Hybrid working vs remote working: a culture shift
If this was a movie…
Let’s imagine a movie about pandemic working life. We could call it Pandemic: The Workplace.
The opening credits would play against a backdrop of newspaper headlines. They’d begin as headlines about companies quickly embracing change to help contain the spread of a deadly virus. Then the key would change, and they would feature companies ordering staff back to the office, complete with pictures of angry workers walking out and signing petitions, and quotes from bosses about the need to get back to the way things were. The stage would be set for workers and bosses to battle for workplace harmony.
Probably not a blockbuster but the headlines wouldn’t be so far removed from what’s happening right now.
As the pandemic has become contained and we step out on the other side of the mountain, many companies are pausing for thought and considering how they want their futures to look. And for some this means looking back and trying to bring some of the pre-pandemic life to the present.
On the list of companies making the headlines by mandating their staff to return to the office are some big players. Apple, Amazon, Twitter, Tesla, Dell, Disney. Those are just a few, and the decisions taken by the bosses aren’t always being welcomed by their employees. Some of these have drawn scrutiny because the stance of their leaders has changed from early pandemic, which had many presenting a more fluid approach to the future.
But as with most things, not everything is a simple as right and wrong.
Let’s take a closer look.
Much has been written about Apple and how CEO Tim Cook has begun to take a tougher stance on the return-to-office instruction than he had previously. Apple employees are expected to come into the office for at least three days a week, in an effort to restore in-person collaboration and creative opportunities. This isn’t a new directive; Cook announced in the summer of 2021 his desire for a hybrid working schedule that brought workers back to the office, saying that ‘for all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other.’ This was a slight shift from earlier that year when he commented on the opportunities to work virtually and anticipated operating in a hybrid environment. The following June, Cook was still thinking quite flexibly about how to make things work post-pandemic, describing it as the ‘mother of all experiments.’
Apple moved to remote working early in the pandemic, announcing the plans in March 2020 and has been flexible in its approach to responding to changes, for instance moving back a planned move to hybrid working in winter 2020 when Covid cases were on the rise. So, the move away from this fluidity and towards a more hard-line stance has taken many by surprise. But Apple is not alone.
In another boardroom, the boss of AO World, John Roberts, has ended hybrid working at the company and instructed his staff to return to the office full time, telling them they can leave if they are unhappy. Some have already voted with their feet, but this has not concerned Roberts, who says he has been able to fill the roles with ease.
Over at Amazon, the directive for staff to return to the office at least three days a week has caused many workers to plan a walk-out, alongside frustrations at recent layoffs.
And Lloyds Banking Group is recalling its corporate staff to the office two-days-a-week, prompting a backlash from unions that this is an attack on workers, in particular women, working parents and carers.
It’s a familiar tale. Big decision from leaders affecting its workforce and not always in a positive way. Indeed, the strong reaction from staff to these new policies isn’t unique to any one company, and in some, there are some very senior players who have walked away. Apple lost their Director of Machine Learning, Ian Goodfellow, who they originally poached from Google in 2019, after they implemented the policy. Goodfellow said, ‘I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team.’
The move to bring people back to the office has been emerging over the past couple of years as companies have navigated their way through the maze of pandemic working life. The list of large organisations adopting this approach reads like a Who’s Who of industry. Twitter, Tesla, Goldman Sachs, KPMG, Uber. Alongside these, there are companies that had previously indicated their preference for more remote working who are now quietly stepping away from that and towards a more structured model. A case in point is Meta who are reportedly now advertising jobs that do not include the option to work remotely, and whose leader, Mark Zuckerberg has spoken about the benefits of workers being together in the office.
It’s easy to look at this picture and see it as a clear-cut case of bosses not listening to staff, of bosses being dated in their views and Dickensian in their approach. But when we consider the reasons for these reversals of policy, or in some cases not a reversal, just a future plan to bring people back, there are some recurring themes. The desire to return to some in-person time where colleagues can be creative and collaborate together is a significant one. It could be argued that, for all the advances in tech and the wonderful ability we now have to conduct our businesses virtually, there is always a place for face-to-face ideas generation, talking, mooching, pondering, and connecting in that way.
And whilst these cases make for good headlines, there are many companies who remain committed to remote working, including Airbnb, Slack, Adobe, and Spotify. Sometimes referred to as ‘Digital by Design’ or ‘Virtual First’, this approach prioritises remote working over in-office working and, in some cases, companies have become fully remote.
So, in our post-pandemic movie, is the epic battle scene the bosses vs workers? Is it the in-office bosses vs the remote bosses? Or is it in fact none of the above?
Is it the case that, rather than framing all of this in one master picture of good and bad, we should be recognising that there are many pictures that make up the album of working life now, and there are myriad complexities involved. Our new post-pandemic world is not the same one we were dragged away from when Covid arrived. So much has changed, and to treat the hybrid vs remote conundrum as one question with one answer would be short-sighted of us.
The Move to Hybrid Working
Although the shift towards remote working was pretty much thrust upon us as an emergency measure at the start of the pandemic, its benefits as a working model soon became clear. So much so that companies retained it as part of a new hybrid working model, which has become the modern standard way to work. It certainly is not without its challenges, some of which are quoted as the reasoning behind decisions to bring about more in-office working, but these challenges can be addressed with advances in tech, some clear planning about how companies want their hybrid work schedule to look, and some open-minded and creative thinking from leaders.
Benefits to workers of working to a hybrid model include a positive impact on wellbeing, less time spent commuting, greater work/life balance, greater financial wellbeing, and better relationships with colleagues and leaders as the nature of working away from the office requires a communicative and trusting relationship for it to work well.
Benefits for organisations include happier staff who feel they have control over their work and can feel more invested in the company’s purpose, increased organisational and employee productivity, a wider talent pool to recruitment from, and it could help companies meet their environmental commitments if the time spent in the office and commuting is cut down, therefore using less resources. There are of course things to watch out for; including making sure employees don’t become isolated, and ensuring communication remains open, using technology to keep everyone connected.
So, what’s changed?
Much of the focus around hybrid and remote working has been on its flexible nature. It gives employees autonomy that many have never experienced before. It provides organisations with a chance to rewrite the rules, to review how they work, and adopt a range of new ways to conduct business.
At-a-glance, the policies of the big companies announcing returns to the office might appear at odds with this newfound flexibility. How can it be flexible if the bosses say it must be 3 days? How can employees feel in control if they are told how many and which days to work? But if we dive deeper, much of these working models remain as a hybrid and still incorporate remote work.
The concern comes when an arrangement that once felt fluid and adaptable becomes stricter and with the threat of consequences for those who don’t toe the line. The biggest consequence obviously being they leave their jobs. And even in those companies that have previously opened their arms to remote working, the changes can be slight but still noticeable as they reverse policy.
It could be argued that the rhetoric around ‘getting back to work’ isn’t helpful. Work at home has never been anything but work, but it is often seen as less proper or serious than work in an office. As if we are in a state of pause until the offices open their doors again.
In his 2022 State of the Union Address, President Biden said it was time for workers to get back to work, citing how the majority of federal workers would once again work in person. And in the UK, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was widely criticised for his comments to the British Chamber of Commerce that the office should be the default unless there is a good reason to work from home. He was worried ‘about the loss of creativity when people are permanently working from home and not having those water cooler moments, where they bounce ideas off each other.’
What does the data tell us?
Naturally the research and insights are coming thick and fast at the moment. The latest report from Owl Labs on the State of Hybrid Work highlights the move towards employee preference for remote working and flexibility in roles. Similarly, the Flex Report, which collects insights from more than 4,000 companies employing more than 100 million people globally, found that the share of workers full time in the office dropped over the first two quarters of 2023.
The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) research into Flexible and Hybrid Working Practices in 2023 found that 40% of organisations have seen an increase in requests for flexible working since the pandemic, 83% have hybrid working in place, and 45% have an informal arrangement. Of those who provide hybrid working, 52% require employees to be in the workplace a minimum number of days. And the CIPD report highlighted that 38% of organisations felt the hybrid arrangement had increased organisational productivity, while 46% had seen an improvement in employee productivity.
The data shows hybrid working is very much becoming a standard and accepted way to work. It would seem therefore that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with the approaches of the companies who are requiring their workers to divide their time between office and home, rather than be fully remote. But a huge draw for workers to companies offering hybrid working is the opportunity to work in a freer way, to have more control over their working lives, and to feel they are working for an employer that gets that. After all, what better way to show commitment to a flexible working future than to offer hybrid working?
Part of the joy in having flexibility though is in enabling workers to choose how they manage their work and to plan the company’s approach by listening to and being led by the views of the staff. Therefore, when a change is brought in that appears to be imposed on workers rather than in collaboration with them, the reaction is less likely to be positive, even when the arrangement remains flexible.
But we live in a large and talented world….
Let’s consider for a moment another view.
A view held by David Heinemeier Hansson, Co-owner & CTO of 37signals, a fully remote company. He believes that it doesn’t have to be all one way. In a recent post, he praised Apple for their stance on keeping in-person working, saying, ‘They’re making that choice knowing that some, talented portion of their workforce will leave as a consequence yet have the confidence that others will fill those chairs. Isn’t that what we wanted? The freedom to choose how we’d like to work by picking between a plentitude of companies, offering the style of our preference?’
This is certainly something to reflect on. That there isn’t just one way for companies to function and for workers to work. That remote work has already won its place at the table and that there need be no conflict between remote-first companies and companies who believe their best and most creative work is done in the office. And that there is a wide enough talent pool and enough work, for people to be able to find the right company and the right fit for them.
For more insights and articles about hybrid working from Team Today, visit our blog here.