Talent   //   August 1, 2022

‘A lot of messiness’: Will hybrid working ever really work?

It’s been just over six months since many organizations asked, mandated or playfully enticed employees to return to the office a few days per week. Aka, hybrid work. 

Since then, we at WorkLife have heard all sorts of return-to-office stories ranging from marginally successful to truly messy. There are the many technology failure anecdotes, as teams that are in-office attempt collaboration with teams scheduled for work-from-home days. There are local employees told to return to the office on scheduled days, while their non-local co-workers don’t have the same requirement — causing tensions for flare. And then there are the people who simply don’t show up despite a mandate and aren’t penalized, making employees who do come in on scheduled days wonder why they’re bothering to.

The global workforce is in a messy transition period as employers experiment with the best way to be flexible. 

This all begs the question: When will it get easier? 

If you believe Allyn Bailey, never. 

“You can’t do hybrid at scale,” said Bailey, executive director of hiring success at the enterprise recruitment software firm SmartRecruiters. “Work and how we work is an inherently individual activity.”

Bailey offers several reasons: First, is the lack of a standard policy on return-to-office for people who are within commuting distance versus those who aren’t. It’s an especially serious issue for companies that kept employees on the payroll who moved away from headquarters during the height of lockdown and those that erased geographic boundaries to find the best talent during this tight labor market. 

Lots of companies say collaboration, planning and strategy sessions are best done in person. But it’s a moot point if you’re coming in to work to collaborate, but you’re not at the point in your workflow where you’re ready to collaborate. Compounding that frustration is the fact that it’s virtually impossible — you’d need a crystal ball — to know when to schedule cross-functional teams for the same in-office days to collaborate. There are simply too many moving parts.

Instead, Bailey encourages leaders to ask themselves why they’re having employees come in and then give teams what they need to succeed on their terms. It requires a lot of trust, she said. 

“Those [employers] that are not offering some sort of flexibility or employee autonomy are having a hard time competing for top talent because people just won't apply. That's what’s pushing a lot of the HR strategies.”
Allyn Bailey, executive director of hiring success at enterprise recruitment software firm SmartRecruiters.

Leaders should ask themselves what current business problem they’re trying to solve, that didn’t exist six months or a year ago, and create a working model that meets those new requirements, rather than just defaulting to previous models, added Bailey.

“I’m not saying we don’t need offices, we do. But going back to where we were isn’t reasonable. I don’t think employees are expecting it, or are willing to navigate that for a long period of time. It’s also setting up a really uncomfortable tension,” she said.

Who’s winning hybrid?

Smaller companies with a like-minded workforce tend to have an easier time with hybrid. Like so many employers, Eden, an HR software platform with headquarters in San Francisco, surveyed its 20 Bay-area employees on return-to-office sentiment. The overwhelming consensus was they wanted to be in the office a few days a week, saying they missed being together. Younger professionals who were recently hired repeatedly asked leadership when the office would reopen.  

They decided on Monday and Thursday as in-office days. CEO and founder Joe Du Bey told employees they’re expected to be in on those days unless they chose to register as a remote employee. In the end, no one did. He says having a full office is what makes going in enjoyable. 

“There was an understanding that the office wasn’t ‘gonna be a particularly fun place if there were only one or two people there,” Du Bey told WorkLife. “I was there last week and it was like 2019.”

While Eden might be partying like it’s pre-Covid, others have a more nebulous view. Offices that opened without mandates see declining attendance over time. And attempts to attract people back to office with free lunch and cocktails may be enticing at first, but eventually lose their luster.

“I was talking to a few of my colleagues back when Australia started opening up and the first month, everybody was coming into the office,” Adriana Roche, chief people officer of the collaboration software firm Mural, told WorkLife. “Now nobody’s going back because there’s that mentality of, ‘okay, I saw people. Cool. I got that over with. Now I don’t need to go into the office.’” 

The benefits of a mandate

Du Bey has a fuller picture than most since he’s both an employer and his clients are using Eden’s software designed for hybrid and remote work. He sees some employers are reluctant to issue a return mandate because they’re concerned employees will revolt. Others want to seem flexible and don’t offer any guidance on when to show up.

“I see a lot of messiness with companies that give no mandate [on how many and which days to come in] at all,” he said. “On its face it sounds appealing. For the people who want to have an office culture, it doesn’t work if people aren’t there.” 

All of this makes for a no-win situation for employers and employees with disparate priorities. 

Meanwhile, the talent shortage continues. Employers know that to attract employees they must offer flexibility. 

“One of the biggest things I hear from clients is, ‘What is an acceptable range of flexibility to offer that will get them the biggest talent pool possible,” Bailey said. “Those that are not offering some sort of flexibility or employee autonomy are having a hard time competing for top talent because people just won’t apply. That’s what’s pushing a lot of the HR strategies.”

3 Questions with Tricia Alcamo, chief people officer at online gambling company Fanduel Group

What is Fanduel’s policy on return-to-office?

We have multiple models but by far, the most common is what we call the team-based model, where an individual team makes a decision together about the frequency they want to be in the office working together. And it varies. For some it’s two days a week, some teams say once a month.

Does that create tension among teams — that some employees come in much less frequently than others?

Figuring out a model that is flexible but can be broad, has challenges, for sure. But I’ll take that challenge. We are in the evolution of work coming out of the pandemic. I think it’s far better to accept a little bit of that discomfort and challenge in order to keep options open and to allow us all to figure this out together.

You’ve been in the role since April. What are your biggest challenges ahead?

How to grow and scale the organization. We’re at a pretty unique moment. We’re coming up on 3,000 employees and the way that a 3,000 vs. a 1,000-person organization needs to operate is different than what was appropriate at 800 people. As we scale up we don’t want to lose the magic of what has made Fanduel special as it’s grown. — Tara Weiss.

By the numbers

  • 41% of 15,000 workers polled received a pay raise in the first half of 2022. However, 72% of these reported that their raise was less than 8.5%, below the current inflation rate.
    [Source of data: Joblist report.]
  • 67% of 1,000 people polled said their companies did nothing in response to the Roe v Wade overturning, while 13.7% took an external stance against the decision, 10.9% updated medical support and 8.8% shared internal resources.
    [Source of data: Workhuman report.

Quote of the week

“Ordinarily you would say, in these kinds of ebbs and flows of economic cycles, that a recession would mean people would stay put and be less inclined to move. However, among the many things the pandemic changes, this was one of them. And I’m not so sure that employers should see the recession as an immediate insulator.” 
Steve Pemberton, Workhuman’s chief human resources officer.

What else we’ve covered

  • Many ERGs are sophisticated operations with dedicated budgets, strategy that impacts the business’ bottom line and work that has far-reaching outcomes on hiring and retention. That’s leading many to question why they aren’t being financially compensated for the extra work.
  • Forget traditional healthcare benefits, soap company Dr Bronner’s is offering ketamine-assisted therapy for any employee seeking mental health help.
  • Despite all the talk of recession, employees continue to switch jobs in near-record numbers. But how long will that last?
  • Shrinking tech teams and growing speed-to-market expectations for products are putting the development community under immense pressure, leading to more quitting.
  • As the Great Resignation trend drags on, more companies like EY are realizing that investing in employee education – even if it’s not directly related to work – is good value.
  • Reluctant returners are the primary reason hybrid working is not working for a large majority of organizations – but there are other causes for failure.
  • Workers are temporarily leaving town to “work from home” from a sandy beach or a new city instead of from their usual desks.
  • Marriott, Ford Motor Co. and Genentech are among the company using technology to proactively spot when employees are suffering from burnout.

What we’re reading

  • Twitter is reducing its office space to help cut costs as it leans more heavily into remote work [Bloomberg.]
  • A deep dive into the fallout from Apple workers’ anti-union campaign and its effect on workplace relationships [Wired.]