Culture & Leadership

4 Big Debates About Hybrid Work, and Why They’re Overhyped

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Depressingly, a lot of the return-to-office narratives have focused on warning organizations they’re about to lose all their employees and to expect workplace violence, with little to offer managers who genuinely want to get this right.

If you’ve heard someone jokingly accuse a hybrid worker of doing laundry or mowing the lawn when they didn’t answer on the first ring, or hybrid work referred to as “shirking from home,” then this article is for you.

There are five flavors that make up a hybrid workplace: full time in the office, fixed ratio mix of in and out of office, in-office with some home, at-home with some office, and full time at home. Describing hybrid teams as in-office or at-home doesn’t reflect the true nature of space and time—it’s better described as dispersed and co-located. Regardless of the flavor, the arguments against hybrid work all boil down to four main claims.

Myth #1: Productivity will drop

A common management concern is that dispersed teams won’t be as productive as colocated teams. Conventional wisdom says that professional work requires a professional space, and that working remotely is therefore inherently less productive. The research, however, suggests that given the right conditions, hybrid arrangements can actually increase productivity.

One recent study found that 94% of 800 organizations reported productivity was the same or higher than before the pandemic—in other words, before the largest hybrid work experiment in history. Another two-year study of more than 800,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies found that “most people reported stable or even increased productivity levels after employees started working from home.”

Why? Increase in production numbers correlates to an increase in something that all humans deeply crave: a sense of autonomy.

Different people want different things, so allowing employees to make their own choices (ie. where they work or, as in the study referenced above, how they decorate their cubicle) maximizes their sense of autonomy, which translates into a greater sense of ownership over their work and greater efficiency because people can make the most of their limited time. Put simply, generally we like to feel a sense of control over the work we do.

And research shows that even a little autonomy can go a long way. In one study, researchers found that simply giving workers the ability to decorate their cubicle resulted in a 25% increase in productivity.

In a study where productivity surprisingly dropped, “poor WFH setups and communication difficulties [were] the major reasons for productivity losses.” That’s fairly easy to manage with technology and a little attention to the details.

Leaders may feel tempted to micromanage their team members in an attempt to increase productivity, but research suggests that never worked anyway. Instead, outline the expected deliverables, show employees what great looks like, and then allow them some choice to determine how to get there.

The certainty of knowing expectations combined with the autonomy of personal choice gives employees the rewarding feelings that make them want to keep moving toward success.

Myth #2: Culture will suffer

The past two decades pushed organizations into some bizarre ideas of how to represent and build culture in a physical space. Conventional wisdom says corporate culture will suffer without the opportunity to interact in-person and face-to-face, without the physical representations of unique corporate personality… and maybe without the on-site acupuncturist. Not to slight your 3rd floor smoothie bar, but the research actually says your culture was never your building.

One reason these in-person benefits—which seemed so appealing before—suddenly don’t actually matter is because it turns out culture is really just shared everyday habits. What people do as a matter of course, day in and day out; the way leaders listen (or don’t) to their employees, the way meetings are run, the way teams collaborate and communicate, how and when people speak up—these shared everyday habits make a culture.

And perhaps counterintuitively, hybrid work actually presents the opportunity to accelerate the formation of habits and, in turn, strengthen company culture.

How? Research shows we learn the habits which make up “culture” mostly unconsciously, and we learn them through observation and mimicry. In other words, our habits are deeply influenced by watching others.

Importantly, hybrid work allows for more face-to-face (virtual) interaction. There’s no denying that back-to-back video calls can be taxing on the eyes, but the increased visual presence of colleagues allows us to connect with more coworkers in more places for more time each week. The more time we spend watching others, the more opportunities there are to observe, mimic, and embed the habits that make up the culture.

So not only is the culture not the building, but in a world where people spend a lot of time meeting on digital platforms, the culture is more inclusive, more robust, and more consistent globally.

Myth #3: Innovation will suffer

The information age which sent us deep into input-gathering rabbit holes has been surpassed by the imagination age, where creativity and innovation are valued above all. Conventional wisdom says that without the opportunity to interact with coworkers in an incubator of brainstorming sessions, everyone will work in silos and insightful discussions that spark creativity won’t happen. But research suggests that innovation is the product of something more than random exchanges with colleagues.

Conventional wisdom holds that brainstorming is inherently good, that it leads to great ideas and there’s no danger of groupthink. Again conventional wisdom may not be so wise. Indeed, a meta-analytic review of over 800 teams published in 2010 found that individuals are more likely to come up with more, and better, ideas when they don’t interact with others.

So while some innovation can happen in brainstorming sessions, it may be just as likely that insights—those aha moments, the seeds of innovation—come while walking away from the desk, not from bumping into a co-worker.

The issue is that the most salient feature of creativity is spontaneous interaction. In other words, we’re more likely to remember, and thus overvalue, the interaction’s role in the creative process—it’s a better story.

What’s more, we know the conditions necessary for insight, and they’re not the norm for a busy office. Really, they’re the opposite.

While offices are notoriously noisy, insights tend to emerge, as we wrote in a 2016 HBR article, from moments of quiet. Walking, according to researchers, may also spur insight and offices don’t often offer the opportunity to stroll aimlessly without attracting some scrutinizing eyes.

Hybrid work arrangements, on the other hand, allow for employees to create the optimal conditions for insight by making time for quiet reflection, wherever those may happen best. So while spontaneous and productive encounters will happen rarely, and to only a few people, better conditions for creativity can happen to everyone, everyday.

So, without formally measuring hybrid’s impact on innovation, the evidence suggests that work from home may actually increase innovation. At worst, innovation will stay the same. By rejecting conventional wisdom, you can provide more optimal conditions for creative work.

If it bothers you that a great idea may have come while your employee was on a pontoon boat or in a hammock, remember without judgement how ideas occur to you and solutions reveal themselves—namely, when you’re not expecting them.

Myth #4: Hybrid work is inherently unfair

Conventional wisdom says employees need to be in close proximity to be managed effectively, and that only those go-getters in the office will get promoted. This claim, on its face, has some validity.

In one study of remote employees at a large travel agency, researchers from Stanford found that despite productivity increasing among at-home workers, they had a lower rate of promotion than their in-office colleagues. So why this counterintuitive finding? Cognitive bias—the collective term for a host of evolutionary shortcuts our brain relies upon to keep us alive—is likely to blame.

Cognitive biases are neither good nor bad; they just are. But left unchecked, these shortcuts can limit our ability to be effective leaders by influencing our decision making unduly. So what leaders need to do isn’t rush people back to the office, but mitigate the biases that negatively affect people and business decisions.

There are a few biases that are particularly prevalent in a hybrid work environment.

It’s easy to see how distance bias—the perception that which is nearest is best—could permeate many decisions in a hybrid workplace. For example, it could lead organizations to limit their recruitment efforts to local candidates. But, by mitigating distance bias, organizations can widen their prospective talent pool and attract the best person for the job—not just the best person within an hour from the office. At the Neuroleadership Institute, our EVP of Customer Experience is located in Charlotte. That’s a role that at one point we thought had to be based in NYC, but we realized it didn’t, and we got the best person as a result.

Another bias that can creep into hybrid work is expedience bias—our preference to act quickly rather than take the necessary time to evaluate many data points and make the best decision. A manager may be compelled to assign a project to the employee sitting in the office next to them, as opposed to a remote employee across the country despite the remote employee being a better fit. To prevent this bias from getting in the way of assigning, rewarding, and promoting the right employees, managers need to be aware of this unconscious inclination towards on-site employees, and effectively mitigate the bias.

At the Neuroleadership Institute, we’ve devised the SEEDS Model® to help teams mitigate bias in everyday decisions. The model organizes more than 150 such biases into five domains that directly affect our interactions at work and gives leaders and employees the tools to recognize, label, and mitigate bias effectively so they arrive at the best possible decisions.

It will be increasingly important that leaders understand bias’s influence and have the tools to mitigate it in a hybrid workplace.

In summary, the concern over hybrid is valid, and it’s worth addressing with a focused approach. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from 2020 it’s to follow the science, experiment, and follow the data. Organizations should follow that approach with hybrid too, and enjoy all the “bring your work to dog days” you want.

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