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Lack of Flexibility in Hybrid Return-to-Office Models Depriving Workers of Autonomy?

Fixed schedules, which determine specific days for in-person work, can be particularly problematic for those with caregiving responsibilities, often shouldered by women.
Cover Image Source: Pexels/Pixabay
Cover Image Source: Pexels/Pixabay

Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 21, 2023.

As companies revise their return-to-office plans, many are opting for hybrid set-ups, which involve a combination of in-person and remote work. These arrangements are often presented as flexible and agile, giving employees the control and autonomy they desire. However, the reality is that strict in-office dates and hours prescribed by management may not provide as much flexibility as expected.

Certain groups of employees are disproportionately affected by rigid office hours. A significant percentage of workers, between 15% and 18%, self-identify as having impairments that affect their work.

Fixed hybrid policies fail to address the unique challenges faced by employees with different needs. Caregivers and workers with disabilities are most affected by the decreased flexibility. Fixed schedules, which determine specific days for in-person work, can be particularly problematic for those with caregiving responsibilities, which are often shouldered by women. Additionally, disabled or neurodiverse workers may prefer the flexibility of working from home, especially if the necessary accommodations are already in place.

Although hybrid schedules may differ, a common arrangement involves a blend of three office days and two remote days per week, or vice versa. These fixed in-office days aim to promote team collaboration and scheduled meetings. At first glance, this seems to offer the best of both worlds, providing employers and employees with the advantages of in-person work alongside the flexibility of remote work.

Image Source: Pexels/CoWomen
Image Source: Pexels/CoWomen

However, autonomy seems to hold significant value for workers, as demonstrated by a survey by market research firm The Harris Poll, which revealed that 69% of current or former remote workers prioritize independence over the professional benefits of in-person work. Also, remote work affords individuals the freedom to express themselves more openly, contributing to heightened job satisfaction.

Despite the perceived benefits, fixed hybrid schedules are inherently rigid, with strict requirements regarding which days to be present and the working hours on those days. Research shows that people generally perform better when they have a sense of choice and control over their lives. For most individuals, a fixed schedule is their least preferred option for hybrid work. This lack of control can have negative outcomes for workers.

Image Source: Pexels/Pavel Danilyuk
Image Source: Pexels/Pavel Danilyuk

Mandating fixed hybrid schedules risks neglecting the diverse needs of certain workers and undermines efforts related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. A one-size-fits-all approach disregards the distinct requirements of employees and can hinder their ability to thrive. To promote awareness and address these needs, employers should strive to provide flexible and agile solutions that cater to the individual requirements of workers.

Image Source: Pexels/cottonbro studio
Image Source: Pexels/cottonbro studio

Workers who find themselves stuck in inflexible hybrid work patterns may choose to seek alternative employment opportunities that offer greater accommodation. Companies with fixed hybrid models are becoming more prevalent, making it increasingly difficult for every worker to find a role that guarantees the desired flexibility. This situation creates tension between individual preferences and the need for team coordination and collaboration.

Image Source: Pexels/Tima Miroshnichenko
Image Source: Pexels/Tima Miroshnichenko

Despite the apparent rigidity of fixed hybrid models, there is room for flexibility. Employers are still exploring and refining their hybrid work models, and many may allow for individual freedom and exemptions. By engaging in conversations with line managers, employees can negotiate alternative start times, desk choices, or work arrangements that provide greater autonomy and flexibility.

Ultimately, employers must strike a balance between the general interests of the organization and the diverse needs of employees. Spaces designed for living often better support knowledge workers than traditional office environments. Employers should recognize this and strive to be as flexible as their employees, creating a framework that accommodates individual needs while maintaining productivity.