To reflect on how home and office arrangements interact to shape different types of employee preferences, we conceptualised the reasons why staff wish to work from home in four categories of push and pull factors that by association imply the need for different types of managerial action.
All the factors shaping employee preferences merit attention when planning hybrid work.
For example, if staff wish to work from home because of a push away from the office factor such as that their office space is perceived as substandard to that of their home office a different strategy should be considered in comparison to cases where staff wish to work from home due to pull to work at home factors, such as caring responsibilities or a chronic pain/condition making a daily commute hard.
The first one is an example which may signal the need to not just reduce work offices but improve them and create quiet workspaces.
The push away from the office factors in other words may relate to pre-existing concerns and ongoing issues that organisations have been facing.
The second example highlights that post-pandemic flexible work policies may need to be simplified and mainstreamed so that staff who need them benefit from them and do not solely rely on informal arrangements which may be associated with hybrid work.
The complexity of the reasons why staff wish to work from home and the challenges in coordination to try to maximise employees working conditions also highlights the need to decentralise decision-making.
Small teams may be easily coordinating hybrid work on a week-by-week basis, while in the same organisation teams with a high number of new members of staff may do better with increased office time and fixed as opposed to flexible office days.
Our study also highlights differences in the hybrid work expectations of staff and their immediate managers may require a mechanism for staff to challenge management decisions in relation to hybrid work arrangements.
Such mechanisms are most often absent, and the hybrid work pattern risks being left on managers’ personal preferences and biases.
We have often heard interviewees attributing their flexible work arrangements to luck (‘luckily, my manager has a great understanding of the situation…’). What happens when managers do not have appropriate levels of understanding is less clear.
Professor Bloom (2021) recently concluded that fixed office days may be a better option for organisations as this model would help mitigate the risk of seeing staff split into the office in-group (those going often to the office) and the home out-group (those staying at home).
This is a sound piece of advice, but it may come at a cost for several groups of staff, for example those with chronic pain conditions who suffer from the commute, neurodivergent workers who may struggle in open office environments, or those who do not have access to a home office.
Based on our research, we anticipate an expectation gap to emerge between staff and their managers in relation to hybrid work patterns. It may lead to resentment, anxiety, dissent, resistance or conflict.
Hybrid work offers a great opportunity for businesses to improve productivity, employee satisfaction, and to promote their equality and diversity agenda. However, we should not move blindly from a situation in which workers had few opportunities for flexibility, to a situation where some staff are now expected to work from home much longer than their circumstances will allow.
Effective two-way communication will be vital to managing the hybrid future of work in organisations and finding the right balance of home and office.
Lila Skountridaki is a lecturer in organisation studies at the University of Edinburgh Business School, Oliver Mallett, professor of entrepreneurship in management at the University of Stirling and Abigail Marks professor of the Future of Work at Newcastle University
This piece appears in the July/August 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe now to get all the latest issues delivered to your desk.