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The Reality of Hybrid Working From Home: The Importance of Social Context

Datum:18 april 2023
Auteur:Franzisca Fastje
The Reality of Hybrid Working From Home: The Importance of Social Context
The Reality of Hybrid Working From Home: The Importance of Social Context

The Netherlands has been a pioneer in the field of working from home (WFH) already before the COVID pandemic, with more than 30% of the working population WFH at least once a week [1]. Now, we see that WFH is growing further with a shift to WFH to a ‘moderate’ extent of 2-3 days/week - commonly called hybrid WFH [2].

This mix of work locations is believed to combine the best of both worlds: “…workers enjoy the flexibility and yet are not as isolated compared to peers who are predominantly working from home” [3].  But, is this belief based on solid evidence or just wishful thinking? In this blog post, I critically assess the benefits and challenges of hybrid WFH and provide practical tips for making it work for you and your team.

First, the rosy expectations. Employees who can work from home can increasingly fit their work schedules to their personal preferences and the characteristics of their work tasks. In the context of hybrid WFH, flexibility in scheduling homeworking days is seen as a way to skip a potentially long commute, fit in a doctor’s appointment during lunch break, and engage in individual-focused activities that require distraction-free time (e.g., writing, coding). Since flexibility is critical in increasing productivity and improving work-life balance, hybrid WFH has become crucial in retaining employees and ensuring organizational success.

Also, hybrid WFH is suggested to offset feelings of isolation many of us reported due to forced WFH during the pandemic. Scholars argue that employees who are moderately WFH are not as isolated compared to peers who are predominantly WFH.

Despite these rosy expectations, many argue that hybrid WFH is much more challenging than being fully remote or in the office. As most of us work in groups and rely on other group members´ input, hybrid WFH likely disrupts smooth coordination and communication. For example, trouble hearing others, being forgotten, or getting talked over in hybrid meetings have become the norm rather than the exception. In the words of the Head of Workplace at LinkedIn, Brett Hautop, “Hybrid is most definitely tougher than completely in-person or completely remote.”

Additionally, the flexibility ingrained in hybrid WFH creates much uncertainty around social interaction because “it is not clear who will be in, and who won’t, on any particular day” [4]. As such, it complicates relationship building and limits access to social resources like spontaneous informal chats and social support. When sustained over extended periods, a lack of social resources can spiral into emotional exhaustion, decreased performance, and reduced job satisfaction [5].

Considering the prevalence of hybrid WFH and the debate around its benefits (e.g., productivity, work-life balance), how can we advance our understanding of the implications? Our recent research on hybrid WFH among knowledge workers in the Netherlands provides some new insights that have not been considered before.

We demonstrate that, in a context where WFH has become mainstream and where the office is no longer the default work location, it becomes essential to not only focus on the WFH behavior (i.e., WFH intensity) of an individual employee but also to consider others in the same social context (e.g., workgroup). This becomes particularly important when considering the WFH-social isolation linkage, as other group members may critically influence the availability of meaningful interaction and social support.

Our results show that hybrid WFH represents the worst of both worlds regarding its effects on social isolation. By jointly considering the individual´s average WFH intensity and that of others in the same workgroup, we find that perceived social isolation is highest when everyone adopts hybrid WFH compared to when everyone is mostly WFH or not at all. Relying on our insights, we suggest three measures that might help mitigate the potential negative implications of hybrid WFH on social isolation:

1.      Introduce anchor days. Many organizations are experimenting with introducing work policies that require employees to come into the office on the same day. Doing so provides more clarity on how to interact (i.e., virtually vs. in-person) and reduces the unpredictability of social interaction linked to hybrid WFH. This measure may be particularly beneficial when (a) employees are engaged in tasks with similar WFH demands and (b) group members share relatively homogenous WFH preferences.

2.      Make fostering interpersonal connections a priority. Given that hybrid WFH hinders social interaction and relationship building, scheduling regular, serendipitous moments for connection is crucial. For example, holding periodic check-ins, using informal messaging tools (e.g., Slack), or organizing a short in-person retreat may help build more connections among group members.

3.      Limit hybrid WFH where possible. Finally, since most employers and employees prefer hybrid WFH, it is utopian to banish hybrid WFH completely. However, a way to help mitigate the risk of fragmented, unpredictable social interaction associated with this work mode may be to develop clear guidelines for what tasks to stay at home for and to align WFH schedules with key coworkers, provided that those are a crucial provider of (social) resources.

In conclusion, hybrid WFH has emerged as a strategy to provide flexibility and mitigate feelings of social isolation. Nevertheless, hybrid WFH likely does the opposite by making social interactions more unpredictable, challenging, and fragmented. We provide three essential measures to mitigate the negative aspects of hybrid WFH.

[1] European Commission. (2020). Telework in the EU before and after the COVID-19: where we were, where we head to. https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2021-06/jrc120945_policy_brief_-_covid_and_telework_final.pdf

[2] Bloom, N., Han, R., & Liang, J. (2022). How hybrid working from home works out (No. w30292). National Bureau of Economic Research.

[3] Choudhury, P., Khanna, T., Makridis, C., & Schirmann, K. (2022). Is hybrid work the best of both worlds? Evidence from a field experiment. Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper, (22-063), 22-063.

[4] Parker, S. (2020, June 23). Best of Both Worlds or Confusion? “Hybridizing” Needed to Juggle Back and Forth Home-Office Working. Centre For Transformative Work Design.

[5] Sahai, S., Ciby, M. A., & Kahwaji, A. T. (2020). Workplace isolation: a systematic review and synthesis. International Journal of Management (IJM)11(12), 2745-58.

About the author:

Franzisca Fastje (f.fastje rug.nl) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen. Her main research interests center around modern team arrangements and sustained employee well-being.