The Argument Against Hybrid Working: Examining its Impact on Employees and Productivity
Laz is writing a blog about the argument for hybrid working, and we agreed it might be interesting to have a counter argument as well. As a starting point, we’d always, I would always, recommend hybrid working by default because of all the benefits it can bring, not just to the individual worker and business, but also to our attraction strategy. Hybrid just works. Or does it? Not all our clients are as keen to push their hybrid working policies and ambitions as others, which of course makes me wonder why? So out of curiosity I’ve been looking into some of the pitfalls to be able to have more rounded conversations about the topic.
As the world continues to adapt to the changing landscape of work following the pandemic, one of the most prominent shifts has been the widespread adoption of hybrid working. Pre-pandemic I was encouraging clients to offer, or at least consider it, as a way of appealing to a wider section of the top talent irrespective of the role or industry. Many companies let their people work from home, but lockdown accelerated those same companies thinking. Organisations happy to let people work 2 or 3 days a week from home quickly adapted to fully remote, and those businesses comfortable with the odd day a week quickly found themselves in a similar position. In theory it’s great, the flexibility works for the individual, the time and money they could get back from commuting proved very popular and there are cost savings for the businesses too in terms of office space, heating, bills etc. The counter argument we hear from some business leaders though is around productivity, are people working as hard away from a watchful eye? And what other negative impact can hybrid working have, it can’t all be peachy, or can it?
1) Deterioration of Company Culture
Company culture plays a crucial role in fostering teamwork, employee engagement, and a sense of belonging among employees. Research conducted by Harvard Business Review suggests that hybrid work arrangements may lead to a decline in company culture due to the reduced face-to-face interactions and team bonding that often occur in traditional office settings. And this makes sense on a practical level, when employees are physically separated for extended periods, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose might weaken, which could lead to potential disengagement and decreased employee satisfaction. We’ve spoken previously about how the answer to “I have a best friend at work” is the number one indicator of whether someone will stay with your business, so maybe there is mileage in this from a retention perspective.
2) Communication Challenges
Effective communication is the backbone of any successful organisation, and a study by the International Journal of Communication revealed that remote work can lead to communication breakdowns and misinterpretations among team members. I think most people would agree brainstorming in a room with a whiteboard, the old-fashioned way, can be a big miss. We’re all definitely more used to technology enabling our virtual meetings, and messaging platforms helping to pick up the slack, but the absence of face-to-face interactions can hinder the exchange of non-verbal cues, leading to misunderstandings and reduced collaboration. Thinking about those sessions in a room together, there are always different types of people, including the deeper thinkers and introverts that don’t say much but when they do it’s very valuable to the discussion. Do we miss out on their input now or do we need to approach how we try and access it differently?
3) Impact on Work-Life Balance
Proponents of hybrid work often argue that it can improve work-life balance, but research suggests that the boundary between work and personal life can become blurred in remote settings. According to a study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, employees in hybrid arrangements may feel pressured to be constantly available, ‘always on’, and may struggle to disconnect from work, leading to burnout and decreased overall well-being. We’ve seen this at YTS, we use an instant messaging system for work communications and in 2021 we had to rethink how we used it. Some of us would start later or have longer breaks in the day and then work later in the evenings. Absentmindedly firing off messages, although not meant to be read or responded to until the next day, started to distract those that had finished in their downtime. A balanced needed to be stuck because no one should feel like they need to respond urgently.
4) Inequitable Access to Opportunities
Hybrid work models may inadvertently create disparities in access to professional opportunities. A study from the University of California, Berkeley, found that remote employees, especially those in different time zones (which we have) or with limited internet connectivity, may miss out on spontaneous interactions and last-minute meetings, resulting in fewer chances for professional growth and recognition.
5) Reduced Employee Engagement
Employee engagement is a key factor in driving productivity and organisational success according to a research paper published in the Academy of Management Journal. It indicated that remote working might lead to decreased engagement due to reduced social interactions, fewer opportunities for skill development, and a lack of clarity in performance expectations. Engaged employees tend to be more motivated and committed to their roles, and the absence of these factors could result in a dip in productivity.
6) Managerial Challenges
Hybrid working models can pose significant challenges for managers according to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). It highlighted that managers may find it difficult to effectively monitor employee performance and maintain consistent communication in a hybrid environment. Additionally, some managers may unintentionally favour in-office employees, leading to feelings of isolation and exclusion among remote team members.
7) Team Cohesion and Collaboration
Successful teamwork often relies on strong relationships and collaboration among team members. Research from the MIT Sloan School of Management showed that hybrid teams may experience reduced cohesion due to varying work schedules and physical distance. This could hinder the sharing of ideas and hinder the overall creative potential and innovation within a business. Broadly, I’m a fan of flexible working, but from personal experience it can be frustrating trying to get a meeting in the diary for multiple people when they work different patterns, especially with time zones to consider.
8) Cybersecurity Risks
The shift to remote work, as seen during the pandemic, exposed organisations to increased cybersecurity risks. With more employees working from various locations, the potential for data breaches and cyberattacks rises. Research from Accenture reveals that remote working can lead to a 30% increase in security breaches, emphasizing the importance of robust security measures in a hybrid work environment. You could also argue here that broadband capability and speeds can also add to the frustrations.
While hybrid working has its advantages, it is essential to consider the potential downsides and challenges it presents for employees, it’s not as clear cut as some would like you to believe. The impact on company culture, communication, work-life balance, employee engagement, and productivity can be affected. Business leaders and HR must strike a balance that promotes flexibility while ensuring that employees have equal opportunities for growth and success, regardless of their work arrangements. One thing is for sure, hybrid working isn’t going away, so it’s about learning to embrace the “new normal” in ways that work for everyone involved. If you can harness the positives, the less stressed team members, more satisfied and less likely to leave top performer, and the removal of geographic boundaries, you can attract better people, that stay longer and save money in the process. But plan it properly and consider all the various facets and models of flexibility available to you. And of course, speak to us, we can tell you what’s worked and what hasn’t for other businesses, and give you some ideas that may balance productivity and flexibility in a way you hadn’t considered before.