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What is Hybrid Work? A Short History

“Hybrid work” has been in all the headlines recently as a “new way” of working together. Here’s a brief summary of where hybrid work came from, who is against it, and who is doing it well.

January 12th, 2023

by Lisa Shaw

in Leadership & Management

The term “hybrid work” has quickly risen to the top of Google searches since the global pandemic took hold. Companies around the world now find themselves scrambling to strike a balance between productivity, safety, and an engaged (and maybe even happy?) labor force. A large part of this discussion now seems to be centered around where and how to work. Will there be a forced RTO (Return To Office) memo that gets sent out? Will teams be allowed to keep their pajamas and dry shampooed hair in a strictly remote work arrangement? Your guess is as good as mine. But first, let’s get into the weeds on what hybrid work looks like.

So, what exactly is hybrid work? Much like cars that share a similar name, it’s a purported blending of two worlds, ideally achieving the benefits of each. For modern day workscapes, that usually translates to not being required to report to an office space every single day. It usually also supports a more flexible time schedule for clocking hours, as long as work gets done and the wheels of productivity continue whirring.

Hybrid Workplace: A Not-So-Revolutionary Concept

The term hybrid work may be new, but flexible work schedules have been experimented with for decades.

Please indulge in a brief (but actually quite interesting) history of flexible work models:

  • In the 1960s, Germany was suffering from a labor shortage. In response to needing more workers, Christel Kraemerer came up with “flextime” (or “flexitime”, as it is sometimes referred). She postured that “in many work situations, rigid starting and stopping times are unnecessary and could be adapted to a more flexible system.” Staggering working hours of employees would allow more housewives and mothers to enter the workforce, which would in turn help to alleviate the labor shortage.
  • Back across the pond in the US, the year was 1973 and the problems were many: the start of the OPEC oil embargo, recent passage of the Clean Air Act, and the rise of the term “gridlock”. Jack Nilles, a former NASA engineer, began researching solutions for this specific set of problems and eventually published a book titled “The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff”. It’s wild to think that this phrase was coined pre-Internet, and really was based on the idea of establishing satellite offices so that employees could report to smaller physical offices that were likely closer to their homes, thus freeing up busy thoroughfares from traffic congestion and reducing energy consumption.
  • A trend that was documented as early as 1988 was the advent of “Summer Fridays”. In true American fashion, it’s rumored that Summer Fridays were first instituted for big time execs in New York City to get a head start on the long drives out to the Hamptons. Summer Fridays translates to limiting a company to a 4-day workweek during the summer months, as in some sectors those months were slower anyway. This trend has continued through to present-day, though mostly enjoyed by more white-collar and knowledge worker jobs as a company perk.
  • In the late 90s, AT&T made headlines when they allowed 100,000 staffers to pioneer an “alternative workplace” (or AW for short), shining more attention on the benefits of the what we now know as simply “working from home.”

Is Hybrid Work Here for the Long Haul?

Okay, back to current day. For the last few years we have all witnessed a monumental shift in traditional workforce dynamics. From all-office to strictly-home, or all on-site that transitioned to a hybrid blend — if your company was able to get work done elsewhere, they most likely jumped at the chance. But not everyone is convinced that these changes will stand the test of time.

Headlines from recent months may support the resistance of some companies when it comes to upending the office 9-5 for good. Elon Musk’s return to work proclamations for both Tesla and Twitter were no doubt the splashiest. At Tesla, Musk fired off one email that directed staff to work a minimum of 40 hours in a Tesla office. A second email entitled “to be super clear” detailed that “the more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence.” Similar emails were sent to Twitter staff.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings seems to be in a similar camp. A quote from his Wall Street Journal interview has circulated the Internet many times over, summing up his distaste for remote teams when he was asked if there were any benefits from working at home: “No. I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.” He then went on to say the future of work for Netflix will probably be a 4-day in-office setup, though Netflix’s Work Life Philosophy has yet to be updated with any official RTO guidelines.

And probably the most recent behemoth to bring people back to the physical office, Disney just announced a 4-day workweek moving forward.

So what gives? Why are so many companies wanting to trade in extended flexibility for a more typical workday? Tom Cheesewright, a UK consultant, speaker and author focused on future business trends, says companies are experiencing confusion about how to best structure, organize and build policy around remote work.

“If you’re going to do this for the long term, you need to fundamentally change your culture, your practices, your processes and your technologies. The level of change required to make it work in the long term has been underestimated by a lot of organizations.” So until companies put in the time and effort of how to best implement hybrid work, a return to office feels comfortable. For some industries, it may make the most sense, and for others — well, it’s the easy way out.

What Are the First Steps for Going Hybrid?

The insistence for a hybrid work schedule has never been higher from job seekers, and companies are frantically trying to keep up with worker demands that keep this newfangled flex time a thing of the present and the future. So what are the options?

It seems like a lot of employers are throwing out numbers — 3 days of the week in-office, 2 days at home. Other companies are only asking for employees to come in one day per week. Still others say you can work at home all the time, but certain meetings must be attended in-person. While the days of the week may differ, it seems there is one shared commonality: the realization that there is no “right answer”, and in order to craft the ideal hybrid work model and implement it effectively, companies need to identify their own individual needs and not pick numbers arbitrarily out of a hat.

The Harvard Business Review just published a piece titled “Which Hybrid Work Model Is Best for Your Business?”, and it included what I think are two critical first steps that will help define what hybrid work model will work best for any org:

  1. Consider the task context of your organization’s core activities. This will help you determine the balance between remote and office work. To examine task context, leaders assess the level of relational or transactional exchanges required between colleagues to perform reach task effectively and efficiently.
  2. Evaluate the competitive importance of having employees in international markets. Most of our leaders mentioned a global “war for talent,” and noted that remote working gives their organizations an unprecedented level of flexibility to access employees. This may include finding rare, specialized skillsets or generic skillsets at lower costs. It may also involve the acquisition of a company (for technology or market share) where key talent can be retained. Moreover, it may be in the organization’s interest to create a new hub where there is a recognized cluster of talent focused on a particular sector.

The full piece goes into much more detail, but these are great jumping off points. To effectively design and implement these new workplace policies can feel like shooting at a moving target - there is no one-size-fits-all for a hybrid work environment. But if you put in the work early on, you are that closer to a customized solution.

Kudos to… Microsoft!?

Of all the big players, Microsoft seems to have a great perspective when it comes to keeping hybrid work models and hybrid remote work not just aligned, but ideally in harmony, with working goals and company culture. Or at least, that’s what they continue to publish on the Internet.

Their blog piece “Hybrid Work is Just Work … Are We Doing it Wrong?” highlighted an excellent point:

“Now more than ever, it’s the job of every leader to balance employee interests with the success of the organization, aligning everyone around the most impactful work. One thing is clear: “Thriving employees are what will give organizations a competitive advantage in today’s dynamic economic environment,” according to Satya Nadella, Chairman and CEO, Microsoft. And, creating a culture and employee experience to meet the needs of today’s digitally connected, distributed workforce requires a new approach.”

And in What Does Flexible Work Really Mean?, the takeaway from a very well thought-out piece was a great one: “As technology evolves to help build flexibility into the flow of work, every organization will need to evolve its culture along with it, and getting there requires companies to rewire their thinking. That starts with listening and experimentation. Another way to look at it is more fundamental: Ultimately, it comes down to fostering a flexible mindset and trusting workers and teams to figure out together what works best for them. Because when it comes to driving the future of work forward, the power is theirs.”

Put Down the Free Cannoli

So what is the future of work? In this brave new world of 2023, one thing is abundantly clear: workers are over the flashy “perks” that were once touted on high when giant tech offices were building out their office spaces with ping pong tables and offering Free Pizza Fridays and beanbag chairs instead of desks. These add-ons feel more like a ploy, not a perk.

Give your team what they really want: time. At the end of the day, a remote or hybrid schedule translates to flexible time, and that’s the greatest benefit an employer could offer.

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