Hybrid Work: The Future of the Office

Where do business leaders stand on the hybrid office….and what are the implications?

Hybrid Work: The Future of the Office

As the summer winds down and back-to-school season commences, people across the country are longing to hit the reset button and return to a normal routine. The question on many professionals’ minds is, “What does the new normal routine really look like?”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for some almost unimaginable, monumental changes. The now oft-used phrase, “then COVID happened” points to how there were sudden, fundamental shifts in the way we go about our daily lives. This unprecedented event has forced us to do some things differently, and some of those differences are improvements. For example, some of us discovered that we can have a 60-pound bag of dog food delivered to the front door rather than lugging it home from the pet food store.  

That said, “improvement” can be subjective. An improvement to some may be an aggravation to others. One area in which this is starkly exemplified is in the return to the office. 

According to a new CNBC survey of executives at major U.S. companies, the hybrid work model is here to stay, but it will fall short of becoming a dominant mode of employment.

Per CNBC, “Under half (45%) of companies expect to lead with a hybrid workforce model in the second half of 2021, versus roughly one-third (32%) that indicated an ‘in-person first’ employment model will be the situation.”

While many in leadership may have an “in-person first” mindset, most employees want the hybrid model to become permanent.

A research report published by Accenture in May, “The Future of Work: Productive Anywhere,”  found that 83% of employees say a hybrid work model in which they can work remotely between 25% and 75% of the time is optimal.

We were curious about this misalignment between executive and employees, so we spoke with business leaders across industries, genders and generational cohorts to better understand their perspective and concerns. Here is what we heard.

Brain Drain: Will employees leave? 

Given the labor shortage, employees feel empowered to bargain for flexibility in their schedules. Organizations that are not willing to offer a hybrid model may be in danger of an exodus of talented workers. Further they may be challenged in recruiting the best and brightest. 

“I have lost at least two really valuable employees because our firm is unwilling to allow hybrid work schedules. I fear I will lose more. There are some functional areas in which the job requirements mean employees need to be in the office, but others certainly do not.” 

- C-Level, Energy, Millennial, Female

“I’m finishing my last semester of college and going through recruiting right now. Depending on the industry, some companies are talking about fully remote and hybrid options. A hybrid office schedule is extremely desirable to me and my fellow soon-to-be graduates. I think my generation places a high value on our personal time and eliminating a commute a couple of days a week is a big selling point.”  

- Intern/College Senior, Generation Z, Female

Highly talented employees — those who have the skills and credentials that make them marketable — will likely be the first to leave for more desirable situations. New talent entering the workforce will likely opt for more flexible opportunities. According to the Accenture report, there are five key factors that drive people to desire remote or partially remote options:

  • Safety: Remote work makes me feel safer.
  • Quality of Life: I have a better quality of life working remotely.
  • Freedom: Remote work gives me the freedom to take more productive breaks when needed.
  • Technology: I have the tools and technology to effectively work remotely.
  • Workspace: I have sufficient work-from-home space.

The report concluded that hybrid workers are more likely to be thriving, while onsite workers are more likely to be disgruntled.

Brain Train: Will professional growth be impacted?

While some formal professional development opportunities may be more accessible in a world with Zoom and Teams video options, informal expertise-sharing and mentoring may suffer. 

“I am interested in seeing how young people fare who are new to the workforce. Do they learn as much as they would if they were in the office? Are their careers progressing as they want?” 

- C-Level, Finance, Generation X, Female

“We have lost so many of those things that are part of the esprit de corps of an organization, of a team. The nonverbal communication, particularly body language is lost on a video conference. Working the room, which is often learned by observing others, may become a rare skill. Presentations have become more challenging. Communication is complex, and there are countless cues lost on a video conference.”

- Director, Pharmaceutical, Baby Boomer, Male

“Younger professionals learn two ways, by watching and by doing. A hybrid schedule would not necessarily impact our ability to do the work, but it could impact our ability to observe. As digital natives, we are very comfortable with video communication, but I do think I will place a higher value and focus on face-to-face interactions on the days that I am in an office.”

- Intern/College Senior, Generation Z, Female

An entire industry has been built around online professional development. Online options have many obvious advantages: no need for travel, reduced cost and reduced time away from work and family, just to name a few. That said, informal professional development can be just as, if not more, important. “Pop in this meeting with me” or “why don’t you join me for this client lunch” are often uttered by senior managers and leaders when it occurs to them in the moment. Further, young professionals develop and hone many capabilities and competencies through observation. 

In this case, the adage “out of sight, out of mind” goes both ways – leaders may not remember to include their young colleagues, and younger professionals may not pick up on the soft skills learned through observation. If hybrid schedules are implemented, leaders must be deliberate and intentional and about minding the growth of their young subordinates and colleagues.

Efficiency Reigns: Do convenience and cost-savings rule above all else?

Employees perceive they will enjoy personal savings by reducing their number of days in the office. Everything from the cost of work clothing to transportation-related expenses are believed to be tangible benefits. 

“Working from home allows for money saved on gas and allows workers to share workspace decreasing office space costs.”

- Director, Applied Sciences, Millennial, Male

Employers may well enjoy cost savings beyond just the space itself. Office furniture and office supplies ranging from pencils to breakroom nosh can add up.  But employers should also consider where additional expenses may lie in shifting to a hybrid workplace model. There will likely be a heavy reliance on technology, placing extra pressure on the IT department and the IT budget. 

In conclusion, as one executive we spoke with expressed, “I’ll be curious to see in three to five years what happens with companies who embrace a hybrid work model and whether companies continue on that path or revert back to being in the office.” 

Another put it this way, “To reference the Beatles, some of these changes are forever, but perhaps not for better. We are a resilient lot, and we will adapt.” 

While we do not have a crystal ball, we can offer this advice based on our conversations with leaders across industries, genders and generational cohorts: when making decision about the future of your office, seek out and consider the perspectives and opinions from a diverse group. The more diverse the group, the more diverse the perspectives and the more likely the outcome will be a sustainable, satisfying model for everyone.