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What will work look like post-pandemic?

There's no magic formula in creating hybrid workplaces, says change expert

It's been nearly two years since office workers around the globe began working from home following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many employers are already shifting their organizations toward a permanent mix of at-home and in-office work.

So can we safely predict that the future of work will lean heavily on a hybrid model?

Not so fast, says Dr. Linda Duxbury, a professor at Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, whose research centres on work-life balance, stress, worker wellbeing, and managing change.

“For some reason, we are thinking that we know what ‘hybrid’ is. That term is in the news all the time: ‘Hybrid is here to stay.’ But what is ‘hybrid’?” Duxbury said. “Nobody has a clue.”

Duxbury was featured as the keynote speaker during CROSHCon 2022, a day-long virtual series of presentations on the latest occupational health and safety research, which was hosted by Sudbury's Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) at Laurentian University on Jan. 21.

Since March 2020, Duxbury and her team of researchers have conducted weekly interviews with 26,000 people from across Canada about their experiences working from home during the pandemic.

What they've gleaned from that information is anything but conclusive.

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One in four people interviewed is eager to get back to the office. At the same time, one in four people wants to remain working at home. In between are those who want some mix of the two.

The range in responses shows how working at home — something Duxbury calls “enforced telework” as workers didn't voluntarily sign up for it — has impacted individual Canadians differently.

Those interviewed cited spotty internet service, increased parenting responsibilities, a lack of dedicated workspace, and pressure to be available for longer hours among the challenges they've faced while working from home, she noted.

Employees are also spending more time in virtual meetings, which doesn't allow for spontaneous discussion among colleagues and leaves workers less time to dedicate to their work, according to the data.

As a result, people working from home are putting in an average of 11 more hours per week than before the pandemic.

That finding counters reports in popular media that suggest productivity has increased over the last two years.

“Is it really an increase in productivity if it's an increase in hours worked? I would say no,” Duxbury said.

“Many employees have used the hours in the evening, weekends to catch up on work. Many employees have reported a total blurring of the boundary between work and life.”

People who identify as “integrators” have probably coped a little easier, Duxbury said. Integrators can shift seamlessly between their home and work lives, and don't mind blurring the lines between the two.

Think of the person who happily does their work from their couch or eats lunch while scrolling through their email.

“They engage in work activities outside of regular office hours, and they take care of personal matters during work time and they don't feel guilty about it,” Duxbury said. “You know, it's just part of life.”

The downside is that integrators can end up working too much, which interferes with their personal lives.

Meanwhile, “segmenters” — people who function better with clear boundaries between their work and home lives — have likely struggled more to stay productive during this time, Duxbury said.

These are people who need a designated workspace to concentrate and prefer defined start and stop times for their workday.

Working at home can present too many distractions, leaving them flustered and with increased stress levels, Duxbury said.

Employers considering how to move forward post-pandemic need to find a “happy medium,” she said.

That includes not only deciding what work will look like, but how they will address employee wellbeing, stress, disillusionment, work-life balance, and more.

“We have to consider things like wellness program support in terms of mental health,” she said. "We have to recognize that when we're discussing hybrid work, we're talking about work location, flexibility, and we also have to have a discussion on work-time flexibility to marry with those two discussions.”

Employees that have poor time management skills, poor communication skills, buckle under pressure, and aren't self-motivating likely aren't good candidates to continue working at home, Duxbury said.

Employers should also be mindful of the benefits of working in an office that people at home don't get, such as engaging in face-to-face conversations, which helps employees feel more connected to their coworkers and the company.

It also allows for spontaneous discussions and the development of soft skills, especially for employees who were hired during the pandemic.

“If companies don't create intentional, structured mentorship programs to help younger and remote colleagues with on-the-job learning, they risk leaving a generation behind,” Duxbury said.

“Small talk, passing conversations, even just observing your manager's pathway through the office may seem trivial, but in the aggregate, they're more important than any kind of written company handbook.”

Duxbury advised that companies should start having discussions now about what their hybrid workplace will look like.

Use the experience of the last two years to figure out what worked and what didn't, she suggested, and make the investments — whether that's new software, or restructured human resources policies, or employee wellness programs — into infrastructure that will support that model.

“There's no playbook. There's no map. So you have to conduct pilots by team, by business unit and learn from the outcomes what's best for you.”