to let our openness bring us to new models, which, for the better, question the very meaning of work in people's lives. Other methods, like Work-From-Anywhere, whilst being viewed with scepticism, have the merit of being more innovative, more uniform, and considering everyone equally; they also seem to improve performance and engagement.

Find out more