Hybrid work is here to stay, but it comes with trade-offs. Wharton management professor Martine Haas guides managers on how to get the most out of a hybrid workplace, while keeping the pros and cons of remote working in mind. This episode is part of a series on “Hybrid Work.”
How Should Managers Handle Hybrid Work?
Dan Loney: Hybrid work really wasn’t in our vernacular four years ago, but now here we are. What are your thoughts on the state of hybrid work at this moment and your expectations as we move forward?
Martine Haas: It’s the million-dollar question that’s on everybody’s mind. The state of hybrid work right now in some ways looks surprisingly strong. The last year feels like a lot of organizations have converged on hybrid work as the sweet spot. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good compromise between the tensions and the benefits that we see to workers who might want to be remote more of the time. Some might want to be in the office, but a lot do want to be remote. And there are managers who might want to be remote, but a lot of times want their folks in the office. So, it feels like it’s a compromise that both sides have kind of come to. Even the firms that were strongly remote have come to realize, “Wow, we’re losing some stuff. Maybe we need to do more things together.” On the other hand, the firms that are, “Let’s be completely in the office” have realized that workers really like the [option] to work hybrid.
It feels like we’ve settled into something of a routine in many companies where it looks hybrid. People are in the office some days and not others, and it’s likely, given that there are benefits on both sides and reasons to do both, that this will be the way it looks for at least the foreseeable future.
Loney: You mentioned managers, so let’s start there. What is it that we need to know to better understand how managers are going to deal with hybrid work?
Haas: There’s a lot to know. But I think one fundamental, underlying thing that we need to recognize is that when you’ve got some people in the office and some people not in the office, it creates real variation in people’s experiences of work and in their ability to work together.
I think there are two big components that feel important because they both create power differences between people who are in the office and people who are not. One is people’s access to resources, whether it’s the photocopier or support or advice from the manager or other workers. You have more of those resources if you’re in the office with other people usually than if you’re at home.
The other is visibility. If you’re in the office, you probably have more visibility to your manager. Probably your manager is in the office, too. But even if they’re not, other people are seeing it, hearing your work, and it’s more obvious what you’re doing. Losses in visibility matter because there are bases of power in organizations. People who have more of them tend to have more power, and that tends to mean that when you are in the office more, you have more access to some of the stuff, and maybe more power than people who are in the office less.
I think managers need to start with that fundamental recognition that people are in different structural positions, and as a result, all is not equal. It’s an unequal playing field, and that means that we need to develop ways and competencies around managing that. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As you mentioned, there are lots of advantages to it. But it needs to be actively managed, and people need to have recognition and assistance in building the competencies to manage that situation.
Loney: Does technology make it easier or harder for the manager to do a lot of those things?
Haas: Yes, of course technology makes it easier or we wouldn’t be doing it at all. The reason why hybrid work is now so widespread when, as you said, it wasn’t even part of our vernacular four or five years ago is because of technology, without question. And the fact that Zoom came along, and not only that it came along, but that we all shot up that learning curve to a level that everybody, even the least technologically adept managers, could basically manage Zoom calls now. That has enabled this in a way that just wouldn’t have happened, not nearly so fast otherwise. We already had a lot of this technology, and it wasn’t happening so fast.
Technology makes it all possible, but it doesn’t make it all perfect. I think there’s a tendency not to recognize that some of the imperfections are things that really need attention. There’s all sorts of stuff that happens when we rely on technology unthinkingly that can be pretty dysfunctional for our ability to work together effectively and collaborate and get things done in the best possible way.
Breaking Down the Pros and Cons of Remote Working
Loney: When you’re talking about hybrid work, there are a couple of different components: flexible hybrid and fixed hybrid. Take us through both of those.
Haas: Fixed hybrid means that some people are always in the office and there most of the time, if not all the time, whereas some people are always remote. That’s a pretty extreme version of the situation, but we do see that a lot in many organizations. The flexible hybrid is when the same person is in the office some days and out of the office other days of the week.
I think the distinction is important, just to say that flexible hybrid is less problematic. You’re able to work through more of the issues and see more of the issues that come up when you’ve got people coming in and out of the office. It creates a lot of its own issues, too, but at least you’re not having people who are never there and people who are always there. When you have the fixed hybrid, some of these tensions or divisions or potential gulfs in understanding are much more extreme than when you’ve got people coming in and out. I think the realities of many organizations have seen that, and a lot of companies are using the flexible hybrid partly because of those reasons.
Loney: Is the playing field not level for all individuals because of these dynamics?
Haas: Yes, the playing field is particularly unlevel when you are in the fixed hybrid system because some people have consistently more access to resources and visibility to high-level management than the people who are more remote. I think these issues about the lack of levelness in the playing field are really important to recognize in a hybrid system or in a remote work system.
But it’s also the case and important to recognize that some people may be worse affected by the same sort of distance than others. I’ve written a bit about women in the workplace who may have a natural disadvantage in a male-dominated workplace, for example, in terms of whether they speak up as much or are listened to as much or are given the best assignments or are augmented as much — even when you’re working all together in the office.
Add to that what we call “the remote work penalty.” We know that some of these issues happen when you work remotely: You’re less likely to have access to mentoring. It may be harder to network. It might be harder to get the best assignments. It may be harder to speak up. If you couple those two things together, there might be particular people — I just gave women as one example, but they’re not the only example. You’re particularly disadvantaged structurally unless we’re really aware of this and work hard to offset these disadvantages.
Honestly, it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea for women to work remotely — or anybody else, right? I think there are really great reasons why a woman at a particular career stage, men at a particular life stage might choose to work remotely, but they need to recognize and the managers need to recognize that that can come with what we call a “double disadvantage” of being a little disadvantaged anyway, and then you’ve got the remote work penalty on top of it.
And let me just say it again, not just women. It can be underrepresented minorities. It can be junior folks who don’t really know their way around the organization very well and are relatively new. It might be non-native language speakers who don’t feel that comfortable even face-to-face, never mind when they’re working remotely in an organizational setting. For all sorts of people, it’s important to recognize that remote work has trade-offs. It has some real benefits, but it can also be disadvantageous in a way that we may or may not recognize. But we need to recognize if we’re systematically disadvantaging those people.
Loney: What are the specific challenges of hybrid work?
Haas: You’ve got this fundamental lack of levelness in the playing field, and that plays out in a lot of different ways. I’ve been using this framework a lot with the executives I teach called “the five C’s.” There are others, too, but these capture some of the most important challenges that we see emerging as a result of this lack of levelness of the playing field. Some of these are very familiar to us at this point: communication, coordination, connection, creativity, and culture. Each of those have special challenges as a result of when you work in a hybrid system. Of course, they all have their challenges, even when you’re not hybrid.
Loney: It seems like culture is the one that is drawing a lot of attention these days.
Haas: Yes, that’s a really interesting observation. Almost two years ago, I was at a senior retreat for top executives, and I was facilitating a panel discussion that had nothing to do with remote work. I was absolutely taken aback by how every single CEO on this panel — there were three or four of them — independently and sort of building on each other, raised culture as the issue that was top of mind. I think from a senior leader perspective, we do and should think a lot about culture, and there’s no question that hybrid work creates massive challenges for culture. If you just think about traditional three aspects of how culture is maintained: attraction, selection, and retention. Culture is really important for attracting people. But in order to be distinctive, you have to have something distinctive about you. If you don’t have a strong culture or a strong identity, then what makes your investment bank any different from any other investment bank that folks may want to join?
That’s the attraction piece, and then who do you select, and who is really motivated to be there and wants to stay there? For junior people, culture is really important in helping to understand how things are done, making sure that behaviors are appropriate and are as productive as they can possibly be and are ethical, for example. Even for senior people, culture is really important for motivating and keeping them excited or interested in coming to work. And the less you have that, the less pull there is at the organization, which is where you start getting problems of retention and people just being happy to job hop because they don’t see anything special about your organization. So, culture has all these different ramifications.
Loney: What about connection?
Haas: Connection is partly technological connection and logistically how easy it is for us to do hand-offs and stuff like that. But the big piece that we’ve seen — we were pretty aware this was happening in the pandemic, but it has persisted — is social connection. The ability to socially connect is an enormous part of what happens inside organizations, and that has advantages. It has disadvantages sometimes, as we all know. Sometimes we don’t like being face-to-face with our bosses, and sometimes we don’t want to go for drinks with our colleagues and all this kind of stuff. But there is something about that social connection and belonging that you get from interacting with people face-to-face in a non-work capacity that is really important to people’s mental health and well-being. Without that, people can sometimes get really lonely or bored or unmotivated by their work.
There’s also a really important thing that connects with culture: innovation. One of the reasons why a lot of tech companies care about having people in the office is because it’s those random connections that people make in the workplace that can lead to new ideas sparking. It’s chatting in the elevator, or maybe it’s in the cafeteria line. When everything is scheduled, and we have to do everything via Zoom, we nearly always are doing it with a fixed set of people. Our opportunity to connect with people we don’t already know in the organization is much lower in a Zoom or remote world than it is in the face-to-face world, so those connections that spark new ideas and innovations are much harder to make.
Preparing for the Future of Hybrid Work
Loney: How can managers deal with those five C’s going forward?
Haas: I think we’re at a point where what managers really need to be doing is continuing to think actively about what is going on in their hybrid workplace and whether it’s as good as it can be. Because I think the risk of being where we are in this learning curve on hybrid work is that we’ve settled into something that pretty much works and isn’t terrible and is probably pretty good. It’s very easy to say, “OK, let’s get on with this now and do the work and try to normalize,” and not to realize that we may not be doing as well on one of the five C’s or something else related to hybrid work.
I think it’s really important at this stage for managers to be taking the time to evaluate and review where they are, for example on the five C’s. It can be as simple as going through a check list of, “Let’s give ourselves a grade.” Are we great on communication, on coordination, on connection, on creativity, and on culture, or do we see areas where there’s room for improvement? If so, we need to take a step back, brainstorm, think about what we can do better, and try to implement that. And then review that another six months down the line.
But settling into a pattern that’s potentially suboptimal is a big risk of where we are, given how exhausting all these transitions have been in the last few years and the fact that now things are relatively stable.
Loney: It probably makes it a challenge for the manager to make the hybrid workplace as fair as possible for everybody?
Haas: It’s hard to be aware of everything all the time, but at least schedule a review every couple of months or every six months of how people are feeling about where they’re working and whether that’s still working for them. Maybe they want the option to change, because we know people’s circumstances always change throughout their lives, but also particularly in the last few years. And then asking people and observing and asking managers, “Do people have the skills they need to be working this way?” That goes back to this idea of hybrid competence. Depending on where you are, in the office or working remotely, or you’re a manager, you have a different set of responsibilities related to trying to build hybrid competence.
I think the important point here is it’s not just about the person who is working remotely. The burden is not only on them to make sure that they speak up and are heard and represented and able to make connections. They have a responsibility to do that. But it’s also the people who are in the office who need to make sure that they are including the people who are working remotely and making space and time for them in the conversations, and not leaving them out of important or even minor decisions.
It’s the people who are working remotely, it’s the people in the office, and then it’s the manager who needs to keep the whole thing in balance and show that both sides are doing that and intervening as needed to make sure that everybody is where they need to be.