Will Hybrid Work … Work?

Everyone says they want it, but early adopters are running into problems big and small.

Having a hybrid work schedule is one of the few things a majority of workers agree on these days. In one survey, for example, almost 70% of US firms say they plan to adopt some form of it. In other countries, the demand from workers is at least as high. Plus, there are plenty of technology tools to make a hybrid model available to nearly any service organization that started from scratch.

But corporate leaders have privately expressed skepticism that work productivity will suffer under a hybrid system. “Some firms are just saying ‘Bring everyone back to the office,’” says Mark Royal, a senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory.

Even when leaders like a hybrid system in concept, problems can pop up when organizations try implementing it. Managers and employees can’t agree on which days office work is mandatory. Productivity often slips, at least initially. And critics say managers can’t help but favor those who come in more often. As Juan Pablo González, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Professional Services practice, sees it, hybrid work will be a struggle between fairness, equity, and flexibility. “It’s going to be really hard for managers.”

Organizations of all sizes are finding that it was easier to get everyone to work remotely all the time than it is to design a system that lets some people work remotely some of the time. But there’s likely no turning back. Employees want it, and many firms fear they’ll miss out on top talent if they don’t offer it. “Hybrid is here to stay,” says Miriam Nelson, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and a leader in the firm’s assessment and succession solutions business.

Experts say it’s natural that organizations are often fixated on logistical and management issues. Who works remotely? On what days? What technology is needed to make meetings involving in-office and at-home attendees go effectively? What’s the best use of office space when there are fewer people in it on a daily basis? And how do you manage a disparate team?

But those priorities don’t address some of the problems that early adopters are experiencing. Some firms are finding that what will work best for their employees and productivity doesn’t work well for their customers. In those cases, “most organizations are trying to accommodate clients,” says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president of global human resources.

Then there’s trying to re-create the social aspects of work. Some people want their time spent in the office to primarily involve face-to-face interactions and collaborating with colleagues, not sitting at a desk on the phone or doing computer work. “Companies have to figure out, ‘How do we make that work?’” says Elise Freedman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm’s Workplace Transformation practice.

Freedman and others advise companies to list out all the potential roadblocks to the success of a hybrid work schedule. Some of those, of course, are the scheduling and technology issues. But other issues might not arise until well after a hybrid model is implemented. For example, employees could wind up forming cliques, managers might never get over their reluctance to the schedule, or new employees may never get acclimated or feel included.

Then, experts say, organizations need to not only set expectations but also be flexible within those expectations. For example, move away from policies such as having everyone work in the office on the same three days, and instead try a philosophy that encourages people to come to the office and collaborate, Royal says. Individual employees could work with their direct reports to determine the best schedule that meets the needs of the person and the team, he says.