Surveys show that a hybrid workplace, in which employees spend some days in the office and some at home, is the most favored post-pandemic return-to-work plan for American businesses, says Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who's been studying remote work for more than a decade. And most companies plan to let employees decide for themselves which days to work at home, either individually or as teams.
That's a terrible idea, Bloom warns. "Quite often, people will say, as long as my employees are doing their jobs, I'm going to let them choose. This is a free country and I believe in performance-based management," he said in a keynote at the recent PagerDuty Summit. Instead, Bloom tells companies that executives should dictate employees' work from home schedules. Though he initially favored giving employees the choice, his research over the past few months has made him "quite nervous" about that approach, he said.
Here's the trouble Bloom foresees.
1. The Wednesday problem.
Bloom and his team have surveyed more than 30,000 working-age Americans since May 2020, he said. When asked about their return-to-the office preferences, 21 percent said they wanted to work in the office five days a week. Thirty-two percent said they wanted to work at home five days a week. The rest--just under half--hoped to work in the office somewhere between one and four days a week.
The fact that so many people want a hybrid workweek is one reason the concept is popular among employers. So far, so good. But then Bloom and his team went on to ask: "If you got to work from home two days per week, which two days would you choose?" You can probably guess the results. Sixty-four percent picked Fridays as one of their work-from-home days, followed by Mondays at 56 percent. Only 18 percent wanted to work from home on Wednesdays.
You can see how letting people choose could quickly become a logistical nightmare, with offices nearly empty on Fridays and full to near-capacity on Wednesdays. That imbalance is an obvious problem for companies that reduced office space as a way to offset some of the pandemic's economic effects. On the other hand, as Bloom noted, many businesses have chosen to retain their pre-pandemic office space and use hybrid work schedules to physically separate employees, allowing for better social distancing. That's an excellent idea because, even though widespread vaccination has slowed the spread of Covid-19 in the U.S., the pandemic is not completely behind us and vaccinated people can carry the virus and pass it to others, such as unvaccinated children. If 82 percent of your employers come to the office on Wednesdays, though, social distancing will be difficult or impossible.
2. The meeting problem.
Have you ever participated in a meeting where some people were in a conference room and others joined remotely? I have, and the experience, frankly, sucks. "I hear endless complaints about it," Bloom said. "'There are three of us at home and three in the office, but they are in a conference room on one screen, they're little heads, I can hardly see them. Sometimes I'll say something controversial and I can see the folks in the conference room kind of whispering and I feel like there are two meetings going on.'"
Some companies have decided to address this by having everyone join the meeting from their laptops, even if some people are down the hall from each other at the office. The obvious problem with this is that it can leave those employees wondering why they bothered to put on adult clothes and commute in. The less obvious problem is that, if the topic of the meeting is important or controversial, on-site participants will inevitably continue the conversation informally, while walking down the hall or over coffee, after the official meeting is concluded. Those at home will be left out.
3. The fairness problem.
Bloom's earlier research found that people who work remotely full time or most of the time are much less likely to be promoted than their colleagues who work on site. That's not surprising, but it is a big problem because among college educated people with children, women are 50 percent more likely to opt for working from home. Which means that if you allow employees to choose whether to work at home or in the office, you may be setting yourself up for a severe imbalance between women and men in senior positions. Less wealthy employees who have a longer commute to work, or must take public transportation, are also likelier to opt for working at home, and thus miss out on promotions, he added.
There's a flip side to this fairness problem as well. In most companies, not everyone can work remotely. In fact, Bloom's research shows, only half of U.S. employees worked from home because of Covid-19. "Those who could not work from home have had a pretty bad pandemic," Bloom said in a follow-up interview. As businesses re-open, those employees will miss out on the perk of working from home as well.
The result is a lot of resentment. "Managers have told me there's anger in their companies, and people get really upset about it," Bloom says. There isn't a great solution, he says, but he recommends that companies compensate stuck-in-the-office employees with additional money. Research shows that employees value the ability to work at home at about 6 to 8 percent of their salaries. So Bloom thinks a 5 percent bonus or more makes sense for employees who don't have the option to work from home "as kind of a make-good."
There's a lot to be said for the hybrid workplace. Even if that weren't true, many businesses will have to implement it to attract and retain the talent they need in this tight labor market. But the approach comes with some challenges. Make sure to consider them all when planning your remote-work policy.