Hybrid work is here to stay.
That’s the prediction from Wharton management professor Martine Haas, who was asked to share what she thinks will be the biggest workplace trend of 2023. Although the mix of remote and in-person work can be challenging, she said, the hybrid has emerged as a legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of companies have moved toward hybrid in the last year and have found it not perfect, by any means, but [it] seems to be striking a pretty decent balance between what employees want and what employers want,” Haas told Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. “A lot of firms are still thinking through how to make it as good as it can be.”
During the worst two years of the pandemic, entire industries shifted to remote work without a measurable loss in productivity — a feat that proved it was possible even under the direst circumstances. In 2022, many companies called their workers back into the office, but they did so with concessions. Amid a tight labor market and a lot of attrition, companies realized that employees wanted greater flexibility by working from home at least a few days a week.
As a result, Haas doesn’t see a lot of firms keeping a fully remote policy intact, except maybe for small startups that can use it as a recruiting incentive and tech firms that don’t require as much interpersonal communication.
“I think remote will stay in some sectors, but fully remote is going to be less omnipresent than a hybrid, which again seems to be the way a lot of companies are going right now,” said Haas, who is also director of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies.
Perhaps the most remarkable change to come out of the pandemic is the power shift that has given employees more leverage to work from home, according to Haas. Even just five years ago, most business leaders blithely ignored workers’ demands or desires related to health and wellness. But the tight job market, particularly in the U.S., has forced companies to capitulate.
“I do think that’s been a really fundamental change,” Haas said. “Employers have realized — and employees have realized — that mental health, well-being, and work-life balance have become a much bigger deal.”
Of course, that leverage will weaken if the strong U.S. employment numbers begin to drop. Haas hopes that both employers and employees are taking to heart the lessons from the current job market and thinking about what happens next. She said both sides need to cooperate to “get to a better place”, especially on hybrid policy.
“My hope is that employers if it does shift to their advantage a bit more, don’t just take advantage of that and ignore all the stuff they’ve learned about what employees really want,” she said. “Similarly, I think employees need to not take advantage if they are in a more powerful position, which they have been in the past year or so, to push it to extremes that employers are really uncomfortable with because that reduces the trust and creates all sorts of issues in terms of how employers feel about [having employees] at home at least some of the time.”
The P Word
Haas was asked about another business buzzword: productivity. During the height of the pandemic, productivity soared despite fears that remote work would bottleneck it. But Haas said she’s not sure there’s much to extrapolate from those intense, extraordinary months that could be applied to the future of work.
“Productivity is one word. It’s a limited word. There’s also creativity and culture and mentoring, all these other things that go into making the workplace go beyond short-term productivity,” she said. “We’re going to have to watch all of those very carefully over the coming year.”
Haas emphasized that managers and workers are “doing their best” to find their rhythm in the new normal of hybrid work, and they are still struggling with issues of parity and fairness, especially if some teams within the same company cannot work remotely. Now is the time, she said, for firms to craft more bespoke policies based on what works best for them.
“I think that 2023 will be a year when it makes sense for companies to really take a step back and think a little bit more systematically,” she said. “Let’s make sure we’re systematically reviewing our policies and procedures and how things are working around HR, our hiring practices, our technology, our space needs.”
She likened the approach to setting up working groups for each target area — employee engagement and satisfaction, security, productivity, and more — to determine the best path forward.
“Don’t just settle for the way you started doing it in month one, with everybody coming back to the office,” Haas said. “Try to think about, how we set it up for success?”