The Age of the ‘Hybrid’ Worker

Work from home? Work from the office? With firms like Google leading the way, big firms may turn to an unprecedented half-in, half-out model.

It was a dilemma corporate leaders weren’t quite sure how to address. They were anxious to get staffs back into the offices they invested billions toward building. But since the pandemic, workforces generally dreaded the idea of commuting again and, in their minds, being less productive.

Now, with a vaccine promising to give companies the chance to return to pre-pandemic full-office setups later this year, experts say a new hybrid model may become the answer. Just this week, Google told employees that it would test out a so-called flexible workweek when the firm reopens its offices over the coming months. Employees will be expected to work at least three days a week in the office while working remotely the other days. Google joins a handful of other companies moving in this direction—an approach that experts say appears to be a compelling post-pandemic compromise. “It’s no longer a question of whether to do it; it’s become, ‘Let’s do it and manage it well,’” says Nathan Blain, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global lead for the firm’s Optimizing People Costs business.

All of this, of course, would be a far cry from the bring-everything-to-the-office model that many firms had invested in so heavily over the last two decades. But while remote work is not without its drawbacks, a growing number of experts say that companies that don’t at least try flexible work arrangements could find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. “We are hearing that some candidates won’t even engage with organizations that don’t offer flexibility,” says Melissa Swift, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader for workforce transformation.

Since distributing COVID-19 vaccines will take several months, organizations have some time to figure out what hybrid model may work best for them. One option gaining traction among software developers is to have all programmers work in the office at the beginning and end of projects. The rest of the time they can work at home. Other companies have tried having workers spend one week at the office and three weeks remote. Swift says the best model will depend on what the company is trying to accomplish, from saving money to attracting a different group of workers to placating the existing workforce.

The policy making about flexible work arrangements in the United States also will affect workers abroad, since US firms employee hundreds of thousands of people overseas, says Anoobhav Singh, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Global Technology Industry group. For example, many workers in Asia do transactional work, such as customer service or technical support. In theory, those roles would be easy to shift to remote work, but homes in Asia are typically smaller than in the US, making working from home more challenging.

The one thing that likely won’t work, according to experts, is imposing the same policy for everyone. For one thing, that isn’t exactly “flexible.” More importantly, if everyone works the same two days from home, it means that offices are completely empty on those days—a huge inefficiency. But the costs of expecting everyone back at the office may outweigh even the real estate inefficiencies. “There is no doubt the office world will be transformed by this forced work-from-home experiment, but the question remains how much the pendulum will swing,” Singh says.

And as organizations shift where employees work, they also must shift how managers manage. Leaders who are used to saying “my office door is open” will have to, among other things, deliberately schedule time with their direct reports. Meanwhile, organizations will have to develop, or at least review, how they measure productivity.