Hybrid Workplaces Are Still a Headache

Why is it so hard to figure out an arrangement that’s good for everyone?

A bubble wrapped office chair is positioned next to a sleek, empty desk and floor to ceiling windows showing a city

In 2007, Amherst College alum Sarah Rubenstein was trying to balance raising two small children with part-time work as a litigator. Rubenstein wrote in her “Class Notes” for the alumni magazine:

The net result is not pretty—my life is a delicate balance. For example, when the contractors redoing our master bedroom failed to properly hook up the new pipes, and water came cascading down into our kitchen, I had to drop everything and deal. Or when my kids have two separate activities in two separate locations thirty minutes apart. And god forbid a kid gets sick.

Much of what Rubenstein was saying over fifteen years ago will resonate with people (particularly women) who have recently been through the COVID-19 pandemic. There is, however, one important difference. In 2007, work situations like Rubenstein’s weren’t all that common. Today, such a situation is almost the norm, with the Canadian federal government and many other large employers having shifted immediately to off-site work at the onset of COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands of workers still spend at least part of their week working from home.

Hybrid workplaces are still so new that it would be foolhardy to attempt any evaluation of how well they have worked thus far, let alone any prediction of how they might operate in the future. On the one hand, a reduction in the number of work-related commutes is good for the environment. On the other, entire days spent on Zoom and using other modern technologies are potentially hazardous to employees’ physical and mental health (heavy users experience numerous physical problems, including headaches, back and neck strain, chronic fatigue, and more).

Another plus: the flexibility gained from being able to fit medical appointments or child care responsibilities into a daily schedule, particularly for working mothers. But the loss of the workplace as a place outside the home where it’s possible to gain validation as an adult and find camaraderie and support is a clear minus. And while the potential savings to government and other large employers from reducing the amount of office space they must own or rent may be significant, these savings often come at a cost. From an economic and political perspective, a large-scale shift to off-site work can seriously depress markets for office buildings and leave large downtown areas looking like ghost towns.

Detailed socio-economic research will be necessary to determine whether the pluses of hybrid working outweigh the minuses. Even then, the answers will likely be different depending on the perspective one brings to the issue. Working from home, for example, has entailed sharing workspace, computer time, and internet access with other family members. The last of these, in particular, can be problematic, especially in rural areas where internet service had never been all that good to begin with and where the increased demand resulting from large numbers of people working from home led to frequent service failures, which in turn were a significant disruption to the job at hand.

Also making the job harder was the challenge of communicating with workers through Zoom or other new technologies. Bringing people together became increasingly difficult—and increasingly unproductive when it did occur. It’s entirely possible such challenges will only get worse as companies find ways to blend on-site workers with those still operating from home.

The one thing that can be said with some degree of certainty is that achieving the complicated transition to a part in-person, part remote workplace requires, and will require, tolerance, understanding, and goodwill, as well as effective communication between the workplace parties. The key to post-pandemic organizational success, says Carleton University business professor Linda Duxbury, who researched remote work during the pandemic, is flexibility and a willingness to listen to employees and hear what their needs are. “You’ve got to actually start talking to your people and stop pretending that there is some magical plan you can implement and it’ll be a miracle.”

In particular, Duxbury says, there is no one ideal schedule that can be applied to all or even most workers in hybrid post-pandemic workplaces. At least in the near future, she suggests, work schedules are likely to become highly individualized, to the degree that there may not even be any single “normal” work-hours arrangement.

The possible variations in work schedules are nearly infinite, with some employers asking only that employees come into the work site one day a week, or even one or two days a month, and others wanting their staff on site as many as three or four days a week. About a year into the post-pandemic return to work, one trend that was observed in certain Canadian cities was a modest preference for taking at-home days on Mondays and Fridays. Foot traffic in urban centres such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa was found to be lightest on those two days and heaviest Tuesdays through Thursdays. Similarly, public transit use in Toronto was found to be heavier on the mid-week days and lighter on Mondays and Fridays.

A second trend is a hardening of employer attitudes around hybrid scheduling, a growing insistence that employees spend significantly more time on site. This tough new approach has appeared in both public and private sectors and in both Canada and the United States. Initially (in early 2022), employers were cautious, almost hesitant, about attempting to impose any particular arrangement. Indeed, so cautious were many Canadian employers that Financial Post writer Victoria Wells, quoting the results of a worker survey on hybrid work schedules, found many employees wishing their employers would impose more structure; it appeared that many workers simply didn’t know where they stood under the new regime.

Elon Musk’s complete reversal of Twitter’s—now X—previous work-from-home policy sent shock waves not just through the company but through the entire IT community. On taking over control of the company in the fall of 2022, Musk wasted no time ending the earlier permissive policy. “The road ahead is arduous,” he wrote in a memo to staff soon after taking over, “and will require intense work to succeed.” Under the new regime, remote work would no longer be allowed except for those with specific exemptions. Musk also stated that Twitter employees were expected to be in the office for forty hours per week, which he pointed out was less than what he expected of his factory workers at his other companies.

But this was only the warm-up act. Musk emailed an ultimatum to employees on November 15, 2022: Commit to a new “hardcore” Twitter or leave the company with severance pay. Employees were told they had to sign a pledge to stay on with the company. Anyone not signing the pledge by 5 p.m. Eastern time on November 16 would receive three months of severance pay, the email said.

If Musk’s aim was to reduce the size of his workforce—it’s difficult to find any other rationale for such a message—he succeeded, perhaps beyond his wildest dreams. Taking him at his word, disgruntled employees left by the hundreds.

Technology writer Cindy Davis suggests that Musk’s actions at X may be a sign that the hybrid workplace experiment is entering a new phase, with full-time work or a return to on-site work becoming the norm as the economy becomes more uncertain and the job market tightens. But there are early indications of how Musk’s move has played out. Few of them look good for the company.

To say that X hasn’t thrived under its new regime would be to put things very mildly. On March 6, 2023, it experienced its sixth outage of that still very young year. The repeated outages have done little to inspire confidence in a company already seriously embattled on several other fronts. Advertising revenue, X’s single biggest source of income, has by Musk’s own admission taken a “massive” hit since his takeover. One source reported that X’s daily revenue in January 2023 was down 40 percent from the previous year. The company has also become involved in disputes with its suppliers of office space, janitorial supplies, and even web-hosting services, resulting from its failure to pay the bills owed for those services, and with Amazon Web Services over the cost of its cloud computing service.

One can’t blame all of these problems on Musk’s new work schedule policy. But it certainly hasn’t helped. Some observers, such as Steven Murdoch, professor of security engineering at University College, London, have suggested that staff reductions, particularly in the engineering team, have resulted in reduced monitoring and oversight, which in turn has meant that problems that in the past might have been caught while they were still small have turned into big ones. And the hit to the company’s reputation may take years to repair, putting X at a severe disadvantage in what is still a highly competitive job market for engineers and other IT staff.

What X has gone through in recent months would not appear to augur well for the future of hardline back-to-the-office policies. Also instructive in this connection is the experience of people like New York City mayor Eric Adams, an early back-to-the-office “hawk,” who by February of 2022 was saying that New York workers needed to return to the office—mocking people who, he said, were afraid of COVID-19 on Monday but were out at clubs on Sunday—and who in June of 2022 imposed a full-time back-to-the-office policy on city employees. Recently, Adams has begun backpedalling on the issue. The reason? Serious staff shortages in several key departments resulting from large numbers of unfilled positions. With the city already lagging behind the private sector with regard to employee compensation, the rigid requirement has put it at a severe competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis more flexible employers willing to consider a hybrid model. In effect conceding defeat on the location-of-work issue, Adams has admitted, “There’s a pulse shift that you have to go out now and compete.” If this means allowing city employees to work from home at least part of the time, then so be it.

It is, I think, particularly significant that Canada’s hybrid Parliament has been made effectively permanent and that the president of Canada’s Treasury Board has declared that hybrid work is here to stay. With hybrid work no longer temporary, it’s time to take a closer look at the issues raised by “normalizing” such an arrangement. These include blurring the line between work time and personal time. It may be emotionally and even logistically difficult for employees to “just say no” to responding to communications arriving outside of what they believe are their work hours. As difficult as making the distinction may be, employees must nonetheless do so in order to preserve their sanity. In this regard, a well-defined right to disconnect—whether one enshrined in legislation, as in Ontario and several European countries, or one contained in a company policy—is of huge advantage to employees.

Another issue around hybrid work schedules, particularly schedules that aren’t the same for all workers, is their potential for inadvertently creating a status divide based on the amount of time a worker spends at the office. As Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen have noted in Out of Office, hybrid work schedules threaten to deepen already existing divides between those currently in favour with the boss and those less so. Say Warzel and Petersen, “Single parents, workers with elderly family members, disabled employees, and those who simply don’t want to live in proximity to the office risk being overshadowed by those who come in every day. And even if a manager is careful, a recency and proximity bias might emerge.”

The result, again, is good for nobody. “Ambitious, competitive employees will sacrifice remote flexibility and work relentlessly in person, while remote employees, motivated by the anxiety of not seeming productive, will live in fear of managers and compensate with overwork. Both sides end up driving the other to misery.”

For all of the problems associated with hybrid work schedules—and, as noted, there are a good many—their potential to help organizations recruit and retain staff suggests that they will be with us for some time to come. I can do no better than repeat Duxbury’s advice, cited earlier, on the need for flexibility, good employer–employee communication, and understanding. Organizations following that advice are likely to fare much better in the years to come than those taking the “My way or the highway!” approach promulgated by Musk and his ilk.

Excerpted from Work Less: New Strategies for a Changing Workplace by Jon Peirce. Copyright © 2024 Jon Peirce. Published by Dundurn Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Jon Peirce
Jon Peirce has been writing about work hours and the world of work for much of the past twenty-five years. The author of Canadian Industrial Relations, he lives and writes in Gatineau, Quebec.