3 Challenges to Hybrid Work — and How to Overcome Them

Managers struggling to implement hybrid work policies confront three key challenges: scheduling, culture, and productivity. Research into companies allowing employees to be both remote and in-person suggest these obstacles can be overcome. In scheduling, shift to a focus not on how often workers are in, but which activities are better done in the office. To build and maintain culture, encourage employees to come in not for the organization or themselves but for their colleagues. And to ensure productivity, avoid surveillance in favor of support.

More than four years after the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated an immediate shift to remote knowledge work, it’s clear that, despite some organizations’ attempts to lure employees back to the office full-time, hybrid work arrangements are here to stay. And yet employers are still struggling with  implementation. In particular, the managers we have talked to point to three key issues: scheduling, culture, and productivity.


Many organizations have settled on a set combination of remote and onsite work, such as three in-office days, say Tuesday to Thursday, and two work-from-home days, say Monday and Friday. However, employees don’t always adhere to those guidelines. Indeed, tracking data suggests that some are not coming in as often as expected (or mandated); consider the trend of “coffee badging” where employees put in a brief appearance at the office but take off at the earliest opportunity. We’ve also heard managers express frustration about employees using onsite days rather than work-from-home ones for medical appointments or leave, resulting in even less time with colleagues. In short, even though employers are doing whatever they can to bring people in — free meals, less restrictive dress codes, social events, and nicer office spaces — these efforts do not appear to be working.

To overcome this challenge, we recommend shifting the focus from how often your people should be in the office to when that physical presence and togetherness is important. For example, when employees are new to the organization and getting onboarded and trained, it is more critical for them to come in and connect in person with key colleagues. Likewise, during busy periods, or when teamwork and collaborative decision-making is required, employers should have greater leeway to mandate and enforce attendance; if the reasoning is effectively communicated, employees are more likely to understand and accept the policy. For instance, it is completely reasonable to request that employees attend critical meetings in person. This approach seems to be working for J.M. Smucker, which requires employees at its headquarters to be physically present during 22 “core” weeks, which are announced one year in advance.


Many leaders also worry about the difficulty of building and sustaining corporate culture when employees are physically together less often, meeting mostly virtually, and often multitasking rather than fully engaging in those get-togethers. Some managers have told us that even when their team members are in the office together they still meet via Zoom or Teams rather than face-to-face. They also report that people seem more eager to take off as soon as the workday ends, leading to poorly attended happy hours and other social events.

Again, we suggest that organizations reframe their “ask” to employees. Instead of encouraging people to come to the office to boost the organization’s culture and their own interaction with peers, try appealing to their motivation to help others. Research on prosocial impact suggests that will be more effective than emphasizing the benefits to the company or even themselves. (In one study, for example, medical workers were more likely to wash their hands when signs highlighted patient rather than personal safety.) Explain how employees’ presence in the office might help coworkers, customers, or clients and make them more effective mentors, allies, and advocates. Research also suggests that people especially value the opportunity to interact with the beneficiaries of their work, so arranging such encounters might also help entice workers to come in more often.


Finally, some supervisors are concerned by their lack of insight into what exactly employees are doing when working remotely. While some roles (e.g., sales) have clear performance metrics, others don’t, and while workers may feel equally or more productive at home versus the office, there is no hard evidence to back them up. Further, given stories about the growth of weekday yoga and golf and employees holding down multiple full-time jobs — sometimes labelled “overemployed,” “double-dippers,” or “polyworkers” — we can understand managers’ worries.

Our advice is to first accept the reality that managing people is more difficult in a hybrid world. Leaders must learn to monitor their employees’ performance and give adequate support and feedback in a way that is transparent but not too heavy-handed. For instance, checking in on employees to see what they are doing and asking how you can help them is different than checking up on employees to make sure they are being productive, asking for unnecessary reports and updates, or using electronic surveillance. Managers might also want to review and revise employees’ job descriptions and responsibilities and annual goals to focus on deliverables. For instance, for some employees, it could be helpful to identify and articulate what specific tasks or objectives should be achieved on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis. Finally, with research suggesting that most employees working from home actually put in longer hours, managers must resist the tendency to suspect their employees of shirking (and be mindful of biases that may make them even more suspicious of women in this regard).

Managers in hybrid workplaces should work with their organizations to free up more of their time for the interpersonal aspects of management. They can also seek formal training to develop more of the knowledge and skills they need to manage remote workers and informal opportunities (e.g., lunch and learns) to share best practices and discuss challenges with peers. For instance, we have heard from organizations looking for opportunities to bring together managers and employees to share thoughts and opinions about which aspects of their return-to-office policies are working — and which need improvement. Such conversations can help organizations determine what practices should be reconsidered and reimagined in order to attract, motivate, and retain employees.

Leading teams, Talent management, Hybrid work, Managing employees, Digital Article

Mark C. Bolino
Mark C. Bolino is the David L. Boren Professor and the Michael F. Price Chair in International Business at the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business. His research focuses on understanding how an organization can inspire its employees to go the extra mile without compromising their personal well-being.

Corey Phelps
Corey Phelps is the dean, the Fred E. Brown Chair of Business, and a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business. His research explores how organizations innovate, grow, and adapt to changing competitive conditions.

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