The Hybrid Face-off: Employees vs. Management

As Omicron’s case rate slows, many high-level executives are ready for everyone to return to the office. Employees have other plans.

The executive was looking forward to a bustling office earlier this winter. Then came Omicron, and now, in late January, his team members are once again comfortably ensconced in their home offices, working remotely. As someone who reports to the C-suite, he worries that operations and innovation fall behind in remote setups. Some days, he admits, he wishes “the whole work-from-home thing” would just disappear in a puff of pandemic memory. Many of his peers agree.

Omicron’s gradual retreat in many parts of the world is revealing a fracture: executives perceive hybrid work arrangements as temporary, while employees perceive them as permanent. This expansive gulf between C-suite and employee visions of the workplace continues to grow: 53% of US companies consider themselves either “fully office” or “mostly office” workplaces. Yet a survey of 10,000 knowledge workers found that 78% want location flexibility and that 72% are unhappy with their company’s current flexibility level and will seek other opportunities within the year. Executives find themselves facing a wall of resistance, as one hybrid system after another falters.

“No one has perfected the model just yet,” says Brian Bloom, vice president for Global Benefits at Korn Ferry. “But they’re trying.” That effort comes, however, after two years of trying with little luck to get employees back to the office even part-time. Office occupancy was at just 30% this week in the nation’s top-10 metropolitan areas. 

To be sure, a minority of executives, particularly in technology and media, have comfortably acclimated to perma-hybrid schedules. Most report a range of successes — increasing office face time while also addressing employee concerns and wants. Other industries, like finance, are insisting on substantial office time.

Experts say executives need to rethink their approaches. Soon offices may no longer be places of work in the broader sense, they say. “They may become places to interact,” says Paul Lambert, global leader of the Workforce Transformation practice at Korn Ferry. He imagines fewer desks, more meeting rooms, and a greater measure of intention among employees working in person. “People are now going into the office for more deliberate reasons,” he says.

Employees and managers alike still lack the skills to organize workplace arrangements long term. “Right now teams are often thinking only one week out,” says David Vied, global sector leader for Medical Devices & Diagnostics at Korn Ferry. What this usually looks like is a team member announcing when she’ll be in the office and that she’s reserved a conference room on Thursday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Vied suggests that frontline managers could benefit from skill trainings to learn how to manage dynamic schedules. “It’s just keeping track of people, managing them, and communicating,” he says.

Experts also say that employees who opt for mostly remote schedules might be doing so at their own peril. “Ultimately you’ll see some full-time remote people missing out on opportunities,” says Margie Warrell, senior client partner in the Board & CEO Services practice at Korn Ferry. This will likely be more costly to higher-ranking employees, says Juan Pablo González, Korn Ferry’s sector leader for Professional Services. When completely absent from the office, lower-ranking employees will still be mostly judged on their work quality and abilities. But executives will lose the power of their networks. “At the senior level, it’s the reverse,” he says.