Is hybrid work “the worst of both worlds”?

July 10, 2023

Hybrid work is “the hell of half measures” and “the worst of both worlds”, according to Yelp CEO and cofounder Jeremy Stoppelman. But is there any justification for this backlash to hybrid?

Let’s start with some definitions.

Hybrid work is “the hell of half measures” and “the worst of both worlds”, according to Yelp CEO and cofounder Jeremy Stoppelman.

Strong words, especially considering that hybrid has been trumpeted as the solution for everything from employee engagement to the imminent destruction of the planet in a great ball of fire. But is there any justification for this backlash to hybrid?

A hybrid by any other name

Thanks to the jumble of connotations and associated baggage we all have, it’s said that there’s no word that any two humans use in the same way. But hybrid working is a term that’s particularly subject to misappropriation and overuse. That’s partly because it’s become the term du jour, as companies uncertain of their post-covid workplace strategy default to this handy catch-all. But for our purposes we will require a definition.

Acas defines hybrid working as “a type of flexible working where an employee splits their time between the workplace and remote working.” They point out that working from home is the most common type of remote work. This definition obviously allows for a lot of stretch: does the split take place over the course of a week or the course of a month? Is it compulsory to come into the office and if so are there mandated days? Could employees work remotely in a different city or country for a while?

However, the widespread use of the expression means that generally speaking “hybrid working” has taken on a more limited definition. For most people, hybrid working means a system where they have to come into the office on a set number of days each week and are allowed to work remotely the rest of the time. Since this is the definition that Stoppelman seems to be using, it will serve as a working definition here.

The perfect compromise?

Before we dive into all the reasons why Stoppelman is (rightly) concerned about hybrid, let’s talk about the upsides.

Something which cannot be overlooked is that hybrid work is what employees want. In survey after survey, hybrid work comes out on top. As a general rule, most people like being able to spend some time working at home, for a whole spectrum of reasons, from being able to spend more time with their family to being able to work in their pants.

But they also crave interaction with their colleagues and acknowledge that in some situations the office is best for certain types of work, especially when it comes to collaboration. We all know those very particular questions that fall into the category of not-important-enough-for-a-dedicated-call-but-too-complex-for-a-message. In these situations nothing comes close to being able to talk to the person sharing the same space as you.

Neither fish nor fowl?

Unfortunately hybrid working doesn’t always work out like that. Rather like the roads being much nicer if everyone else stopped driving, hybrid would work much better if everyone just came in on the days you wanted to be in the office. Regrettably, people have this thing called “free will” which means that they have an annoying tendency to go into the office when it suits them and not you.

Many a person has made the trek into the office only to find themselves sitting on Zoom call after Zoom call with colleagues at home. For employees this means that hybrid working can turn out to be neither one thing or the other; they don’t have the connection of permanent in-office work but they also don’t have the freedom of complete remote work. They may end up looking enviously at friends who can travel while working or be frustrated at having to remain tied to the city in which their office is based.

All of this means that companies that choose to opt for hybrid find themselves at a distinct talent disadvantage. It’s been pointed out again and again that people would rather quit than go back to the office - handily illustrated by the recent high profile resignation of Ian Goodfellow, director of machine learning at Apple.

And while hybrid offers more flexibility than a return to the office dictat, those companies that go hybrid may find their employees struggling with the relative lack of freedom. As the neighbours of lottery winners will testify, we can’t help but compare ourselves to those around us - and if there’s a widespread shift to remote, companies may find themselves scrambling to keep up.

The other major talent disadvantage is that companies opting for hybrid are restricted to fishing in the talent pool near their office.

Finally, as Stoppelmann pointed out, with hybrid there can be a significant financial disadvantage as companies don’t get the benefit of reducing their office footprint if they choose to maintain their old office.

True hybrid: Trust, autonomy and choice

It’s clear there are many issues with hybrid as it is popularly defined. But the solution is not a binary choice between full-time work from home or work from the office. There is a way to make the most of the positives of hybrid while avoiding the negatives. To do so, we need to reconsider what hybrid truly means.

Returning to the Acas definition, we are reminded that hybrid working is a form of flexible working and that it involves the employee splitting their time between different working environments.

One huge benefit of this definition is that it places flexibility at its heart, ensuring that the employee has autonomy over their choice of workplaces. In this context, we can see that the conventional definition of hybrid is one that is being set up to fail - because it offers only an illusion of this flexibility; it’s merely the recycling of the old way of working with a couple of WFH days stuck on. It’s adopted by companies that really would prefer to go back to the way things were before the pandemic but know that it would cause uproar among their employees. Because of this bias towards the way things were, they’ve overlooked a once-in-a-generation opportunity in favour of taking the path of least resistance.

True hybrid - the hybrid of the future - isn’t a tepid compromise that makes nobody happy. Instead, it’s a conscious choice to use flexibility to their advantage, giving people the choice, autonomy and trust to work from where suits them best on any given day and forming future workplace strategy based on the data they acquire from giving their employees this flexibility. In short, it’s a heaven of the best of both worlds, not the hell of half-measures.