The ever-evolving landscape of work has ushered in a new era marked by hybrid models, challenging the traditional notions of office culture. In a recent episode of "The Daily" podcast by The New York Times, aptly titled "The Hybrid Worker Malaise," the realities and intricacies of this shift were brought to light. In this article we’ll distill the key findings discussed on the podcast, shedding light on the challenges faced by workers and organizations alike in this transformative period.
The Unsettling Shift
Post-pandemic office life in America is adjusting to the new norm: the hybrid work model. But we’re seeing a concerning trend: the current office culture is leaving workers feeling less connected and less happy than ever before. Employers, recognizing the growing discontent among their teams, are launching a wave of ‘experiments’ to address this problem.
The journey to a hybrid work model has been a hard fought battle launched — and won by — the employees. The reality is that the full time office schedule mandates that were being issued just 6 months ago are now being softened and rolled back, as hybrid solidifies its place as the new office norm.
As the pandemic subsided, vaccines made it safer for employees to return to office. The immediate reaction for companies was the push for a return to the office (RTO), envisioning a total rewind to the pre-pandemic workplace. But as we quickly learned, the pandemic would continue to creep back into the picture with its many variants, which deterred workers from wanting to return to work. A power struggle ensued — which saw everything from employees signing petitions, to threatening to strike, and even organized walk-outs to protest RTO mandates.
In the last year, we’ve seen a truce of sorts. The power struggle seems to have settled into the hybrid work model — where employees return 3 to 4 days of the week to the office, and have the other 1 to 2 days to work from home. This is especially common for white-collar workers in industries such as tech, media, design, and law.
The Upside and Downside of Hybrid Work
One would think — in having achieved the hard-won battle for a hybrid work model — employees would be overjoyed in their present work life. But survey data indicates people are feeling uneasy in this time — with stress levels trending up, and marking the lowest level of job satisfaction since 2020.
The flexibility of the hybrid model offers considerable upside, including improved work-life balance, enhanced productivity, and healthier living. This is especially true for working parents, who can schedule their day around their kids’ school and extracurricular activities. Employees can balance their lives and work with greater ease given time saved in not commuting: walking the dog, throwing in a load of laundry, getting meals prepped, sneaking in a workout, or enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee from the comfort of their living room.
Despite the upside of hybrid work, a significant number of workers are grappling with stress, uncertainty, and anxiety. The issue we are facing as a workforce is that no one has ‘mastered’ the art of the hybrid work model — it’s a whole new way of working that no one ever really sat down and explained. It's also a highly independent way of working, and with great independence comes great responsibility, and thus — greater amount of planning goes into executing the hybrid work week.
Before the pandemic, and before hybrid work — most of us reported to our office five days a week, and spent the entire day in the office. This was a structured routine, it took the guesswork out of what to do each morning. Now, employees are scheduling their hybrid schedules week to week, even day to day — and much of it depends on the moving schedules of our colleagues. We want to align with what our team members are doing to make the most of our time in the office.
But this becomes increasingly challenging depending on the size of the team, and perhaps even more importantly — the function of the team. Teams who work in innovation, creative, or product development — for example, benefit from time spent with colleagues who push those parts of your brain and positively impact group performance.
Hybrid work has also changed the way we interact with and relate to the people we work with. Pre-pandemic, your colleagues were the people you spent the majority of your time with — oftentimes more than your own family. But in the hybrid work environment — we’re not spending time with colleagues. The half-in / half-out hybrid schedule has disrupted work bonds. And much of the best work happens in those hard-to-manufacture, organic run-ins in the office space.
Employees are also missing out on their “loose-tie” connections — or, those employees you’d run into that you have a random conversation with, where they can offer a fresh perspective or different angle to something you may be working on. Not your core team members, but valuable connections that can bring value to your work. In a hybrid model, your chances of forming “loose-ties” are significantly diminished, and you have fewer of these random people who can be important to your career.
Another downside to the hybrid work model is less certainty around career advancement. Because employees are spending less time in the office, they have less face time with managers and executives. Research shows that managers provide more feedback when in a face-to-face meeting — they feel more comfortable giving feedback in person, and establishing stronger relationships in person. So if you’re not in the office to receive feedback, chances are you won’t receive the quality of input from your manager as your in-office counterpart would receive. This has obvious long-term ramifications…but in the immediate term, company leaders are worried for younger employees who want a future at the company. Without the benefits of establishing natural, in-person relationships, it’s unclear what that junior employee’s career path may be if they continue to split time between home and the office.
Another downside in our current era of hybrid work are the big layoffs that we’ve seen in the last two years, while companies are simultaneously trying to map out what the hybrid work model even looks like. Managers are looking at office attendance across employee pools to inform decisions around performance reviews and layoffs. So while companies espouse that they support hybrid work models, employees who spend less time in the office than their counterparts can be at a disadvantage during performance reviews and decisions made around reduction in force.
The Office as a Destination
In response to “the hybrid worker malaise,” companies are launching experiments in the workplace to try to improve employee satisfaction and morale. The biggest trend we’re seeing coming into 2024 is the rise of the trophy building, or creating intentional workspaces that go beyond mere functionality. The workspace is a symbol of prestige for the company, and a destination for the employee that attracts them to the physical office. In both narratives, the emphasis is on transforming the workplace into a more engaging and appealing space.
Companies are implementing social programming to try to recreate what once came organically in pre-pandemic office life. Pre-pandemic, it wasn’t abnormal to grab lunch with colleagues, or have a work happy hour on an evening after work. Post-pandemic, HR has jumped into the equation, hosting events like free yoga at the office, or ‘game night’ complete with snacks and a bar cart. Ultimately people go to the office to work, but HR is being challenged to improve attendance numbers and to get employees to hang out again. So employees are engaging in non-office activities, in the office, and the idea of this “forced fun” is making things a bit awkward.
In addition to the energy going into making the office embody non-office activities, the office is also being redesigned to feel more like the home. Desks with chairs are being switched out for comfortable, lounge-like furniture that evokes your living room space. Picture lots of upholstered furniture in bright colors, with plants and curated book collections everywhere. While it looks glamorous and high end, are these new layouts conducive to working?
The Path Forward
Despite the current challenges and uncertainties, there is hope that the hybrid work model can eventually become the best of both worlds. It’s worth noting that this is not something that can happen overnight, and it is likely to take years to achieve an effective and widely adopted replacement for pre-pandemic structures and rituals.
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The road to a seamless hybrid work model may be long, but with T1V's commitment to visual collaboration and brand storytelling, the journey becomes more navigable. The future of work is dynamic, and T1V is here to empower organizations in creating workspaces that are not just destinations but vibrant and engaging experiences.
We’ll keep following the research and reporting on what we’re seeing and hearing. The research continues to offer wildly different data, however one thing seems to hold steady: hybrid work is here to stay.