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Hybrid Work Is Suddenly Causing Tension

hybrid work

The hybrid work model has been hailed as the answer to getting people back into the office—blending remote work with in-office time. However, its future hangs in the balance as both employers and workers find the schedule exhausting to maintain.

More than 80% of human resources executives told TinyPulse that hybrid work is proving to be exhausting for employees. Surprising, right? That same number of employees also reported that hybrid work is more emotionally draining and taxing than fully remote and—perhaps shockingly—full-time office-based work.

PROMISES, PROMISES

In Gallup’s 2021 State of the Workforce study, a substantial number of employees (91%) said they’d like to continue working at least part of the time remotely post-pandemic. So, in theory, the hybrid work model should be working. But employers like General Motors (GM) are finding their workers fighting back.

The Wall Street Journal reported in September 2022 that GM is pumping the brakes on its return-to-office plans for Q4 after facing pushback from employees over the earlier start date. According to sources close to the article’s authors, the company’s employees felt this was a different plan from what GM had promised last year, which was supposed to provide flexibility and didn’t require a specific number of in-office days.

GM’s 53,000 U.S. salaried workers will now return to the office starting January 30, 2023, on a hybrid work schedule that averages three days per week in the office.

But what happens if employees refuse to return to the office?

Legally, an employer can require employees to work either in the office or in a facility. However, employers should be extremely cautious before firing or disciplining employees.

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There are rules and regulations for reasonable accommodations to support people in protected classes (including those with disabilities). The pandemic added a gray area that complicated things: wanting to work from home out of fear or for lack of childcare. But if a worker is simply afraid to return to the office, for instance, this is not necessarily a legally protected excuse. At that point, it’s more of a retention issue. Monster polled workers in September and found that two-thirds would quit if required to return to the office full-time, and 40% “would consider quitting even if required to come into the office only one day per week,” HR Dive reports.

IS HYBRID WORK TO BLAME FOR EMPLOYEE FATIGUE?

Now dubbed “The Great Exhaustion,” employees are facing anxiety and burnout at unprecedented levels. Elora Voyles, people scientist at TinyPulse, told CNBC that claims of exhaustion stem from uncertainty and lack of control. During the pandemic—especially as new variants were emerging—many employees had to shift gears quickly and move from hybrid to remote working.

There is also an element of bait and switch as companies claim to offer flexibility only to now require specific required days or hours onsite. This has led to feelings of mistrust between employees and employers.

“Hybrid requires frequent changes to daily habits,” added Voyles. “One day, a worker is in the office, and then the next, they’re working from home, and there’s no consistency or rhythm to their week. When a company tells you which days to do that, all the back and forth can be exhausting.”

New research from Microsoft shows that burnout is a global problem with workers feeling overworked and checked out. The survey reports that nearly 50% of employees and 53% of managers are experiencing some form of burnout at work.

Ethan Berstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, says that while some workplace changes have benefitted employees, the constant experimentation and adjustments have been “exhausting.”

“People have displayed extraordinary resilience and ingenuity continuing to work in the face of a public health crisis,” he says. “But that comes at the cost of burnout, which has been accentuated by the fact that we keep changing the rules of how we work … at some point, the fatigue catches up with you.”

HOW CAN LEADERS HELP?

With hybrid work, there is little separation between work and home life, leaving employees to feel like they always need to be “on.” Couple that with the impact working fully remotely has had on building or sustaining workplace friendships, and it’s no wonder employees are experiencing workplace fatigue and anxiety. So, how can employers help their teams (and even themselves) find a solution that’s a win-win?

Encourage people to disconnect. Hybrid collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft teams can seep into workers’ personal time, creating the need to always be available. This can quickly turn into a toxic work habit. To nip this in the bud, The HT Group’s President Chad Macy recommends that, “Employers need to put as much energy into fixing and preventing toxic ‘digital watercooler’ behavior as they put into face-to-face interactions.” See more tips here.

Help employees find connections with colleagues. Remote working shifted more than just where we work. It also took away bonding time with our colleagues. JobSage explored the impact this shift has had on workplace friendships and happiness. The average number of work friends dropped by 33%, and 66% of remote workers haven’t made any workplace friends. Yet, JobSage also found that having a friend at work makes you 95% happier, 76% more creative, and 74% more productive. Don’t fret. While making work friends may look different now, there are many ways to help your employees connect with colleagues, either fully remote or in a hybrid work environment.

Communication is key. The lack of communication of a clear vision or plan for post-pandemic hybrid work is causing employees to feel anxious, according to a McKinsey study. McKinsey also found that two-thirds of companies have either not communicated their plans or have released very vaguely defined ones, so it’s no wonder workers are on edge.

Create a supportive culture. Burnout and lack of growth opportunities are top reasons employees leave their jobs. “It’s been difficult to cultivate culture during the pandemic,” says The HT Group Founder and CEO Mark Turpin. “Good employers have focused on making their workers feel connected to others and the company mission.”  At the same time, your employees should feel seen and heard. Giving them the opportunity to voice their opinions and be a part of the solution will go a long way.

While we are still wading through uncharted post-pandemic waters, now is the time to pay more attention than ever to how your choices affect employees’ health and well-being. Our recruiters can help you find employees who share your workplace vision, and our advisors can help you formulate a hybrid work plan that works.  

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