As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes in the United States, many organizations are considering a hybrid workplace model that combines remote and in-person work. But skeptics wonder: Does a hybrid workplace make people feel disconnected, overextended, and burned out? Based on a rigorous five-year study, we conclude that the answer is: not necessarily. A hybrid workplace can be more effective than a traditional one — if it’s managed well.
As part of a research team, we followed approximately 1,000 US employees and managers in the IT division of a Fortune 500 company over several years, before the pandemic. Executives at the company had brought us in because they were concerned about employee burnout and wanted to retain valuable employees.
We ran an experiment by taking 56 work groups within this IT division and randomly assigning some of them to participate in a work redesign initiative. The others continued working under the existing company policies, as a control group. In the work redesign initiative, teams collaboratively identified smart and appealing new ways of working — including greater options for remote work. However, this hybrid workplace model was just one element of a broader strategy that included retraining managers, rethinking meetings, and helping to prevent employee burnout in a way that also strengthened the company’s bottom line.
Drawing on our study, we suggest five principles for creating a hybrid workplace that will work well for both employees and the organization:
1. Establish how people will work together. Successful hybrid work arrangements require careful attention to how employees connect with managers, customers, and one another, because there are often worries about how the work will get done when employees are in different locations. In fact, remote work can prompt conversations about coordination that probably should happen in traditional workplaces but often don’t. For example, as part of the work redesign initiative in our study, teams discussed how people would communicate, the time frame in which they would respond to each other, and how social ties would be maintained to promote camaraderie and effective collaboration.
One team created a new online dashboard so each person could easily see the status of a given project — regardless of whether they were working at home or on a different schedule. Another team began a routine of spending the first 15 minutes of their Friday conference call catching up on their social lives.
2. Provide employees with greater choice than many had before the pandemic, and support people’s personal and family priorities. In our study, employees’ perceptions of having choices and support was critical for improving their job satisfaction and mental health. It mattered more than the exact number of days in the office or the exact span of work hours. Employees in our study had almost full control over their work locations and schedules, but they still averaged 55 percent of their work hours on-site. This average reflected different preferences: Some people chose to work at home most days, while others chose to work in the office the vast majority of the time.
3. Let work effectiveness guide decisions. The nature of the work needs to drive the options that are on the table. For example, people who provide direct customer service may need to be in the workplace at least some days (but not necessarily every day). Brainstorming and problem-solving tasks may flow better with in-person dialogue. In our study, many teams decided to hold certain “whiteboarding” and client meetings in person.
Other pre-pandemic studies of remote work found that exclusively working from home is tricky, with moderate amounts of remote work usually the sweet spot. Such a hybrid model resulted in the highest job satisfaction as well as the strongest job performance and relationships with coworkers. Those who were exclusively working from home reported greater isolation that negatively affected their job performance.
With a hybrid model, employees need to explicitly dedicate time to connection and informal interactions, with manager support for virtual social time and for in-person gatherings.
4. Encourage staff to set boundaries to avoid burnout.
Digital technologies enabling remote work often blur the boundaries between work and personal life, making it harder for managers and employees alike to set limits on their work hours. Left unchecked, such “always-on” work demands can precipitate overload and exhaustion.
In our work redesign initiative, managers and employees worked together to identify low-value work — for example, a regular meeting that was attended by more people than were needed — and reduced it. Unplugging from email and chat at times to do “deep work” was introduced as a smart strategy, and employees were encouraged to take time away from work to rest and recover and supported when they did it — on vacation days but also during evenings and weekends. With those safeguards in place, we saw that working from home increased but total work hours didn’t.
5. Train managers to adapt to a different role. A hybrid workplace requires new management skills. In our study, managers were asked to focus on managing the work results rather than employees’ schedules. It’s important for managers to let go of past attitudes about remote work — namely that working from home was often suspect and seen as an accommodation that was granted on a case-by-case basis. That model unintentionally reinforced gender inequalities as well, because more women and mothers pursued this stigmatized option. Remote work needs to be recognized as a fully legitimate option, with a focus on monitoring results.
Compared with their peers in the same Fortune 500 company who served as a control group, employees in the work redesign experiment we studied reported higher job satisfaction, better work-life integration, better sleep, better mental health, and less burnout. The business also benefited because these employees were 40 percent less likely to quit than those in the control group. By reducing costs associated with employee turnover, the work redesign saved the company money.
There has never been a better time for organizations to redesign how work is done and create a hybrid workplace. Our hope is that after this past year’s normalization of remote work, more organizations will stop rewarding face time in favor of a future where a variety of work patterns are recognized as productive and welcome.
Erin L. Kelly is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. Phyllis Moen holds the McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in sociology at the University of Minnesota. They are the authors of the book “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.”