Everywhere companies are choosing between returning to the office or hybrid working models; they are the only options, right?


In fact, they aren’t even the two options that should be discussed; hybrid working isn’t an endpoint, if it is anything it is simply a stop on the journey to fully remote-first working. The only options that should be debated are office-based or fully remote.

In this article, we will explore hybrid vs remote, explain the differences and similarities, and suggest which is more sustainable.

What is the difference between hybrid and remote work?

Hybrid work is based around a central location, usually an office, with employees working some of the time at that location and some of the time away from that location, the office is always considered the default work location. Remote work does not involve any central location for the company, employees are free to work wherever they want to; they are fully remote without the need to report into a central or local office.

How did we get here?

Faced with the immediate need to continue working whilst Covid raged, many companies turned to the working from home model out of necessity. Their approach to managing this was more in line with disaster recovery planning than any broader strategic initiatives. And that’s fine, as for many companies that is exactly what they were addressing, business continuity.

Adopted out of necessity, employees and employers have gotten used to this “new normal” as it has gone on for so long, but remember; disaster recovery plans are perfect for recovering, not for basing long term strategic business models on. You don’t want to be sat in a lifeboat and think you are actually sailing.

“You’re on mute” eventually morphed into Zoom fatigue as meetings were scheduled back to back for entire days; easy to do when predatory apps carve through your work diary to find when you are ”free”. This happened because not many people knew how to stop it from happening. Add into the mix the question, “How do you know people are working when they are at home?” and there is a lot of noise mixed in with the signals about working from home.

The working from home model that employers and employees adopted in response to lockdowns wasn’t well planned or structured by either party, due to time pressures, and yet the majority of employees and employers saw productivity increase.

With many referring to this way of working as remote work and others refer to it as hybrid work, there needs to be some clarity around these terms, whilst they may seem interchangeable they are very different.

Should you continue with hybrid work or remote work?

Having had to accommodate working from home models as an alternative to working from an office, the majority of employers and employees are now faced with a choice on how to continue now their work location options are not being determined by government policy. The question every organisation has to address is how best to prepare for a post-Covid workforce?

There is a huge amount of research supporting employees’ desire to remain working remotely: 48% of employees believe their organisational culture has changed and improved during the COVID-19 pandemic, while only 31% believe it has worsened leading to a poorer employee experience.

Having experienced the flexibility, better quality, and work-life balance that remote working provides, 90% of employees want continued flexibility in where and when they work.

However, many organisations, and governments, are calling for a return to the office, a return to pre-pandemic life. This is partly due to the organisations’ experience of managing remote employees, an experience that was based on disaster recovery planning rather than any strategic imperative.

Most employees and employers used their lockdown work experiences to replicate office working practices using remote channels and tools, hence the Zoom fatigue.

Fully remote working is a strategic initiative that requires changes throughout organisations, chiefly in their mindset and culture. Not having addressed or considered these factors, many are simply adopting hybrid working practices (several days in the office and several days working remotely) as a compromise and tolerating remote employees but focussing on a central corporate hub.

Isn’t hybrid work the same as remote work?

Remote is a strategic, cultural, and operational mindset – not a temporary solution – it is a permanent way of doing things, the default setting; a strategic imperative to thrive and not just survive a temporary situation. Remote work does not involve any time in the office, remote employees do not congregate at any central hub several times a week, unlike hybrid working. Remote employees can work from anywhere, they are not restricted to working from home offices or any fixed location. Remote work arrangements are as flexible as the needs of remote workers.

Every employee in a remote work organisation is on a level playing field; hybrid working, where some employees are on-site and some are remote, by default, poses challenges for inclusivity as detailed in The Inclusion Initiative at  LSE report  “Hybrid Working: a dictionary of behavioural biases”. Distance bias, also known as proximity bias, is hard-wired into hybrid working models. The hybrid working employees are expected to visit the central office regularly, usually several times a week, as part of their work arrangements.

Companies with a strong office culture will have a difficult time translating it into a hybrid work model: quick meetings after the meetings where information is disseminated but not documented, social gatherings, employees forced to champion remote working as it is seen as a perk of their role, roles not advertised as remote but rather remote being negotiated into the working arrangements, out of sight is out of mind when it comes to promotions – all present major issues for the long-term success of a hybrid model. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Remote working requires companies to change their operational practices not just their culture. For example, full documentation of all processes is a foundation stone of remote working. Expecting remote hybrid employees to handle day-to-day duties with less information compared to in-person colleagues will, over time, lead to more mistakes, confusion, frustration, and even underperformance.

The subsequent impact on employee promotion may be unintended but it is real. In 2020 remote workers had an absence rate of 0.9% compared to 2.2% for in-office workers, however, between 2013 and 2020 hybrid workers were 38% less likely to get financial bonuses than in-office employees according to The Office for National Statistics.

Why choose remote as your destination?

Employees are very clearly expressing a preference for remote working, 68% would choose remote working options over in-office work, a huge majority, 85% believe that their colleagues and other employees prefer working remotely rather than working from the company office, and 61% would be willing to take a pay cut to maintain remote working status. Some workers even suggested they would take a 50% pay cut to avoid returning to the office.

What, for many, started as a temporary state of affairs has now shifted the balance of power from employers to employees, 85% of workers would prefer to apply for jobs that offer remote flexibility, while just 15% would apply for a position that requires total full-time office work.

Remote first working is a huge weapon in the armoury of organisations when recruiting and holding on to talent – hybrid isn’t even on the battlefield. Hybrid models continue to restrict your talent acquisition to the same fixed geographical limits as office-based models. Do you want to recruit the best people within 20 miles of your office or the entire country, or continent, or the world?

PwC recently announced that it will allow approximately 40,000 U.S. employees the ability to work remotely from anywhere in the continental U.S. and Deloitte will allow its 20,000 UK employees to choose how often they come into the office, if at all. In the battle for accountancy talent, what will that mean for KPMG & EY, move to remote-first or lose all their best people to their competitors?

The future is already here

65% of high growth organisations have enabled productivity anywhere workforce models and 69% of negative or no growth companies are still focused on where people are going to work, favouring all onsite rather than hybrid.

The problem with hybrid working is that it always puts the office before the people, it shouldn’t be an endpoint in your journey. If you need an office-based culture then embrace it, if you need a remote culture then embrace it: just don’t adopt hybrid working and think you have arrived at an endpoint.

Employees have made their choice and are making their voices heard: remote not office-based. So, it’s a simple choice, are you building your operating model on a strategic imperative that keeps you competitive, or on a hybrid model based on a temporary coping mechanism that tolerates remote work rather than leads with it?

It’s very simple, survive or thrive, the choice is yours, but the time to make a decision on your remote or hybrid working model is now.

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