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"Hybrid" return-to-office models could create subcaste of workers

Hybrid work models could create divisions
Hybrid work models could create divisions and lead to disadvantages 05:46

More than a year after companies across the globe sent workers scurrying home amid the spread of COVID-19, some employers are encouraging — and even ordering — people back to the office.

An estimated 80,0000 municipal workers in New York City went back on the job on Monday, while JPMorgan Chase, the country's largest bank, said it expects most of its U.S.-based employees to return to their offices come July. Goldman Sachs wants its U.S. and UK employees back at their desks by June. 

Despite the clarion call from employers,  many people are reluctant to return to the office, saying they are more productive working from home and not eager to resume their daily commutes. And with COVID-19 still affecting schools, numerous parents with children in remote classes are still juggling their childcare duties with work. 

These realities are not lost on employers, which are weighing the lingering risks of COVID-19 and the upsides of working remotely against the benefits of traditional in-person arrangements. Many are leaning toward "hybrid" work models to navigate this couch-to-cubicle transition. 

What is hybrid work?

Some companies are content to have at least a portion of their workforce operating at home permanently, with other personnel reporting to the office five days a week. More frequently, employers are suggesting that staffers split their time between in-person and remote work — spending, say, two days in conference rooms and three days on Zoom. 

But such approaches could create a sense of unfairness among workers and cause friction, according to management and human resources experts who spoke with CBS MoneyWatch. It could even draw a stark line between in-person and remote workers, sending those who physically rub shoulders with their bosses daily farther up the promotion chain, with at-home workers falling off management's radar. 

"Anytime you have one group of employees doing one thing and another group doing another thing, you have a chance for an 'us versus them' dynamic to take hold," said Jeffrey Polzer, a human resource management professor at Harvard Business School. "If a specific set of workers returns primarily in-person and another set is primarily working from home, that could create a divide between those two groups that could have dysfunctional consequences."

The "motherhood penalty"

Hybrid work could even effectively create a subcaste of employees for those who choose to continue doing their jobs remotely, career experts warn.

"One fear is definitely the idea that remote workers could be treated as second-class members of an organization, in part because they lose a lot in being unable to be present in the workplace," said Dan Wang, an associate professor of business and sociology at Columbia Business School. 

When workers are dispersed, he added, "ties weaken, relationships weaken and people's networks that they rely on in the workplace also tend to shrink."

The post-pandemic workplace environment is also stoking concerns that remote employees — in particular women — who are out of their bosses' lines of sight could be passed over for raises and promotions, and inadvertently excluded from meetings, projects and other opportunities to advance their careers, experts said. 

Even before the coronavirus slammed employers, working women who were also raising children were known to face a "motherhood penalty" as they sought to balance their responsibilities as mothers with their work duties.

"Mothers tend to have it worse largely because of the hidden costs on their time," Wang said. "And one thing that this shift to a hybrid work environment might do is exacerbate the very same disadvantages that mothers tend to experience, which has to do with their disconnectedness from the workplace due to demands on their time. They might be given the option of flexibility, but that comes with a tradeoff, which is that social relationships in the workplace tend to weaken." 

An analysis of remote work in the U.K. from 2011 to 2020 found that employees who worked from home were less than half as likely to be promoted compared to all other employees. Researchers used data from the nation's Annual Population Survey — the largest survey of households in the U.K.

Employees who worked from home were also 38% less likely to receive bonuses compared to those who never worked from home, the same study found. And with no physical divide between work and home, remote employees logged more hours of unpaid work.  

Priority No. 1

Despite such concerns, retaining the option to work remotely has emerged as a top priority for U.S. workers during the pandemic. 

Fifty-two percent of remote workers said they would look for a new employer if their current company required everyone to work together again in the same building, according to a recent GitLab survey of 3,900 global professionals. One in three workers said they would leave their job — either by finding a new one or retiring — if remote work was no longer an option, according to the collaboration software company.

"A large number of people are really interested in working remotely long-term and are willing to make changes to do it," said Brie Reynolds, a career coach at FlexJobs, a remote-work job site. "The pandemic has challenged the assumption that we do really well in the office."

The pandemic forced an experiment in remote work that some experts say was long overdue, given that the technology that allows work to take place from anywhere has long existed. 

But instead of untethering working from their desks, these tools have boxed many workers into their jobs. "Instead of working from office or home, they were doing both," Reynolds said. "They were working from the office and from home on nights and weekends."

New York City plans July reopening as Northwest battles surge 02:22

Job matching site also found that having the ability to work remotely has become a top priority.

"Quality of life is always a high priority, but never more than compensation. Now the two things that are neck-and-neck have been remote work and compensation, which is pretty crazy," said CEO Evan Sohn.

On the flip side, there's Jamie Dimon, the CEO of the JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the U.S., with more than 250,000 employees. Dimon remains a staunch booster for in-person work — the sooner the better.

"I'm about to cancel all my Zoom meetings," he said at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council last month. "I'm done with it."

Dimon argues that work-from-home models hamstring younger, ambitious professionals who need the face-to-face mentorship that remains vital on Wall Street and other parts of corporate America. "It accelerated a trend, but it does not work for younger people. It doesn't work for those who want to hustle, it doesn't work in terms of spontaneous idea generation," he said. 

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon is another prominent critic of remote work, which he called an "aberration that we're going to correct as quickly as possible" at a Credit Suisse virtual forum in February on the financial services industry. 

Not all remote work is equal

Notably, workers report varying levels of satisfaction with working from home, depending on their personalities and personal circumstances. Phil Shawe, CEO of TransPerfect, a global translation company, said his mostly young staff is "chomping at the bit to get back to the office and interact with people." 

"Our employees in London, which is not known for large apartments, have been in quarantine for a year and for their own mental health and well-being want to get back to interacting with people more," Shawe said. 

Of course, once workers commit to taking different paths, their work experiences can diverge.

"It's complicated, and it's not just about what's best for the person. By being in the office you might be getting face time with your boss and advancing your career differently," said Rafaella Sadun, a labor economist and professor at Harvard Business School. 

Polls to gauge workers' views on telecommuting can also be misleading, according to Sadun. 

"Surveys report averages and I see a lot of optimism in working from home, but behind the average is a lot of deviation. People either really like it or hate it," she said. "It's a very different experience if you work from home from a villa or a shoebox, or if you couldn't even afford to work from home because you did a job that required presence."

Ultimately, she thinks what's lost when companies go remote is the diffusion of knowledge across an organization.

"I believe what's really missing right now and why companies are going back is because work has a social component, and there is a lot of knowledge transmission that happens in these informal interactions that are very hard to replicate virtually," she said. "You encounter different types of people in person, and you cannot schedule those types of random interactions."

How can you stand out from home?

Even the best efforts to create cohesion among hybrid workforces will fall short at times, according to experts. 

"Because of human nature, I can't see how it wouldn't create two groups of people," said Jack Kelly, founder and CEO of Compliance Search Group, a recruiting firm. "I can see how you can get emerging resentment from both sides: 'I am being left out of calls, I'm being forgotten and not getting the juicy assignments.' "

The onus is on both employees, to make sure they stand out, and managers, to ensure there is a virtual component to every in-person meeting that takes place. 

"It's incumbent upon both sides," Kelly said. "Managers have to recognize this is going to be a different way to manage. People at home have to make sure they reach out and stay in touch with people, and if they just put their heads down and say I'm doing a good job, they won't be noticed."

Here's what employees and managers can do to help make hybrid work successful both for individuals and for their employers.

Tips for employees 

  • Don't assume you'll be recognized or promoted solely based on the quality of your work
  • Ask for virtual face time with your boss and with colleagues with whom you don't interact with daily
  • Consider where the rest of your team is working, and keep people aware of what you're doing in your home office
  • Market yourself by highlighting your contributions to the company to avoid getting lost in the shuffle

Tips for managers

  • Understand and accommodate workers' preferences for in-person versus remote work
  • Make sure everyone's contributions are valued equally, regardless of where they are working
  • Ensure every meeting has a virtual component, and consider meeting in smaller groups. Take time at the start of virtual meetings to talk about nonbusiness topics and create team cohesion
  • Continue to provide one-on-one mentorship and meet with employees individually over the phone or via Zoom
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