Commentary: Why hybrid work may feel more exhausting than working from the office or home
Hybrid working not only introduces new tasks and additional coordination costs, it’s also psychologically draining, says INSEAD’s Mark Mortensen.
SINGAPORE: Hybrid working – when some individuals work face to face and others remotely – has been widely heralded as the inevitable next evolutionary step in how we work.
It promises the best of both worlds - the increased flexibility, reduced commutes, improved work-life balance, and smaller office footprints of working from home (WFH) alongside the spontaneous interactions, sense of community, and strong culture of in-office work.
Putting aside the ongoing debates over where employees are most productive at home, free of distractions, versus in the office collaborating with peers – it is important to recognise that hybrid working comes with unique costs above and beyond those of either WFH or working from the office.
Quite simply, working hybrid is more tiring – because it introduces new tasks, additional coordination costs, and psychological drain.
HYBRID WORK ADDS NEW TASKS TO OUR WORKLOAD
To start with, hybrid working introduces several new tasks we must allocate cognitive resources to addressing.
For example, we must decide where we work on a given day. Simple as this may seem, doing this well is a challenging multi-dimensional optimisation problem.
You face a host of questions like: What is the nature of my task, and will I be more productive doing it in isolation or collaboratively? Does the task require physical resources (prototypes, materials and IT systems) that I do not have at home?
Making this even more complex, your decision about where to work is also contingent on the same decisions being made by your colleagues as many of us have no doubt already had the experience of heading into the office to see a colleague only to find out that colleague opted to work at home that day.
This means that now, on top of your own task of deciding where to work, you also must expend some effort to keep tabs on your colleagues.
Beyond that, there is also meta-level coordination work like striking the right balance between remote and in-office work to ensure your visibility to peers, subordinates, and managers and send the right signal in terms of presence and dedication.
Not all of these are relevant to everyone given organisational policies like fixing certain days as in-office only or the use of technologies to support coordination.
However, all these examples come from conversations I have had with executives in the past months who struggle with the increased workload of coordinating hybrid working.
HYBRID WORK COMPLICATES THE WORK WE ALREADY DO
Not only does hybrid working add new tasks we must allocate time and effort to complete, but it adds additional complexity to the ones we have already been engaged in.
Take, for example, communication. It has been over 35 years since researchers established that we interact differently when face-to-face as opposed to through a mediating technology, and while technologies have certainly changed and improved over that time, our fundamental psychology remains the same.
Working hybrid means that interactions with colleagues are constantly switching modalities which requires cognitive adjustments each time.
This goes beyond simple task switching because it involves transitioning between entirely different contexts as shaped by different physical spaces, sets of peers, and social norms and rules.
Not only that, but working hybrid means that even in a single meeting we may have to adjust on the fly between in-person communications with those in the room and those we see on a screen.
Think to the last hybrid meeting you were in and ask yourself whether messages (or even worse intent) got jumbled or misinterpreted when switching between colleagues in the room and those on zoom, and you will see what I mean.
HYBRID WORK AFFECTS OUR MENTAL STATE
To make matters worse, hybrid working also affects our mental state – and thereby our ability to tackle everything including the challenges above. We know that hybrid working affects our social norms and collective psychology – for example making it more challenging to establish and maintain psychological safety.
Hybridity affects our individual mindset by increasing something that we as people always struggle with – uncertainty. Like it or not, if there is one thing that the traditional office environment provides, it’s consistency.
Each day we head into the same physical space to interact with more or less the same set of people. While at its extreme, this can create tedium through a sense that every day is a repeat of the last, consistency also provides a feeling of stability and predictability.
The loss of routine and consistency can be stressful, especially when we recognise that when it comes to hybrid working, that loss of routine definitionally affects both our work and life outside of work.
Keeping in mind that predictability is one of the foundational pillars of trust, the dynamism of hybrid working environments can leave us feeling like we don’t have as much of a trusted network of support and the stress that produces.
Listen to HR experts explain what’s behind worker unhappiness despite greater attention on workplace well-being and what managers should do on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
BUT HYBRID WORK ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE
New tasks, greater complications, and the psychology of uncertainty are some of the reasons hybrid working can feel more exhausting than either traditional office work or full-time remote work.
Keep in mind that this is all happening in the shadow of a seemingly ever-extending pandemic which is already leaving us depleted. We also have to accept that hybrid working isn’t going anywhere.
The path forward needs to be one in which we view hybrid working not as a panacea, nor as something outside of our control.
The organisations that most effectively implement hybrid working are those that recognise that while inevitable, it can take many forms and that approaching its design and tradeoffs thoughtfully and intentionally will allow them to leverage the tremendous benefits it allows, while mitigating its costs.
In today’s dynamic environment the best approach is always an iterative one; design your hybrid work as best you can, put it in practice, collect data on what works and what doesn’t, and then redesign.
The key is to give your approach to hybrid work an expiration date, accepting up front that you won’t get it right and committing to discuss and revisit it.
Yes, that takes effort, but investing in an endeavour to get the design right is the best way to create a hybrid work environment that doesn’t leave you exhausted.
Mark Mortensen is Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.