Does hybrid work actually work? Insights from 30,000 emails

The early COVID-19 lockdowns sparked a controversial debate that rages on in the workplace: Can businesses thrive if employees continue to work remotely?

Skeptical CEOs, like Goldman Sachs and Starbucks executives, say they need full-time employees in the office to foster a collaborative environment. At the other extreme, companies like 3M, SAP, and Twitter let many employees work from anywhere. Stuck in between: Employees who quit inflexible jobs as part of the “big layoff” and new hires who feel lost without regular contact.

“Hybrid schedules, where employees roughly split their workweek between home and the office, seem to work best.”

The ideal solution, according to a new working paper, might be a compromise: Hybrid schedules, where employees roughly split their workweek between home and the office, seem to work best. These schedules allow for the right mix of flexibility and engagement that not only makes employees happier, but also more productive and creative, resulting in higher-quality work, the study shows.

“It seems like there’s a sweet spot in the middle,” says Prithwiraj Choudhury, the Lumry family associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

In the first study of its kind, Choudhury analyzed more than 30,000 emails sent to colleagues experimenting with different work arrangements during the 2020 COVID pandemic. He has worked with Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at HBS, HBS graduate student Kyle Schirmann, and together with Christos Makridis of Stanford University and Columbia Business School.

Emails show the quality of the work

Choudhury and his colleagues conducted a field experiment with 130 HR professionals at BRAC, the world’s largest non-governmental organization based in Bangladesh. The experiment took place in the summer of 2020, at the end of the country’s nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.

Researchers examined employee emails and attachments before and during a nine-week period using machine learning and text analysis. They supplemented their email analysis with qualitative surveys of the employees involved in the study and their respective managers.

Using a lottery, employees were randomly assigned certain days on which they would work in the office. Choudhury and his team then divided the participating HR professionals into three groups based on how they divided their time between home and the office. The majority-at-home group went to the office for up to eight days during the study period. Hybrid workers spent nine to 14 days in the office, and the mostly office-based cohort worked more than 15 days in the office.

Employees took part in surveys assessing their satisfaction with their various work arrangements. Meanwhile, their supervisors rated workers’ productivity on a seven-point scale from “poor” to “excellent” in categories such as skills, cooperation, professional knowledge, creativity, productivity and quality of work.

Hybrid is the right balance

In all three categories—number of emails sent, satisfaction with working from home, and quality of work—members of the hybrid group outperformed their peers.

“The new working paper could be the first to generate data on the impact of hybrid work schedules on communication patterns and work quality in companies.”

Hybrid work resulted in 0.8 more emails per day, and office work resulted in a 0.5 increase compared to the mostly home work group. Additionally, hybrid work is associated with a 58 percent increase in the number of unique email recipients compared to those who work primarily from home, a metric indicating that workers in the hybrid category engage in broader corporate email – had networks.

It matters amid fears that remote work could result in siled email networks, a pattern that could hamper collaboration and innovation. Workers in the hybrid category also produced more novelty emails and email attachments, with novelty being measured using text and machine learning methods.

For workers, the paper states, “hybrid work could represent the best of both worlds.” Employee surveys conducted at the end of the experiment found that hybrid employees reported greater work-from-home satisfaction, better work-life balance, and less isolation compared to the other two groups.

“If you’re in the middle group, you’ll benefit most from the flexibility without the cost of isolation from your peers,” says Choudhury.

The results could also be good news for employers: work did not suffer from flexible working hours; actually just the opposite. Results showed that hybrid workers produced more novel work than the other two groups, with managers subjectively rating their work as higher quality than the other.

Choudhury notes that the new working paper may be the first to generate data on the impact of hybrid work schedules on corporate communication patterns and work quality, but cautions that more work needs to be done to flesh out the findings.

Further proof that “working from anywhere” works

Choudhury, who studies the future of work, had conducted numerous studies on remote work well before the pandemic forced companies into a huge field experiment against their will.

“His research points to a highly productive, happier world of work where flexibility may become the norm rather than the exception.”

The results of the BRAC experiment follow Choudhury’s separate study by the US Patent and Trademark Office. This research found that patent examiners who could “work from anywhere” examined 4.4 percent more patent applications without a significant increase in rework or loss of quality. The study results suggest that the first time examiners may have been striving to produce quality work while remaining in close contact with managers.

Choudhury has also studied remote and hybrid work policies at several organizations including Tata Consultancy Services, Tulsa Remote, GitLab, Zapier, and MobSquad.

His research points to a highly productive, happier world of work where flexibility may become the norm rather than the exception. He cites Indian tech giant TCS, which recently announced that employees only need to be in the office 25 percent of the time – and days can vary from group to group.

“It doesn’t mean you have to be in the office every week,” he says. “The guiding principle is that the team decides what the co-location schedule will be.”

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