During the first week of March, President Biden urged people to get back into our downtowns and into offices twice, as he spent his days working from the White House, arguably one of the longest standing work-from-home positions in the country.
This sentiment came less than a month after New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams met with 100 CEOs to get employees back into the office to “stimulate the city’s economy.” While it’s pretty apparent that these suggestions are an attempt to feed the economies of municipalities in crisis, businesses and employees alike have found plenty of benefits in not returning to the office full-time, five days a week.
A new work model emerges
Between the options of being fully remote and fully in an office lies a third option: a hybrid model. Many tech-based companies have embraced some sort of hybrid model as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on and the unpredictability of full-time in-office work continues. A 2021 Accenture report revealed 63% of high-growth companies were leveraging a hybrid office model, while 69% of companies with negative or no growth opted for other models.
From a business perspective, a hybrid office model can cut employers’ operational costs, from utilities and the space required to house employees to supplies and office furniture. It also stands to lower absenteeism. Particularly throughout an ongoing pandemic, less time within an office leads to lower exposure to COVID-19 and any other environmental or occupational hazards, and it can afford work to be completed even when employees aren’t feeling their best, such as when returning from surgeries or less invasive procedures that may present challenges commuting.
A parallel shift in the workforce
Parallel to a drastic shift in office culture due to the pandemic, Americans also find themselves in the midst of the Great Resignation. The rate at which employees have quit their jobs peaked in November 2021 – the highest in the past 20 years. Widespread job loss in mid-2020 as COVID-19 spread across the globe left few industries uninterrupted, and afforded people time and with reasons to consider leaving their jobs or switching industries altogether.
According to Pew Research, the major reasons people quit their jobs in 2021 were low pay, no opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected at work. These were followed by inflexibility in hours and child care. It’s been reported that during the summer of 2021, four million Americans were quitting their job every month.
It is no secret that even before the pandemic, many people were extremely unhappy with their employers. Coincidentally, a hybrid office model can combat some of this unhappiness directly. Because productivity hasn’t suffered and has even seen increases by companies using a hybrid model, improving employee morale and satisfaction should be a priority now. Even if it isn't done purely out of the goodness of employers’ hearts, an investment in employee retention saves money for organizations in the long run.
How the shift to hybrid work impacts employee morale
Employee morale can be impacted by many reasons, and the transition back into the office definitely speaks directly to how valued employees have felt in the last two years. “Interestingly enough, Squarespace wanted us back in the office very, very early. They were pushing in May for us to be back in June – in the first few months of the pandemic,” Renee Tooley said. She’s a visual designer for Unfold, which was acquired by Squarespace in October 2019.
“They would say they weren’t going to push it back, and then at the last minute they’d push it back, which was obviously stressful for people wondering if they were going back into the office or not,” she recalled.
Reflecting back on the state of the U.S. in June 2020, and New York City in particular, public transit was running on an abbreviated schedule, most non-essential businesses were still shut down and following the murder of George Floyd, there were daily protests with police using excessive force against civilians and citywide curfews.
Pushing to return to the office that early looks precarious from where we are in 2022, sheerly due to the lack of safety. Schools were still shut down, so child care would be a challenge for parents, and anyone who was immunocompromised was particularly at high risk during this period.
“When they did reopen the New York office, you had to volunteer to go back and go through this whole procedure, but they were always really pushing for a non-hybrid model,” Tooley recalled. As one would imagine, this was met with some pushback from the team at Unfold.
“We had all hands meetings and there's a forum where you can submit questions for Q&As with the CEO or the People Team and people we're always asking if we were going to be allowed to go hybrid, what is were the ramifications of being remote, will there be salary reductions–things like that.”
Tooley believes the only reason that Squarespace ended up adopting a hybrid model was because of just how much the team pushed back, and ultimately, because of how many people ended up leaving the company altogether.
Tooley relocated to Los Angeles. Her team at Unfold in based the New York office and she is opting to be fully remote right now, but will have to choose between fully remote, hybrid and completely in-office work in the near future. Before she relocated, the New York office made team-by-team decisions about how and where employees would work. However, Tooley said, it was implied that you’d be there if you cared about the team.
When the concept of a fixed office space no longer works
Similarly, Harshad Karmalkar, a marketer for the landscaping startup Go Materials, and some of his coworkers relocated to Ottawa during the period when his downtown Montreal-based company was shut down. The entire company consisted of about 12 people but expanded during the time the office was shut down.
“We hired a few people from other parts of Canada. One person joined from Toronto, and she was working from Toronto, so some of the team members were working permanently out of the city,” he said. “I feel like this was kind of a proof of concept that we could make this work, and we don't need to have a mandate of a fixed office space.”
With the organization’s headcount up to 40 people, Karmalkar’s company recognized it would be a challenge to bring everyone back to the downtown office. “We were able to work quite cohesively without any impact on productivity, so we decided to keep on this setup until there's a clear indication that there wouldn't be any more changes to the work schedule forced by the government restrictions,” he recalled.
Go Materials also introduced a new program that Karmalkar was able to take advantage of. For two months out of each calendar year, employees are allowed to work from anywhere in the world, so long as they get their work done and can log in during Eastern Standard Time.
“It's a little bit more challenging if you're traveling to another continent, but then you are still getting a chance to visit your family and your friends, spend some time at your home, and you can still continue to work,” Karmalkar said. He used two weeks for vacation time and two weeks through this program to work while he was visiting family in India.
How hybrid models benefit employees
From an employee perspective, the greatest benefits of a hybrid office model is the autonomy and the feeling of being trusted by their employer. “The biggest key for me is the fact that I can just show up whenever,” Kelly Zies, the marketing and public relations manager at the sustainable towel company Slow Tide said.
“My morale is better knowing I’m trusted to just make my own decisions. I was given this position because I earned it, and they trust me enough to make these calls,” she said.
The California-based company adopted a hybrid office model – and half-day Fridays – without any set hours, but she still goes in two to three days a week for a change of pace. “I like the camaraderie, and sometimes, I get a little bit more inspired by just a different environment than my house,” she said. Zies and her roommate share an at-home office, and take advantage of the Wi-Fi and office supplies her roommate’s large corporate job provides now that they’re also hybrid.
For Tooley, the freedom of hybrid working enables her to take care of her health. “As a person who has C-PTSD, major depressive disorder and OCPD working hybrid and remote offers a safe space for me to take the time my body needs to care for it without feeling the judgment that comes when my illness affects my ability to be in a office eight or nine hours a day,” she said. “I know I can do the work even better and truly excel if my mind and body are well-cared for and sometimes that can only happen if there’s flexibility.”
Nick Grant, the director of marketing at eFuneral, which he describes as the Shopify for funeral services, also appreciates the circumventing the judgment that comes with leaving your desk.
“If I do need to leave in the middle of the day, I can because I know that I can also pick up work later if anything needs to be done,” he said. “There's not this doubt around getting my work done if I leave earlier by having that freedom to come in and out anytime.”
Once a four and a half day in-office work week company, eFuneral is now fully hybrid without any requirements around time spent in the office. Because he gets easily distracted working at home by his dog or things to take care of around the house, Grant tends to go in three days a week. “I'm a creature of habit. I get up, take a shower, take my son to school, drive into the office, get shit done, come home, eat dinner – that type of thing,” he said.
Switching gears between home and work
In the time since the office reopened, Zies moved, and her once five-minute commute is now 35 minutes. Rising gas prices aside, she said, “I don’t like to drive on freeways, so I take the Pacific Coast Highway to think, listen to music or whatever – it allows me to switch gears.” And, when there’s no set schedule, one doesn’t have to commute during high-traffic commute hours or every day, so it seemingly feels like less of a drag.
Admittedly, Karmalkar initially missed that opportunity to mentally transition between home and office. He said, “Sometimes certain ideas come during that time when you’re more relaxed. Each place has its own significance and moving physically from one place to the other can help you get into the right mindset.”
It also made him recognize a habit he needed to put new routines in place to break. “I feel like sometimes I extend my workday a little bit without the act of physically leaving the office to mark that the day is over.” He’s set up alarms to remind him to log off.
However, if this extension of the work day is at the hands of the employer, it is a sure way to make hybrid work more of a nightmare than a benefit. And while it eventually got smoother, Tooley remembers the time around the initial shutdown of the office being marked by the trap of everyone overworking because they were at home.
Highly micromanaging employees that work from home can take a toll as well. “I think that may be worse than being in an office because of the whole idea that you have to answer whenever. Slack on our phone, slack on the computer – there's no balance,” she said.
Ultimately, this can lead to burn out too, just in a different way than being in an office, and hybrid work like this creates the same conditions that lie at the foundation of the Great Resignation. “I think that's why a lot of people ended up quitting. The company was four times more successful in the pandemic, and we couldn't even get a stipend approved to work at home,” Tooley said.
An ideal hybrid work setup
The workers who spoke to The Org said their ideal hybrid office model setup would include two to three days in-office – primarily for meetings and the sake of collaboration – and the rest of the time from home.
Regarding hybrid offices in positions she’d consider in the future, Tooley said, “If there was an opportunity that I was really stoked on, I think it's something I would be able to compromise on. As far as working for someone that maybe I felt the reward didn't really pay off to be in an office, I would definitely push like a hybrid, for sure.”
Grant said he doesn’t need it for him personally — it’s more about the culture created when employers expect employees at their desks between certain hours five days a week. “Forcing people to come back in the office when a business is still standing and doing well over the last two and a half, three years – obviously able to make it through the pandemic without having people in the office – would rub me the wrong way,” he said.
Zies says that for her, work should be hybrid only, or she doesn’t want it. “I would rather a company invest in me than invest in this overhead cost of having a giant building with a gym and all these like incentives,” she said.
It seems after two years of perpetual unrest, people want to do great work — they just want to be trusted to complete it on terms that benefit them personally and professionally, no matter where in the world that may be.