Why Your Hybrid Work Policy Needs to Enable Flexibility and Autonomy

October 27, 2022

As more workers return to working in employer offices/facilities, the spotlight has shifted to employer workplace policies and employee reactions to them. The Hackett Group’s poll of over 500 business services professionals (e.g., finance, HR, IT, procurement), conducted in late June of this year, provided key insights in the current business approaches to hybrid work/remote work. The poll found that 61% of respondents are spending more time in an employer office/facility compared to 12 months ago. But friction is high between some top leaders and resistant rank-and-file employees, with HR in the middle. Outspoken CEOs, such as Elon Musk and Jamie Dimon, have made it clear that they want employees back in the office full time. In some cases, threats of surveillance and even firing are being deployed to force compliance. However, our study showed that respondents want to work remotely about 60% of the time and in the office about 30% of the time.

These disconnects between the C-suite and the rank-and-file employees, far from an isolated trend, represent the latest point of contention in the changing employer-employee relationship that the pandemic accelerated. After two-plus years working remotely effectively, workers are loathing the thought of giving up their autonomy. Attempts by leaders to reassert control through compliance enforcement are creating ill will in the workforce. Instead, employers should seek to forge a new understanding with their employees. They should create policies based on the new realities of the workplace and those policies should not only be appealing to them, but to staff as well.

What many leaders believe about hybrid work or remote work

The higher up the hierarchy, the less comfort there seems to be with remote work. Their concerns are rooted in the belief that the ability of employees to collaborate and innovate diminishes when staff is not working at employer facilities, the connections employees have with their coworkers and managers suffer, and the organization’s goals and culture deteriorates. Leaders are also worried that increases in turnover are being driven by loosening connections to the organization because of pervasive working from home. For these reasons, many corporate chieftains are anxious to bring remote workers back into the office on a regular basis.

No predominant hybrid working policy has yet emerged

Organizations are employing a wide range of policies defining remote working or hybrid working arrangements, but none has yet been widely adopted. The most cited hybrid working policy in Hackett’s poll – arrangements negotiated between workers and their managers – represented only 23% of respondents. Next, at 22%, was mandated policies by workforce segment/job categories. Nearly one-fifth are employing single, mandated policies that apply to all jobs that can be done remotely. Only 8% of respondents said their employers allowed them to choose their working arrangement. The variety of policies implemented suggests that this is new territory for many leaders who must weigh multiple organizational factors in formulating their remote/hybrid work strategies.

Impacts vary but greater flexibility correlates most with better results

So, what does our research tell us about the impact of these policies? Is there evidence to confirm the belief that more in-office time improves collaboration and strengthens employee connections with their coworkers, managers and the organization? How about impact on worker productivity, engagement and retention? The answers to these questions are nuanced. In most cases, regardless of remote work/hybrid work policy, the largest cohort of respondents reported that their employer’s policy had no impact on their ability to collaborate and connect, nor on their productivity, engagement, or desire to look for another employer. Additionally, in many cases, policies granting greater flexibility to employees generated the greatest positive impacts.

Collaboration and connections among immediate team members improved the most

Many respondents indicated no change in their ability to collaborate, regardless of the remote/hybrid working policy enacted. There were, however, significant numbers of respondents across all policies (25% to 42%) indicating increased/greatly increased ability to collaborate (Fig. 1, bottom row). Respondents working under single, mandated policies saw the most increases in collaboration. These findings suggest that bringing teams together on the same days can improve collaboration. But leaders should dig deeper to identify the factors that drive the ability of employees to collaborate. Increasing in-person time, absent other measures, may not move the needle much. Finding ways to improve tools and processes is a must, as is listening carefully to staff and supplying what they say is needed.

As with collaboration, hybrid work policies largely did not strongly affect feelings of connection among workers and to the organization. Feelings of connection among immediate coworkers were the most likely to see increases while connections to the organization were the least likely (Fig. 1). Interestingly, connections among team members, and to employer culture/values and employer mission/goals rose to the greatest extent for those respondents with freedom to choose working arrangements. This suggests that the degree to which leaders and corporate cultures enable autonomy may strengthen the bonds staff have to their employer more than time spent in the office.

FIG.1 Percent with increased/greatly increased ability to collaborate and feelings of connection,compared to 12 months ago

Productivity has held steady, but burnout risk remains

Numerous reports, including our own research, indicate that most people working remotely since the start of the pandemic have been equally or more productive than when they spent all their time at their employer offices. Now that many are returning to working in employer offices, how has their productivity been affected?

Our data shows that return to the office has not led to productivity gains for most workers. In fact, nearly one-quarter of workers spending more time commuting compared to the same period last year reported decreased/greatly decreased productivity. On the other hand, 70% of workers spending less time commuting than before cited productivity increases.

Single, mandated hybrid work policies and those mandated by managers were the most likely to lead to more time spent in the office and commuting (Fig. 2). Overall, many respondents indicated their outputs produced remained steady despite spending more time commuting and working increased hours.

This would suggest a greater risk of burnout looms for workers with increased hours and commuting times. On the other hand, remote-first workers reported the most increases in work completed daily and number of hours worked, while those employees free to choose their working arrangements had largely unchanged productivity, hours and commuting time.

FIG.2  Percent with increased/greatly increased work completed, number of hours worked and time commuting,compared to 12 months ago

Hybrid work policies’ impact on engagement and retention

When employees spend more time in the office – are they likely to become more engaged and less likely to leave as many leaders believe? The short answer is that a small, but significant portion are more likely, not less likely, to leave. Once more, those respondents with the most flexibility were the biggest cohorts to indicate greater engagement and desire to remain working for their employers. Also, increases in commuting time were correlated to greater risk of turnover and lower engagement. Notably, providing employees with choice had the most positive impact on engagement (58% increased/greatly increased) while manager-employee negotiated arrangements had a strong bearing on respondents’ willingness to remain with their employers (39% increased/greatly increased). Manager discretion proved the likeliest to maintain the engagement and retention status quo (73% no change).

These findings suggest that leaders should anticipate potentially strong reactions to hybrid work policies, especially broad mandates, and carefully monitor their effects on engagement and retention.

FIG.3 Percent with increased/greatly increased engagement and desire to stay with employer compared to 12 months ago

Monitor effects closely and be prepared to adjust policies

HR operations and business leaders should treat the process of formulating remote/hybrid working as iterative redesign of work and the workplace. They should actively seek employee and manager inputs, test policies and frequently adjust them based on outcomes and feedback from all levels of the organization. The prospects for success can be increased by taking these three fundamental steps:

  • Embrace flexibility: Implement policies that enable flexibility for those workers and teams that desire it. This will drive better productivity, engagement and retention as well as strengthen connections to the organization.
  • Collect data and closely monitor how policies are working: Measure the impact of remote/hybrid policies on individuals and teams. Track the effects on indicators such as engagement, performance and retention.
  • Adjust policies based on performance and feedback: Be prepared to change policies in response to data on their impact. Guide policies based on the data, not the individual preferences of leaders.