Is Hybrid Work the Worst of Both Worlds?

Two things that work well separately don’t always work well in combination.

As I write this, I’m drinking a pistachio-flavored beer from a variety pack and it really makes the point for me. I like pistachios and beer, but the combination is awful.

For the vast majority of people, working environments were less than ideal even before Covid hit in 2020. Gallup found that in 2019, the percentage of "engaged" workers in the U.S. -- those who are highly involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace -- reached 34%. You might think 2019 was just a bad year. It wasn’t. 34% engagement actually marked the new high since Gallup began tracking the metric in 2000.

Taking that into account, many leaders and individual contributors were pleasantly surprised that working from home actually went better than expected in 2020. They rushed to get Microsoft Teams or Zoom or some other system set up for meetings, shipped out a few laptops, and suddenly, everything was okay. Or, maybe it just wasn’t any worse. 

Here’s the problem: creating an awesome in-person work environment is tough. Creating an awesome remote environment is even harder.

"Creating an awesome in-person work environment is tough. Creating an awesome remote environment is even harder."

So, what about creating an awesome hybrid work environment? Well, that's probably twice as hard as trying to get strictly in-person or remote work right. The only easy part about creating a productive and enriching hybrid work environment is making the initial announcement. Everyone will feel like they got what they want, whether they prefer to work in the office or at home.


So why is it so difficult to create an amazing hybrid work environment? 

An awesome work environment requires certain things:

  • A shared mission
  • The right level of autonomy
  • Strong working relationships with colleagues
  • Opportunities to learn and grow
  • A manager and colleagues that you trust 

In an in-person environment, we invest in spaces, tools, events, and teaming scenarios that favor in-person work. In a remote environment, we do the same assuming no one is together physically. If we put the same effort into setting up a hybrid work environment that supports both in-person and remote work, it likely won’t be enough. 


The three things you’re most likely to screw up are:

1. Rotating in-person shifts.

“We have all of this space, but people only need to be in the office half time, right?”  Whoops! A quality in-person environment means maximizing the vibrancy, diversity, and opportunity for creative and cross-departmental “collisions” so if you think putting half of your employees on a M,W,F schedule and half on a T/Th schedule is the right move, you’re going to be disappointed. 

2. Prioritizing efficiency over collaboration. 

“If we improve at measuring output, people can work from anywhere.” I’m all for measuring productivity and outcomes. In fact, managing sales teams over the years, regardless of their locations, has been easier than managing teams with less clear outcomes. However, if you get really good at managing output and fail to leave time for employees to connect with one another, explore new parts of the organization, and pursue less productive interests or opportunities, you will find creativity decreasing and turnover increasing. If output is all you want, you should expect employees to focus primarily on compensation and to leave quickly if they can get more for producing the same output for others.


3. Reinforcing silos and "playing it safe."

 Working on a distributed team makes it easy to focus on your immediate colleagues and to cut back on the human networks that help us expand our horizons, find new work opportunities, and deliver those breakthrough ideas that are only possible with diverse perspectives. 

Many hybrid work plans I’ve seen recently encourage employees of a certain level or in a certain department to be in-person at the same time, but have them do so isolated from peers at different levels of the organization or in different functions. Slack groups, MS Teams channels, etc. can make this worse. It’s tough to replicate the casual conversation on the way to the meeting or at the water cooler when you jam it into a chat room. 

Another problem here is that most people will take fewer risks in writing than they will in a face-to-face conversation. Have you ever heard an amazing growth story from a company where all anyone ever did was play it safe? Probably not - a company with a growth story like this doesn’t exist. A hybrid work environment focused only on schedule and location flexibility might be more comfortable and convenient for employees trying to manage complex personal schedules, but it is also likely to reduce the comfort level individuals have expressing unpopular views or new ideas.

As an organization that was hybrid before Covid hit and as the first technology platform built to support this flexible workplace model, Structural has some specific best practices to share regarding hybrid work.

Democratize relationships. 

  • Make it easy and natural for employees to find and connect with one another to get help, learn, or align around complementary backgrounds or interests. Employees will solve problems faster and hopefully make the friends they need to feel a sense of place, trust, and belonging at work.
  • Recognize that LinkedIn  allows people to connect efficiently with others and with opportunities outside of your organization So, in a sense, that is your “competition.” You need to make it easy to connect inside your organization to keep your people.

Don't make anyone second class.

  • Avoid approaches and processes that staff people on new projects based on proximity to the project leader. Create systems that empower managers and influential peers to reach out broadly to find the right talent and to open up opportunities. 
  • Another approach if you’re running a hybrid team is to look for ways to “collaborate equally.” On teams I lead, I now avoid putting 4 people in a conference room and having 1 person remote “coming in virtually” to the meeting. If 1 person is remote, you should consider having everyone join the meeting from their laptop. It puts everyone on equal footing and encourages use of the right tools to support the remote individual.


Take inclusion seriously.

  • Recognize that, if you provide a choice to workers, those that choose the flexibility to be at home more often might do so for reasons related to demographics such as where they can afford to live and their family status.
  • Ensuring that connection and opportunity is embedded and accessible in your workplace whether someone works at your HQ or their HO (home office) shows that you truly value inclusion and recognize the risk a worker takes by choosing to be less proximate to the “action” of the office if connections can only be made in-person.     

By deciding on a hybrid work model, leaders may think they’ve finally provided the best possible workplace environment for all of their employees. But, by offering the “best of both worlds”, they may actually deliver the work equivalent of pistachio-flavored beer. The promise of hybrid work is tremendous, but only if you approach it thoughtfully and with an eye toward a connected, creative, inclusive, and sustainable work environment that transcends the constraints of proximity and the relative limits of productivity measurements. 

The Structural platform was built to help organizations thrive in a hybrid workplace: see how it works.

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