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The New Future of Work

Suggestions for hybrid work

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By Brent Hecht, Abigail Sellen, Sonia Jaffe, Steven Derhammer, Sean Rintel, John Tang, Kori Inkpen, Nancy Baym, and Longqi Yang

Hybrid work “is the future” for Microsoft and many of our customers. Hybrid work also presents new challenges not present in remote work. Fortunately, we can draw on pre-pandemic research on hybrid work, extrapolation from our research on all-remote work, and evidence from some sites that are already experiencing the early phases of post-COVID hybrid work.

This hybrid work guidance is based on the existing research, with the understanding that there is still much to learn and that recommendations may change as new evidence comes to light. This document focuses on general guidance for hybrid workplaces. We also have a guide for hybrid meetings specifically.

Quick tips

  • Spend about half your time in the office to maximize the benefits of hybrid work and avoid the down-sides of all-remote work
  • Coordinate to spend some of the same days in the office as your team and other close collaborators.
  • Focus your time in the office on strengthening and building new relationships with your colleagues and tasks that benefit from in-person collaboration, such as brainstorming and starting new workstreams.
  • Read our Hybrid meetings guide.
  • What does hybrid mean for office spaces? Offices should have spaces to support brainstorming, team integration, and informal, social interactions, since those are the activities that benefit most from being in-person.

A good summary of this general guidance comes from one of the best literature reviews of all the research on remote and hybrid work that had been written prior to 2015:

Similar to the general notion regarding the appropriate dosage for medication, finding the right amount of time to telecommute may be the key to producing desired outcomes, because too little or too much might not have the intended effect.” – Allen et al. 2015

How much time should I spend in the office?

Assuming you have a good (i.e., ergonomic and focus-friendly) workspace at home, the best data available suggests that you should spend approximately half of your time in the office. Here are some reasons why:

If you do not have a good setup at home, you should probably spend more time in the office (and in fact this was the top reason that employees in Microsoft’s China offices went back to work in summer 2020).

What types of work should we do in the office and what types of work should we do at home?

The research suggests that the following types of activities benefit from being in-office:

  • Work that requires brainstorming or idea generation.
  • Work with high “task interdependence” (e.g., you’d be chatting back and forth with colleagues on Teams quite often).
  • New workstreams: spinning up new projects and setting the strategic direction for a team are easier in face-to-face meetings.
  • Work that seeks to strengthen and build new relationships. Reduced interaction on WFH days can be balanced with increased interaction on days at office.
  • Work with colleagues that are new to the group or organization.
  • Work that requires tools or hardware that can only be used in the office (e.g., specialized tools that are too large, confidential, or expensive to be used at home).
  • Serendipitous and spontaneous encounters that benefit long-term success of many different workstreams. ​​​​​​​

And the following types of activities are best suited for work at home:

Should my team be in the office on the same days or different days?

Since many of the benefits of in-office work listed above come from co-location, you should seek to be in the office for at least some of the same days as the people you work with closely. In addition to more routine kinds of collaborative activities, in-office days are the time for special events such as customer meetings, brainstorming sessions, strategic planning, and team bonding.

How should the in-office time be distributed? Fixed days of the week? Fixed weeks of the month? On demand?

This is a critical question for which there is unfortunately little research. Most of the research that informs the above best-practices used a fixed- or flexible-days-of-the-week model, in which people came into the office for a certain amount of time each week.

Early data from our China offices found that the majority of employees were given the freedom to choose their own arrangements.  The result was that about half went into the office on a fixed schedule, and half on demand. Fixed days may make it easier to coordinate with close collaborators, but make serendipitous encounters with other colleagues less likely. We do not yet know whether one system – or a combination – works better.

People with disabilities may especially appreciate scheduling flexibility that allows them to work at the times when they can be most productive.

How should we think about changing our office workspaces?

Team Work and Socializing

Given the importance of spending time at the office for creative collaboration, interdependent teamwork, and serendipitous social encounters, spaces should be optimized to support:

  • Brainstorming and idea generation: spaces that teams can “own” for some period of time, with plenty of display space (both physical and digital) and where teams can have extended discussions when they are together.
  • Team integration: Spaces where teams who are working together in tightly integrated teams can be aware of and available to each other, sitting nearby, but with other places they can retreat to for focused work.
  • Informal interactions: places where people can informally meet each other, such as communal seating areas, places for food and drink, and spaces designed for social activities.

Individual work

There are two important dimensions to consider for individual workspaces: dedicated space and private vs. open space.

Dedicated space:
It might be tempting to assume that because people will spend less time in the office, they will no longer need dedicated workspaces. For employees that do almost all their focus work at home, that may be true. However, for more hybrid employees, ‘hotdesking’, where employees either share a desk with others or are not assigned a permanent desk, may present challenges. Pre-pandemic research shows that hotdesking can lead to increased demands arising from distractions, a rise in uncooperative behaviours amongst colleagues, more distrust, and a perception of less supervisor support. Additionally, research has also shown the importance of at least two screens to support of knowledge work, which is possible, but less common with hotdesking.  Specialized ergonomic equipment can also be challenging with hotdesking.

Private vs Open space:
Research suggests open office spaces with dedicated desks can serve similar needs to traditional full offices when properly designed and even promote positive productivity when held to wellness certification standards. Alternatively “activity based” workspaces are another approach, where the workplace provides a range of different spaces for different activities and employees work flexibly across them as needed.

However, hybrid work means more video calls to remote colleagues, with more potential to disrupt others in an open office space. While “phone booths” that provide some audio privacy may help mitigate this issue, moving to a phone booth often leaves behind the work spread across screens in the workspace that is needed for a meeting.

How can we have better hybrid meetings?

See our Guide for Hybrid Meetings