Hybrid work is a mess. Hybrid work is a dream. Here's how to get it right.

By Shana Lebowitz

Hybrid work seems like a happy medium: Just have employees come into the office a few days a week and work remotely the rest of the time. The rest will, so the optimistic thinking goes, sort itself out eventually. 

Already, according to a March poll of 150 C-level executives, one in five employers has launched the hybrid work model as people start returning to the office. And influential employers like IBM, General Motors, and Google have announced their plans to go hybrid starting this year. Just 1% of HR leaders, per the consultancy Gartner, expect all their employees to fully come back into the office after the pandemic.

But the hybrid work model is deceptively complex. What seems like an employee-first approach can backfire, leaving swathes of the workforce feeling isolated. Insider spoke to serial entrepreneur David Cancel, who experimented with hybrid work but pulled back because it was hard to make remote employees feel like part of the team. Outside the office, people were "starting to feel left out of conversations," he said.

If leaders don't map out risk and rewards in crafting a more flexible workplace, they could squander the opportunity to reshape their culture that this era provides.

"Everyone's mindset is going to be like a new hire" after the pandemic, said Laszlo Bock, Google's former HR chief and current head of HR tech startup Humu. Don't treat it as business as usual, he said. Instead, ask yourself tough questions: "Who are we as a company? What's important from a cultural perspective? What do we want to elevate and what do we want to get rid of?"

Hybrid work can threaten inclusion

laszlo bock
Laszlo Bock is the CEO and cofounder of Humu.
Courtesy of Humu
After a year-plus of remote work, it's going to be more than a little challenging for employers to lure staff back to the office full time. One survey found that nearly half of workers would ditch their current jobs if their company didn't offer some flexibility post-pandemic. And yet leaders across industries are lamenting the loss of the energy and innovation they say comes exclusively from face-to-face interaction. 

Choose hybrid, and presumably everyone's happy.

But the most pressing concern around a hybrid solution is that it may be less inclusive than the fully remote or in-person workplace. Sure, it's your choice where and when you work, except it isn't really if you're trying to advance in your career. In a 2015 Stanford study of 16,000 employees at a Chinese travel agency, those who were randomly assigned to work remotely were more productive — but less likely to get promoted — than their in-office counterparts.

Employees who come into the office may have a leg up over their peers who don't, meaning that caregivers — primarily women — who opt to work from home may be further disadvantaged. Not to mention other groups who choose remote work, including employees with health issues.

This is what the Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, who ran the Chinese travel agency study, found in his pandemic-era research on flexible work. Bloom noticed that college-educated women with young kids were more likely than their male peers with young kids to want to stay fully remote. Put that together with the earlier findings on promotion rates and you get trouble in flexible-workplace paradise. Bloom told Insider's Aki Ito that letting employees choose when and where they work could yield a "diversity time bomb," and then "a whole plethora of lawsuits." He now recommends that companies require the same office-to-home ratio for all employees, since that means everyone gets the same amount of face time with their manager.

You can't replicate in-office dynamics online

alexia cambon
Alexia Cambon is a research director at Gartner.
Courtesy of Gartner
From her home in London, Gartner research director Alexia Cambon has been taking a series of calls with executives who need help navigating the hybrid workplace. Most of them come with the same concerns about casual conversation and innovation.

In calls with senior execs, Cambon said, she had kept hearing "this obsession with the 'water cooler moment.'" That's the time when employees cluster in the office kitchen and — in employers' fantasies, at least — come up with the idea for the next Amazon while chatting. Employers typically try to close this gap with extra meetings, Cambon said. But putting people through back-to-back meetings is typically enervating, not energizing.

Cambon is excited about the chance to overhaul the way work gets done around the world. She's been studying up on the history of the nine-to-five workday, which originated because manufacturing workers needed natural light to see what they were building, and the five-day workweek, which labor organizations started lobbying for in the 1860s. But she isn't optimistic that most businesses are going to seize this opportunity, and follow best practices around flexible work. "For sure the bulk of organizations will be adopting hybrid work," she said. "The percentage of organizations that will actually build a really strong, valuable, and successful hybrid model is TBD."

One of the biggest concerns for Cambon is that companies going hybrid will try to replicate office dynamics online, in an attempt to recreate the sought-after serendipity of running into someone in the lunchroom, or, yes, around that famous water cooler. "Where we've seen organizations go wrong in adopting remote and hybrid work is to default to what they know and just try to make it virtual," she said.

Consider employee tracking. Some companies assume that if they can't see people hunched over their computers, they should monitor employees' activity to make sure they're working — a practice that Gartner's research suggests leads to employees pretending they're working. The flipside of accountability is that it can lead to employees feeling like they're being surveilled, which can lead to distrust.

david cancel
David Cancel is the CEO of Drift.
Courtesy of Drift
Cancel, the serial entrepreneur, tried the hybrid setup back in 2007, at his marketing startup Lookery. It didn't work. That was largely because it was hard to virtually replicate the relationships that colleagues were forming in person. "There's a language that develops," Cancel said. "Even jokes or stories that are shared over lunch or hallway conversations." The result is a "divide for the people that can't be there."

Cancel's latest venture is the marketing and sales platform Drift, and based on what he saw happen at Lookery, Cancel didn't bother trying the hybrid setup. Going forward, Drift will be fully remote, and its current offices will be converted into space for teams to occasionally collaborate in person.

A deliberate, empirical approach to hybrid work is best

After a year in which leaders across industries vowed to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion, the shift to hybrid is an opportunity to rethink your company culture. 

Bock, the ex-Google HR chief, called this period of flux an "imprintable moment," an allusion to when a baby bird hatches and thinks the first creature it sees is its mother. This is an opportunity to redefine the employer-employee relationship. 

Bock wants companies to think specifically about boosting employee autonomy. That's how much discretion employees have over how they get their work done, and research suggests it's linked to lower rates of burnout, which has become increasingly prevalent during the pandemic. To that end, Bock advises organizations going hybrid to let individual teams decide on the parameters instead of having a centralized approach.

Kristi Woolsey, an architect who leads Boston Consulting Group's Smart Environments Group, is advising companies to reevaluate their pre-pandemic work practices. "All those behavior changes and culture changes that your company has been talking about for years," she said. "Now's your chance."

You can start, Woolsey said, with collecting data — and using it to help shape the types of flexibility you offer. Woolsey suggests asking employees questions like, "Where are you most effective at the following tasks?" and "Do you have the tools to accomplish the work that you need to be doing?" The results will guide decisions on how to design office space and whether certain employees can do their jobs from home.

Details matter. When Woolsey helped one client reconfigure hybrid meetings, she made sure remote participants didn't disappear from the screen when the slide deck came on, and that they had full view of everyone seated in the room. "Not every company has those kinds of resources," Woolsey said, "but those are things to really think about. How do we level the playing field?"

If rank-and-file employees are distributed, the leadership team should be as well. After all, from an air-conditioned board room, it can be hard to empathize with remote workers crouched at their kitchen tables. Employees might also get the (often correct) impression that "to become a leader of this organization, I have to travel to the office," said Nadia Vatalidis, the director of people at HR tech startup Remote.

sedale mccall
Sedale McCall is an analyst at Purple Strategies.
Courtesy of Sedale McCall

The tension employers will want to navigate is in offering autonomy without creating a free-for-all. You can let individual members of an organization decide how they work best, but only up to a point. And while that sentiment likely won't appear in any company's promotional materials, it's something leaders need to internalize before they launch into a hybrid work setup.

Sedale McCall, an analyst at corporate reputation strategy firm Purple Strategies, is worried that companies including his own will try to "get back to normal" post-pandemic. Purple Strategies, which is based in Virginia, hasn't yet announced any long-term plans for its workplace, but no one's currently obligated to come into the office.

McCall said that if you're a junior employee and all the senior leaders on your team are in the office, "it feels obvious that you have to be in the room, even if you really have a legitimate reason to work from home that day." You won't want to miss things like body language, or the impromptu conversations that happen after the meeting. "You have to weigh that challenge against your own sanity," McCall said.