A Hybrid Model That Solves the Productivity Paradox

Concept on return to office - illustration of people working in office workplace

Authored by

NLI Staff
The right hybrid work model can maximize both individual and organizational productivity.

It’s a familiar story: The individual contributor feels more productive working from home, while their manager believes the office is the best place to get work done.

“Of course I’m more productive working remotely,” the employee argues. “I don’t have an hour-long commute to the office every day. I can spend that time working or doing useful tasks around the house. What’s more, I don’t have noisy co-workers around to distract me.”

“There’s no way remote workers are more productive,” counters the manager. “Who knows what they’re doing with their time when I’m not there to keep an eye on them? And collaborating with teams just isn’t the same through a computer screen as it is in person.”

Both sides have a point, wrote NLI’s Chris Weller recently in Forbes. It all depends on how you define productivity — at the individual or organizational level. Whereas individual employees typically define productivity as the tasks (both professional and personal) they’re able to accomplish during a day, organizations largely view productivity in terms of metrics like work output, revenue, or profit.

What research says

Employees working remotely may feel more productive because they have greater control over things like their commute, work schedule, and personal to-do list. Research has shown that this feeling of control, or autonomy, is essential for sparking motivation and engagement. Indeed, studies have shown that self-reported productivity is usually higher for fully remote workers compared to those who are fully in-person.

In terms of actual work output — a metric managers care about — some studies show productivity gains for objective measures like the number of calls taken or changes to code submitted. But others show productivity losses for fully remote work compared with fully in-person. And recent research indicates that a lack of face-to-face collaboration results in fewer breakthrough ideas.

It stands to reason that hybrid work offers the best of both worlds, but only if done right. Mandating employees to come in three specific days per week creates nearly the same threats to autonomy and fairness as fully in-person work. But when employees are given a choice over when they come into the office, both sides can win. In a recent study of 554 public companies, those with flexible hybrid models had 16% higher revenues over a three-year period than those that were fully remote or in-person.

Solving the productivity paradox

What does the ideal hybrid model look like? NLI has proposed the patchwork principle, a four-part solution that satisfies employees’ need for autonomy and managers’ desire for face time. Four overlapping return-to-office “patches” ensure a good number of people are in the office several days a month for teamwork and collaboration, but the overall dosage of in-office time is low for those who prefer remote work:

Patch 1: Designate a few days per month for all employees to do in-person work.

Patch 2: Allow employees who prefer to work in-person to do so.

Patch 3: Let teams figure out who needs more face time.

Patch 4: Bring all teams together on a quarterly basis.

The patchwork principle avoids many of the frustrations of conventional hybrid schedules — for instance, showing up to an empty office, attending meetings that could have been virtual, and employee’s feelings of unfairness and loss of autonomy. It gives employees the freedom to work remotely most of the time without sacrificing what’s good for the team.

To solve the productivity paradox, both sides must acknowledge that productivity takes different forms. The key is finding a flexible hybrid model that lets both individual and organizational productivity shine.

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