Is Hybrid Work Destined to Fail?

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2 min read

May 23, 2023

By Emeric Kubiak. The article was originally published in Psychology Today on October 14, 2022:


  • Many companies are making hybrid work the new normal.
  • However, research show that hybrid offices can intensify feeling of isolation and discrimination.
  • Companies and managers can undertake 6 actions in order to limit negative effects.

Many companies are making hybrid work the new normal. While this trend might emerge from a genuine interest in employees’ well-being, it could also transcribe a hidden attachment to past traditions and ways of working which could lead to unpleasant results. Every leader should therefore take a look at what science can teach us in order to avoid the pervasive side-effects of hybrid working—including a potential increase in workers' loneliness and in discrimination.

Toward Two Isolated Worlds?

The loneliness experienced by some remote workers remains a real psychological and physiological problem. However, exclusively associating loneliness with being remote would be a misleading shortcut; indeed, many office-based employees felt lonely and isolated long before the recent popularization of remote work.

Even work-space restructuring initiatives, like open-plan offices, which were expected to promote communication and collaboration, are shown to paradoxically contribute to decreased face-to-face interactions. For that reason, loneliness is an issue regardless of the place—physical or virtual—that people are working in.

Teamwork is indeed a psychological and relational construct that can be decisive for the quality of working life. But the structural problems in how most teams are today constructed and managed (e.g., team composition, interdependence between coworkers, working hours) unfortunately contribute to increased feelings of isolation in employees.

Even if humans are social beings who will never be satisfied by exclusively virtual interactions, I argue that it would be dishonest and naive to identify remote loneliness as the justification for a return to the office, particularly since the latter has almost never turned out to be the hoped-for catalyst for social bonds. The office allows people to meet, but not necessarily connect; putting people in the same place is not enough to create and sustain high-quality connections at work.

Hybrid work, which is asymmetrical by nature, could accentuate feelings of isolation for remote employees, who are likely to feel disconnected from on-site employees. Think about hybrid meetings, for example—a meeting where half of the team is in the office while the other half is remote could be perceived as unbalanced.

The central question should not, therefore, be about which employees, remote or office-based, feel greater isolation. In both cases, if actions are taken to promote high-quality relationships, everyone will have a place to develop a strong feeling of belonging by sharing common ways of working and standards for interacting with others, and everyone will be a part of the same work experience.

Rather, it is necessary to understand that a hybrid work setting could provide fertile ground for the development of siloed, ineffective cliques and networks by creating two distinct work experiences, cultures, and groups. This leads to a high risk of a dominant group being created—often by physical proximity to the physical office—contributing to the centralization of information, knowledge, and responsibilities.

An Open Door for Discrimination

Historically, the office has always been a place ruled by power and hierarchy, where each one of us seeks to build a positive reputation, to be seen working by others, and where everyone has an interest in managing impressions. Just think about the presenteeism of sick employees, or about the tendency we have to attend boring and useless meetings with the sole objective of showing off.

Even if these behaviors are increasingly criticized, they can still be highly profitable for those displaying them. For example, just getting noticed at work, no matter one's objective performance, is considered a strong signal of commitment, and improves career opportunities. Similarly, employees who take breaks with their manager are promoted at a higher rate, even if they display the same level of effort and performance as other employees. In short, being physically available and being seen offer competitive advantages in building one’s career and pay.

There are several pieces of evidence of a proximity advantage or of remote workers' stigmatization in hybrid. In an experimental study, researchers from Stanford University concluded that, even if employees working from home are 13 percent more efficient than on-site employees, they also are 50 percent less likely to be promoted. Another study by the UK Office for National Statistics, from 2011 to 2020, showed that employees who mainly work from home were less than half as likely to be promoted than all other employees, and were around 38 percent less likely on average to have received a bonus compared to those who never worked from home.

In a world trumped by perception and visibility, it is therefore not surprising that 50 percent of people report feeling an implicit pressure to return to the office—especially younger employees, even if they are encouraged to work remotely. This Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) seems legitimate considering figures from the SHRM, with managers admitting their preference for on-site employees, going as far as forgetting about remote workers when assigning tasks.

Worse still: Most surveys point out that men are more likely to return to the office than women, in part due to the disproportionate share of family responsibilities that fall on women. This trend could lead to the development of male-dominated offices, with men being more visible than women, and succeeding—even more than today—in advancing their careers at the expense of equally qualified women.

The same logic applies to racial issues: indeed, black employees are seven times less likely to want to return to the office as white employees, in order to escape a work environment that is more toxic for minorities. If these biases are confirmed through time, there is therefore a high risk to see more discrimination in hybrid work settings, with already underrepresented groups being even more penalized.

What Can Companies Do?

Companies and managers can undertake several actions, in order to limit negative effects.

  1. Communicate your strategy. Only 32 percent of companies clearly communicate their vision of hybrid work, leading to increased employee anxiety and burnout risk. Successfully carrying out a hybrid policy requires efforts to actively respond to employees’ concerns, and ease the understanding and ownership of the strategy.
  2. Educate managers. Managers are first in line for successful change. Unfortunately, research shows that only 28 percent know the strategic priorities of their company. There is, therefore, a disconnect between the global strategy and its execution. For example, in the UK, while 44 percent of employees say their companies have a hybrid policy, only 18 percent feel encouraged by their manager to take advantage of it. Making hybrid a success thus requires ensuring that the strategy is developed through a small set of priorities that are compliant with the global vision, and which are shared the same way at all company levels.
  3. Be data-driven. Analyzing the right information will allow for the building of more efficient hybrid systems. For example, Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) can help companies to better plan return-to-office strategies, by mapping employee work patterns and relationships, in order to know which teams should come back to the office at the same time to improve engagement and performance. Also, our studies show that we can effectively prevent feelings of isolation in remote workers by measuring psychological data and proposing personality-based interventions. Moreover, data about the impact of hybrid will allow you to better understand how things are running in your organization (e.g., who is coming back the most often to the office, who is getting promoted) and to take regulatory decisions.
  4. Define rules. While hybrid is presented as an ideal world for more flexibility, it seems to be working better with more rigid rules set by managers, preventing the development of cliques, discrimination, and silos. For example, to avoid an imbalance in the groups returning to the office more than others, some researchers advise managers to decide which days their team should be working remotely, and which days it should be in the office—the first limit to real flexibility. Managers should also, for example, prevent hybrid meetings and encourage everyone to connect in an individual space as soon as a member of the team is remote.
  5. Measure objective performance. Performance reviews should be independent of employee location. Today, these evaluations are too often biased, and rewards generally go to employees coming back to the office, rather than to those having added value and a real contribution. Hybrid urges for more accurate and objective performance assessments, by quantifying the impact someone has on others and on the company, in order to be sure everyone is treated and rewarded equally, no matter what location they’re working in. Companies have a long way to go; only 36 percent of employees believe their manager is doing so.
  6. Increase psychological safety. The most effective teams are those that develop a strong sense of psychological safety or group trust. In hybrid working environments, a system that naturally blurs the lines between private and professional life, everyone must feel free to express their opinion, their needs, or their personal constraints, without fear of judgment or backlash.

While hybrid raises the right questions, it doesn't always provide the right answers, which could make these systems more detrimental and less attractive than they seem. Often presented as the future of work, I argue that hybrid acts as an anchor to our past and is more about complacency, rather than a real and lasting solution.

Even if it seems right to seek some stability and certainty in a constantly evolving and changing world, returning to our old ways of working would be a gloomy organizational and human failure. We have, indeed, an amazing opportunity to let our openness bring us to new models, which, for the better, question the very meaning of work in people's lives. Other methods, like Work-From-Anywhere, while being viewed with skepticism, could ultimately be more innovative, more uniform, and consider everyone equally; they also seem to improve performance and engagement.