What is a hybrid work model?

What's the right way to design a hybrid work model, combining remote and office work? Consider this advice on potential benefits and pitfalls
261 readers like this.

As vaccination rates climb and things return to something more like normal – or at least more normal than midsummer 2020 – hybrid work has become one of the most talked-about topics in business and technology circles.

You can view the surge of interest in hybrid work models as a reflection that past concepts of “normal” are currently getting a reboot. For various reasons, some individuals and organizations alike don’t necessarily want to return entirely to pre-COVID ways of working. Instead, they’re reimagining what the next “normal” will look like and rethinking the best ways to work.

Public health and safety certainly remain a predominant concern. Individuals and organizations have also realized that more flexible approaches to traditional office work – rather than an insistence that people be in the same physical space 40 (or more) hours a week – can actually be beneficial in some businesses and industries.

Hybrid work models attempt to achieve the positives of both remote work and office paradigms.

More than half of people (54 percent) included in a Pew Research survey said they’d like to keep working remotely even once the pandemic ends. It’s like there has been a collective realization during the last year-plus about remote work: “Not only can we actually do this, but we can do it well!”

Another way to look at hybrid work is as an effort to create a best-of-everything operational model. Just as there are benefits of working remotely, there is an upside for some people and teams in regularly collaborating in person. Hybrid work models, then, attempt to achieve the positives of both paradigms.

[ Want more hybrid work strategies? Read also: Hybrid work: 4 roles to assign in every meeting.]

What does hybrid work mean? 

This all begs a big-picture question: What does “hybrid work” actually mean?

Don't declare "we're a hybrid office now" if you’re really "strongly encouraging" people to spend most of their working hours in the physical office.

There is no single blueprint for a hybrid work model. Unsurprisingly, people interpret and implement hybrid working models in different ways. There is a consensus concept underpinning hybrid work, however: Flexibility. Hybrid approaches are intrinsically more flexible than more uniform, rigid models that require people to work entirely or predominantly in the same central location. The same holds true when you flip the coin: Fully distributed, remote teams are just that: fully remote.

Most definitions of hybrid work usually entail one of two scenarios:

  • Hybrid can mean that some people and teams work mostly in-person in the same location, whereas other people and teams in the same company are largely or entirely remote.
  • In a related but different approach, hybrid work can also mean that most people work some days in the central office and some days from home or another remote location.

[ Related read: Hybrid work model: 4 best practices for fairness. ]

But even these overarching definitions can be fluid. If hybrid is synonymous with flexibility, that means teams and organizations get to decide for themselves how to define and implement a hybrid work model. (Of course, a “no-no” on this front is to declare “we’re a hybrid office now” if you’re really requiring or “strongly encouraging” people to spend most of their working hours in the physical office. Don’t be that leader.)

We asked three C-level executives with strong technology backgrounds to share their own definitions of hybrid work. These encompass both the flexibility described above and the natural differences in how organizations actually implement a hybrid work model. Here’s what they had to say.

Hybrid work models, explained: 3 examples

1. “My view on a hybrid work model means providing hyper-flexibility on how many hours employees are spending in the work office, where possible. It doesn’t always mean working three days in the office and two days at home.” –Thomas Phelps, CIO of Laserfiche

2. “A hybrid work model is one where some people on the team meet and work together in person, while others are purely and permanently remote. Annual shindigs at a hotel with good WiFi don’t disqualify teams as being fully remote. But if one group of people works together physically most of the time and another group [in the same organization] does not, that’s hybrid.” –Chris Nicholson, CEO of Pathmind

3. “For me, the hybrid work model signifies a flexible, forward-thinking model of work that allows employees to work both from the office and from home on a consistent, regular basis.” –Sagi Gidali, co-founder and CPO of Perimeter 81

What are the benefits of a hybrid work model?

Having defined hybrid work, it also helps to ask the question: Is it right for you?

Like most major organizational changes or initiatives, there should be clear goals and positive outcomes with a hybrid work strategy. Gidali and his co-founder, Amit Bareket, see “the flexible, hybrid work model as the inevitable way of the future.” At Perimeter 81, that means working three days in the office and two remotely.

“This flexibility promotes work-life balance and gives employees the best of both worlds: time to connect and collaborate with colleagues, and space for concentration and out-of-office appointments and activities,” Gidali says.

Gidali’s way of putting it – as an “inevitable way of the future” – indicates another appeal of hybrid work: While COVID-related restrictions may have planted the seeds of hybrid work in many organizations, the reasons for pursuing a hybrid work model can be untethered from the pandemic. The organizations that succeed with hybrid work will be the ones that are doing it because they see it as their best operational strategy rather than a reactive response to past disruption.

A hybrid work model may give your organization talent advantages.

There are other upsides. Companies that share Nicholson’s interpretation – some teams work mostly or entirely in the traditional office, while others are fully and permanently remote – will likely have hiring and retention advantages, since they can appeal both to people who want to be in the office and those who prefer a fully remote role.

Phelps’s and Laserfiche’s philosophy of “hyper-flexibility,” meanwhile, suggests that hybrid work models of various stripes could finally give real substance to the term “work-life balance.” (One could argue that some employers have wrung all meaning out of the phrase and that it’s long overdue for a complete rebuild.) In this way, hybrid work models can help address real issues such as employee burnout or inequitable corporate cultures.

“Instead of counting time or workdays spent in the office, you’re focused on productivity and getting results,” Phelps says. “This helps reduce burnout from endless Zoom meetings at home or horrible commutes to go into an office – neither experience is sustainable long term. A hyper-flexible hybrid work model creates a sustainable employee experience, such as helping parents who have to coordinate drop-off and pick-up times for their children, or individuals who are working on degree programs and working full-time.”

Speaking of horrible commutes, Phelps means it when he says “hyper-flexible.” Laserfiche is based in Southern California, home to some of the most heinous traffic in the U.S. Hybrid work can even entail rethinking the traditional 9-to-5 structure of office schedules.

“Traffic in Los Angeles means that the shortest distance isn’t measured in miles; it’s measured in terms of how much time it takes to get to your destination, as a 10-mile commute could take well over an hour,” Phelps says. “Hyper-flexibility for hybrid work means allowing employees to work from home in the morning, drive in after traffic eases, and leave after key meetings so you’re not stuck in traffic on the way home.”

Laserfiche will soon complete construction on its new global headquarters. When it opens, Phelps says that each floor will have a designated set of workstation spaces for “hoteling,” which is the practice of reducing or eliminating assigned desks or offices in favor of shared workspaces that can be reserved for use by individuals or teams when they need them.

“Employees can coordinate with their teams on what days they will be in the office and reserve workstations in advance,” Phelps says.

[ Want more advice? Read also: Hybrid work: 7 signs that meeting should be an email.]

What's the right way to design a hybrid work model? 3 tips

Let’s say you determine (or have already decided) that a hybrid work model is right for your organization. Given the flexible, variable nature of hybrid work, yet another question comes to mind: How do you design it in a way that fosters success?

There are a variety of emerging ideas and approaches in terms of leadership and culture in hybrid work settings. We’ll be covering these in upcoming articles on the subject. For now, suffice it to say that there are some core principles to guide your initial planning:

1. Don't say that you're hybrid if you're not.

Companies and teams that are fully invested in their particular vision of hybrid work are going to succeed; companies that do it in a reluctant or disorganized manner, or those that are simply obfuscating reality, will not.

2. Do it because you think it's the best model going forward.

If you’re only half-committed to the vision, it’s probably going to be half-successful at best. Define your own clear-cut ideas, systems, and goals for a hybrid work model, as Sigali, Nicholson, and Phelps are doing in their own organizations.

3. Don't assume that what's most desirable for the executive team is what's most desirable for everyone.

If you want to achieve any of the potential benefits described earlier, you’ll need a strong grasp on what will bring the best out of your teams and bring that into balance with organizational strategy.

Phelps says that Laserfiche used its remote/WFH year to tap into what employees would want to see in a hybrid work model, conducting surveys and doing internal focus groups to gather input as it designed its strategy.

“Through this, we learned that many of our employees would like to continue working from home post-COVID, but have the flexibility to work in the office with their teams for a few days a week,” Phelps says. “When announcing our partial office reopening starting in July, we asked managers to be flexible in allowing employees – for those who want to work in the office – to work even half-days onsite with the rest of the day working from home throughout the summer.”

Again, that’s part of the appeal of hybrid work – you can shape it according to what’s best for individuals and larger teams alike.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.