A graphic image of a man sitting at a desk while on a video call on a laptop, symbolising hybrid working.
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What does hybrid working really mean?

14 Feb 2022

Grow Remote’s Joanne Mangan explores some of the ways employers might bring in hybrid working and what it means for employees.

Government restrictions on the workplace were lifted in January, which means that the long awaited ‘return to the office’ has now begun. However, almost two years since the onset of the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that the office will never be the same as it was before Covid landed on our shores.

Recent figures from the CSO showed that nearly 90pc of employees would like to continue working remotely post-pandemic and research by NUI Galway and the Western Development Commission last year found most of the employers who had decided how their teams would work post-pandemic said it would be a hybrid working model.

Hybrid is viewed by many as the future of work – but what exactly is ‘hybrid’?

The reality is there is no single, homogenous hybrid model – it can take on many forms. In one company it can mean everyone works from home except for particular days when everyone has to come to the office.

In another, hybrid means that some people are fully remote, some are fully in the office and some are a blend between the two. Some companies tell everyone to work three days a week in the office, others one day a month, and others still tell their employees to only come to the office for certain company events or client meetings.

In some organisations, the employees make the decision about if and when they come to the office. In others, it is company mandated.

It’s little wonder that many organisations are still trying to work out which model will work best for them. In the face of so many options, how does a company decide which is the best approach?

When looking at hybrid working models, it’s helpful to view them on a spectrum ranging from fixed to flexible.

In a fixed hybrid model, there are clearly defined parameters around when employees are in the office. This can range from a very fixed model where everyone has to be in the office on particular days, for example every Monday and Friday, to a slightly more flexible model, for example where everyone has to spend 30pc of their time a month in the office.

In the latter example, the employee can decide how that 30pc in the office is organised, ideally in consultation with their manager.

Fixed hybrid

Many employers like a fixed hybrid model as it helps to put structure around how they implement remote working.

Operationally, it can be easier to plan office space and resources if you know on any given day how many employees will be in the office. Also, if the model is fixed, there is no need to change employment contracts as the office remains the main place of work.

In companies where there is a mix of role types, where some can be done remotely but others cannot, then a more fixed approach to hybrid can seem like the fairer option.

This may be seen as a way of minimising the risk that those who have no choice but to come to the workplace every day will be unhappy with their work arrangements, compared to their colleagues who may appear to have unlimited flexibility.

Some employees also like the structure of a fixed hybrid model. In some cases, employers have surveyed their employees and have found that they prefer to come to the office for a set number of days per week. It can also make it easier for employees to plan their schedules if they know when they and their colleagues will be in the office.

However, one of the biggest downsides of the fixed hybrid approach is that it takes away what is arguably one of the greatest benefits of remote working: the ability for employees to live where they choose.

If the employee has to be in the office in Dublin or Cork for three days a week then they are restricted in where they can live – the office still dictates. Or alternatively they can face a nightmare commute three days a week, which also removes one of the other key benefits of remote working, the reduction in the commute and the knock-on environmental benefits.

Being in the office for a certain number of days per week can also be challenging for parents of young children as it is not always easy to find part-time childcare locally.

From the employer’s perspective, having a fixed hybrid model means they run the risk of losing talent, as employees leave to find less restrictive options elsewhere. They also lose out on another key benefit for employers that remote work can offer – the cost reduction as a result of less office space.

If you have a full cohort of staff in the office several days a week, there is no opportunity to downsize and save on costs. A huge risk with hybrid working is that we may see the emergence of a two-tier system, with remote workers being disadvantaged or missing out on career progression opportunities. This is much more likely to happen in a fixed hybrid model, where there is still an office-first mindset.

Flexible hybrid

By far, the best option for employees and employers alike is a flexible hybrid model. Under this model, jobs which can be done remotely are advertised without location, which means the employees can live where they choose.

Employees are empowered to decide whether they want to work in the office or remotely, or a combination of both, which will positively contribute to employee engagement and retention.

Teams can get together for collaboration and social events, but there is no mandate on where and when people get to do their best work. And employers can save money on office space as they will not have to grow their office footprint to accommodate a growth in staff numbers.

This is a ‘remote-first’ model – meaning all processes are designed around remote working to ensure remote workers are not at a disadvantage when it comes to advancement opportunities.

Some employers fear the flexible hybrid model, having the misconception that it will result in a free-for-all where managers do not know from one day to the next where their employees are.

While this model is flexible in terms of employee choice, it cannot be implemented without structure, which means deliberate and intentional planning and the implementation of strong processes to support it.

A really good example of an effective flexible hybrid model is marketing, sales and customer service platform HubSpot, which has a great structure around how it manages a flexible hybrid model, with three options to choose from, depending on the employee’s preferences.

In 2022 we will see many organisations begin to test out the hybrid strategies that they have been planning, debating and tweaking over the past year. A lot of the conversation has been theoretical up to now and there are very few companies that had intentionally implemented a hybrid model pre-pandemic.

The companies who opt now for flexible hybrid will no doubt find it challenging to implement – but they will also reap the benefits. Those who feel the need to put more restrictions around remote working may find themselves re-evaluating this option in the future, as they lose their best staff to more flexible competitors.

By Joanne Mangan

Joanne Mangan is the employers lead at remote working non-profit Grow Remote.

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