The Big Hybrid Workplace Experiment

04/27/2022
by Tina Manzer

When COVID numbers declined last summer, companies began preparing for the mass migration of employees back to their corporate offices. Two COVID variants later, it’s finally happening for real. We know that because Google, with nearly 160,000 workers, marked its official return to the office on April 4.

Does that mean that the many smaller office supply orders you delivered to home addresses will suddenly consolidate into bigger office-building orders? Or that corporations will want furniture for a whole floor’s worth of cubicles?

Well, not so fast. As you know, the majority of folks loved the flexibility of working remotely during the pandemic and given today’s job market, employers really need to make them happy. That’s why 60 percent of offices will try a new “hybrid” model, according to market research firm Forrester, meaning that employees will work in their corporate offices parttime and work remotely parttime. But Forrester also predicts that one-third of the companies will fail at the model’s successful execution as they continue to design the workplace around face-to-face interaction. It may be difficult to turn such a big ship in a new direction.

To help organizations understand what they’re getting into with a hybrid model, Gallup recently released research it has been collecting on U.S. office workers since the onset of the pandemic. A March 15 article by Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy, workplace management at Gallup, presented the insights it revealed about the experiences, needs, and future plans of 140,000 U.S. employees. With data that answered five questions ranging from “Where are they working now?” to “What will the future workweek look like?” it outlines the potential pitfalls and benefits of a hybrid workplace. Here are two highlights.

 

Compared to pre-pandemic numbers, nearly double the number of people will be working remotely at least part of their week now.

Nearly half of America’s full-time workforce – about 60 million workers – reported in a Gallup survey that their current job could be done remotely, at least part of the time. Before the pandemic, about one-third of these remote-capable workers had a hybrid work arrangement, and only 8 percent worked exclusively from home. By May of 2020, that percentage shot up to around 70.

Fast-forward to February 2022 when 42 percent of remote-capable employees said they had a hybrid schedule and 39 percent worked entirely from home. When asked then where they planned to work long-term, 53 percent expected a hybrid arrangement based on communications from their employer, while 24 percent expected to continue to work entirely remotely. With nearly double the number of people expected to work in the office only part of the time, everything about work environments – from their culture to their setup – will have to be reimagined.

By the way, employees are pretty happy about where these changes are headed. Nine out of 10 remote-capable employees told Gallup they wanted remote-work flexibility going forward. Six in 10 prefer hybrid work.

“We know that working from a location that doesn’t best suit their needs wreaks havoc on many aspects of employees’ lives,” wrote Wigert. “Failing to offer flexible work arrangements is a significant risk to an organization’s hiring, employee engagement, performance, wellbeing and retention strategies.”

Leaders and managers prefer hybrid work over employees working remotely fulltime, says the research. They’re concerned
about sustaining team performance and culture, and rightly so. As a result, some leaders may be tempted to restrict remote-work options going forward.

 

No clear consensus from employees on how many days they should be in the office.

To help managers make plans, Gallup asked employees who want a hybrid schedule about the number of days they prefer to spend in the office. Four in 10 employees – not even half – said they’d like to be in the office two to three days each workweek. Another three in 10 prefer spending one or two days in the office.

“On the upside, most employees agree that a moderate amount of time in the office is important,” wrote Wigert. “Our research has consistently shown that work flexibility tends to be optimal for engaging employees and reducing burnout – both before and during the pandemic.”

Employees were also asked about the structure of hybrid scheduling – should they be able to come and go as they please or should their schedule be more structured? Sixty percent wanted more structure, but among them there was no consensus about how to coordinate in-person and remote schedules.

 

Priorities for the new normal

To prevent companies from getting bogged down in policies and rules concerning hybrid work, Gallup listed three things a successful hybrid workplaces should provide, based on its analysis: productivity, flexibility, and connectivity.

“Hybrid is not just a work schedule or employee perk,” concluded Wigert. “It’s an entirely new way of working together. Looking forward, all signs indicate that it’s fast becoming a new expectation of the workforce. The next chapter of this great global work experiment will be written by how employers respond to the opportunities and challenges afforded by two years of learning to
work differently.”

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