Companies wandering blindly in a world of hybrid work

Managers are often left to their own devices to figure things out for themselves in implementing remote working for their teams

Organisations may be giving off the vibe that they have hybrid working nailed, but new research tells a different story. Companywide guidelines signed off by senior management on operational basics such as working hours, availability for Zoom calls and expected response times to emails are thin on the ground and, where they do exist, they are more likely to have been informally agreed by individual teams or departments than to have come from the top as policy.

The fact that this ad hoc approach to hybrid working is still the default position for many businesses long after commercial life has supposedly returned to a post-pandemic “new normal” was one of the unexpected findings of a recent study into employer perspectives on remote working, authored by Dr Tatiana Andreeva of Maynooth University’s School of Business, and Diane Mulcahy, a visiting fellow at the European think tank, Bruegel.

The companies that shared their practices and experience of hybrid working with the researchers were all substantial, well-resourced businesses spread across the technology, professional and financial services sectors. All had large workforces and offices worldwide and, as big corporates well used to streamlined procedures, Dr Andreeva had expected them to have hybrid working sussed. Not so.

“We were surprised to see them copying the imperfect solutions being tried by their peers and mimicking what they saw for no good reason,” she says. “There was also a lot of talk from senior people about experimentation and letting teams figure things out for themselves. However, while they were testing out this hypothesis, the reality on the ground for line managers and employees was one of frustration due to an ongoing lack of clarity.


“Very often, how things worked in practice depended on which team you were on. Different line managers were allowing or not allowing different things. This ‘figure it out for yourselves’ was being sold as demonstrating openness and flexibility. In reality, the lived experience is much more problematic.”

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Dr Andreeva says the study focused on employers because their viewpoint on hybrid working has been less explored than that of employees who have been vocal about their views on remote work and returning to the office.

The study quickly established that performance is one thing that has never been an issue with either remote or hybrid working. Companies performed well during the pandemic and had the sales, profitability and employee retention data to prove it.

What they did not have was any way of measuring the impact of remote work on the three factors employers frequently cite as suffering most in remote environments: collaboration, culture and control.

“What united the companies we interviewed was the universal absence of data to define or evaluate these issues,” Dr Andreeva says. “Instead, senior management teams relied on their own perspectives, and often their own biases, to develop standpoints and policies around each. We were unable to elicit a clear definition of company culture or understand the specific ways in which it was supposedly being impacted by the shift to remote work from most of the senior people we spoke to.”

Dr Andreeva adds that while employers generally take the view that collaboration is a big loser in remote working, evidence to support this assumption is mixed. It was a similar story with culture. The research does not back up the view that in-office working definitively creates a better culture. Thirdly, while the shift to remote work made managers fret about managing from a distance, few companies did anything concrete to help them, such as introducing employee monitoring systems to take the place of in-person supervision.

The rationale for returning to the office is weakly explained and companies were basing this requirement on little or no evidence

—  Dr Tatiana Andreeva, Maynooth University’s School of Business

“Our interviews suggest that much learning remains to be done to train managers and leaders in effective management of remote and hybrid employees and teams,” Dr Andreeva says. “In most cases there has been a lack of training and organisational support, and this has left many managers struggling. Companies need to be intentional, proactive and strategic about supporting remote or hybrid work. They need to develop concrete work location guidelines, clearly define and monitor culture, proactively manage relationships and collaboration, and teach managers how to successfully manage remote and hybrid workers and teams.”

The tussle between employers who want staff back in the office and employees who don’t want to go back is ongoing, and the study adds weight to the view widely held by employees that their bosses simply haven’t given them a good enough reason to return.

“The rationale for returning to the office is weakly explained and companies were basing this requirement on little or no evidence,” Dr Andreeva says, adding that even though the companies included in the study were in sectors suited to remote work and had existing experience of managing distributed teams due to their international reach, they still wanted people back in the office at least some of the time.

The uncritical buy-in by managers to assumed but not well-proven aspects of hybrid and remote work bothers Dr Andreeva, who is also sceptical about the big strides being claimed for diversity and inclusion as a result of remote working.

“Employee lists may look more diverse, but what is the reality?” she asks. “Have companies actually changed procedures and policies to ensure that the inclusion is real? On paper it may look like they’re getting the benefits, but we saw little evidence that they’re paying attention to the potential risks inherent in remote working for underrepresented groups and making whatever changes are necessary to avoid these risks.”