Insights / All Leadership / Article

Think Hybrid Work Doesn’t Work? The Data Disagrees

November 21, 2022

Contributor: Graham Waller

If you don’t think hybrid work models work, you’re probably still fixating on location. For more success, pivot to focus on being more human-centric.

As economic conditions sour, you may be tempted to take back more control over work — for example, by mandating a rigid return to the office. Our data shows that would be a big mistake.

We surveyed more than 400 employees and leaders of organizations around the world who have worked consistently under some kind of hybrid-work model since the pandemic. Most of those work models delivered below-average outcomes. But one is wildly successful.

Our findings show that the failing models are all location-centric, attaching some kind of rigid on-site requirement. Only one model scored above average — “hybrid-flexible,” which offers leaders and employees some flexibility to choose where they work from.

More successful still is a hybrid-flexible model that incorporates other key elements of human-centric work design — that is location flexibility plus the practices of  intentional collaboration and empathy-based management. 

You can’t just port over your work and management approaches from an on-site environment and expect them to work in a hybrid world, but if you transition successfully to a human-centric hybrid approach, our data shows you can clearly foil flight and power performance among employees.

Location-centric hybrid-work models struggle

Notably, while many organizations describe their strategies as hybrid, the focus is often on just one dimension: how flexible they want to be around where employees work. 

Some location-centric models are fully remote or fully on-site. Some mandate office visits (either because the boss expects them or the organization’s policies demand it), and others claim to be hybrid-first but mandate location anyway (for example, a specific number of days a week). 

By contrast, hybrid-flexible models are malleable, granting employees and teams some autonomy regarding the mix of on-site and remote work so they can best achieve their outcomes (or do their best work). This model drives far superior employee performance than any of the more rigid location-based models, as well as higher intent to stay and lower fatigue.

Human-centric, flexible work design is most successful

Human-centric work design goes even further than hybrid-flexible to include opportunities for intentional collaboration and empathy-based management. We have been studying human-centric work design for more than a year, but this latest survey confirmed from practitioners that key organizational benefits — increased employee performance, intent to stay and reduced fatigue — widely correlate to greater levels of location flexibility, intentional collaboration and empathy-based management.

The impact of these benefits is cumulative, making the human-centric model most productive for organizations and employees.

Our research concludes that organizations with the most human-centric work environments are 3.8 times more likely to see high employee performance, 3.2 times more likely to enjoy high intent to stay among employees and 3.1 times more likely to see low levels of fatigue among employees than those organizations with far fewer human-centric attributes.

Effective hybrid models require accountable employee autonomy

Implementing human-centric hybrid work models is not possible if you can’t grant employees and teams autonomy over how, when and where they work. Notably, our survey shows that autonomy in and of itself drives big dividends. For instance:

  • Employees who are allowed to decide when they work are 2.3 times more likely to achieve higher performance than employees without autonomy. 

  • Autonomy also reduces worker fatigue by 1.9 times (which is critical for sustaining performance over time).

  • Autonomy makes people 2.3 times more likely to stay with the organization, which is essential for winning the talent challenge and competing with fully staffed, talented teams. 

That’s not to say that granting autonomy results in total flexibility for employees. In fact, human-centric work design depends on employees and teams being held accountable and in their leveraging autonomy not as a right but as a proven means to achieve their outcomes.

Three key components of effective human-centric work design

Human-centric hybrid models design work around human needs, rather than expecting humans to conform to legacy practices or locations that constrain them. This requires a fundamental shift in key elements of work experience and rigorous attention, in particular, to three key components of successful human-centric work experience.

No. 1: Flexible work experience

Providing work location flexibility is a key element of employee autonomy, but not the only one. Offering a reasonable choice as to where people will work, as well as on which days and during which hours, allows each employee to find the work-life balance that suits them best. 

If leaders offer this kind of flexible work experience, our data shows the likelihood of employees staying with the organization, experiencing less fatigue and achieving high performance is 1.5 to 1.7 times greater than when such human-centric attributes aren’t available.

No. 2: Intentional collaboration

Your approach to collaboration is also key to human-centric work design. Our survey tested five modes of collaboration on a spectrum from serendipity to intentionality, and the results may surprise you.

Many organizations still base their work models on assumptions that productive collaboration is all about synchronized, in-person interactions. Our data shows that relying on these models alone yields below-average results. Adding asynchronous collaboration dramatically improves outcomes, especially if the organization is purposeful about incorporating both modes into working practices.

But the most effective enterprises plan collaboration deliberately — intentionally devising a mix of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration that works best for the task at hand and the people executing it. 

Intentional collaboration optimizes collective performance and innovation while accommodating individual preferences, so people can contribute their best work. But adding this intentionality to the other pieces of the human-centric model drives even better overall outcomes.

No. 3: Empathy-based management

Your management approach is also a factor. Employees want to know that they matter to the enterprise and feel trusted. Management must demonstrate its regard through their actions that affect employees. 

Traditionally, managers have relied on visibility to guide their management approach. In other words, they judge and manage based on what they see. To make up for the limited visibility in the hybrid world, many organizations try to recreate it by, for example, direct monitoring or adding manager/direct report check-ins. 

Our survey tested varying degrees of oversight and found the best outcomes occurred at organizations where leaders are empathetic to employees needs. The worst outcomes were at organizations where managers mandate that workers be on-site so they can watch them. 

Empathetic managers have an outsize impact on employee outcomes, but again, incorporating empathy into a comprehensive human-centric design drives the best overall outcomes.

Employee input is critical for successful implementation

Lastly, the way enterprises implement their work design matters. Imposing new work models on employees without their input, or assuming your initial model is a one-and-done, will result in inferior outcomes. Work models need to evolve with business conditions and employee needs, so expect to keep adjusting work design over 12 to 18 months.

Our survey found strong benefits from continuing to adjust the work model and explicitly seeking employee input. Employees who provided strong input into the postpandemic work design were 2.5 times more likely to achieve high performance — and four times more likely to report lower fatigue. 

How should you seek employee input? Our survey showed that active co-creation of work models is the least used but most productive approach — raising intent to stay by 60%, for instance. But don’t just engage employees directly in the design and implementation process. Use other engagement methods to make sure you gather sufficient input from employees.

In short:

  • Four of the five location-centric hybrid-work models that Gartner tested delivered below-average outcomes. 

  • “Hybrid-flexible” models that offer employees more flexibility to choose where they work fared better, and this flexibility is a critical component of “human-centric” work design.

  • Other must-haves for human-centric hybrid work design are intentional collaboration opportunities and empathetic management, but you’ll also need to grant employees autonomy and get them actively engaged in implementation.

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