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Benefits and challenges of a hybrid workplace

Employees' desire for flexibility may lead organizations to explore a hybrid workplace, but hybrid work has strengths and weaknesses. Learn what it looks like in practice.

Business and HR leaders need to rethink their workplace strategies and consider what makes sense following the height of the pandemic. Many employees want flexibility, and that demand will require many organizations to implement some form of hybrid work.

What exactly does hybrid mean in the context of work? That definition can vary. Gartner defines the hybrid workforce model as one that allows employees to flow through a variety of sites or schedules and even vary the nature of their work, said George Penn, vice president of research and advisory at Gartner.

However, each organization is likely to put its own spin on just what hybrid work means.

As many Americans get vaccinated and workplaces open again, hybrid workplace plans could include some staff members working in the office full-time while others work from home for a certain number of days a week. Some organizations might schedule certain days for in-person collaboration and meetings, then allocate remote workdays. Another possibility is some employees working in the office while others work remotely and the two groups switching locations at a set time, which is a strategy some companies embraced during the COVID-19 pandemic to limit the amount of employees working in an office at one time.

Over the past year and a half, many employees demonstrated they can work successfully in a hybrid or totally remote work environment, according to the October 2020 report "A Business Case for the Hybrid Workforce" by Gartner. Company leaders may be more willing to try a hybrid work plan now because of this.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all hybrid workplace strategy, Penn said.

"There are many versions of a hybrid model because it's one based on flexibility and adaptability and shared ownership," Penn said. "For the vast majority of organizations, creating a more flexible workforce model is something that will benefit them [because] flexibility … and adaptability … are essential to business success."

Here's a look at some of the benefits and challenges of the hybrid workplace model.

Benefits

Lower operating costs

If fewer employees work on-site, companies can possibly reduce office space and save money.

Eighty-seven percent of executives surveyed by PwC in November and December 2020 said they expected to make changes to their real estate strategy over the next year, according to the "U.S. Remote Work Survey" by PwC. This includes consolidating office space in major cities or opening more satellite locations.

Having more office location options could be another money-saver.

Companies can set up headquarters beyond expensive metropolitan areas, said Anh Phillips, research director for the global CEO program at Deloitte, a management consulting firm located in London.

More flexibility for job candidates and companies

If many companies embrace a hybrid workforce strategy, job seekers can job hunt across the globe and companies can look beyond a single city for talent.

Before remote work, companies were forced to only hire in particular geographical areas, Phillips said. A hybrid workplace makes that less of a necessity.

Casting a wider net for job candidates can benefit companies in multiple ways.

Hiring only in one location can limit candidates' diversity and technology backgrounds, said Cyril George, global talent acquisition lead at General Motors, which is located in Detroit and is embracing a hybrid workplace model.

Better employee experience and work-life balance

A hybrid workplace strategy can increase employee happiness, which could lead to better work performance.

Work-life balance, which significantly contributes to employee well-being, is higher among hybrid workers, according to the Gartner report.

"Roughly 60% of semi-remote and fully remote employees say they maintain a balance between work and life, compared to only 44% of employees who never work remotely," according to the report, which based its findings on three Gartner surveys. Employees working remotely don't have to commute to work and have more control over their time, to name just two benefits.

The hybrid model can support work-life balance and give employees work-life integration, said Jen Fisher, chief well-being officer at Deloitte in the United States. A hybrid workforce has more autonomy over how, when and where work gets done. For many employees, work-life integration can lead to better well-being and higher satisfaction with their employers and their work.

Challenges

Increased cybersecurity risks

Employees working outside the office could create cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Hybrid employees are out of sight and, for IT teams, possibly out of mind, said Kevin Beaver, an independent information security consultant with Principle Logic LLC, an information security consulting firm located in Acworth, Ga. Because of this, the likelihood of security incidents rises exponentially.

Hybrid employees may use their own computers, he said. And employees' private systems are often outside common network and endpoint security controls. A company's network and information are only as secure as its weakest computer configuration. An organization must confirm all remote employees meet security standards.

Leadership deficiencies

Employees working remotely may bring new challenges for leaders who are used to managing in-office workers.

Managing a hybrid team requires a level of leadership that not all managers possess, said Teresa Hopke, CEO of Talking Talent, a global coaching firm located in New York. Remote work often highlights leadership deficiencies. Managers must be clear about their expectations and communicate them clearly. And they may need to have hard conversations with employees who aren't meeting expectations.

Whether [the hybrid workplace model] persists will depend on a lot of different things, including how successful organizations are at making this model work.
J. P. GownderVice president and principal analyst, Forrester Research

Hybrid work also requires managers to go out of their way to create a culture where everyone is included in meetings and considered for new opportunities, Hopke said. Otherwise, remote employees could be left behind. Managers must take an intentional approach to relationship-building.

Including everyone in meetings and consideration for advancement can require more effort. But for true equity to be achieved, leaders must prioritize including remote employees.

GM's George said this has been challenging for him at times, since his leadership team is now scattered over multiple cities.

"A simple meeting where I [only] had to think previously … 'OK, seven o'clock, everybody's available, let's just do it,' I now need to be cognizant about the time zones and think about, 'OK, how do I be more inclusive?'" he said.

Employee isolation and disconnection

Employees working from home can feel lonely and disconnected from the company, which could affect their work performance and overall well-being.

Integrating full-time remote employees into the company culture and ensuring they have a sense of belonging can be challenging, said J. P. Gownder, vice president at Forrester Research. In some cases, employees may avoid coming into the office over simple concerns like thinking they won't have a desk. In that particular case, company leaders can encourage employees to come in by implementing desk hoteling software so workers know they will have somewhere to sit that day.

"There'd be a lot less concern about isolation when you are actually seeing people a couple days a week," Gownder said.

The future of the hybrid workplace

The benefits and challenges of a hybrid workplace model are more clear-cut in some cases. For example, a hybrid workplace option isn't possible for every profession.

Hybrid is not a model for every company or even every role in every company, Gownder said. Facilities workers, for example, or someone with a frontline job like caring for hospital patients must continue to do their work in person.

However, many companies whose employees work at least part of the time in an office will likely explore hybrid work options.

"We believe that 70% of companies will explore … a more hybrid, flexible work model," Gownder said. "Whether that persists will depend on a lot of different things, including how successful organizations are at making this model work."

The takeaway is important.

"Not everyone should [move to a hybrid workplace model], but those who do stand to gain higher employee experience and a host of other benefits that could ultimately lead to higher revenue."

About the author
Linda Rosencrance is a freelance writer and editor in the Boston area. She has written about information technology for more than 20 years and has more than 30 years of experience as an investigative reporter, primarily for Boston-area newspapers. She is also the published author of six true-crime books.

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