Beware the office politics of hybrid workplaces

If people are given the choice to come back without firms learning to measure outputs, those most able to return will be at an unfair advantage, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

There should really be no debate about whether people should work from home or return to the office. Clearly, one size does not fit all, and people should have the choice. We are entering the age of hybrid workplaces, with flexibility being a better option than any imposed alternative. Henry Ford famously said his customers could have their car in any colour they wanted, as long as it was black. Companies should not imitate this take on flexibility by telling employees they are free to work anywhere they want, as long as they can be found in the office.

And yet, things are not that simple. Even when organisations have the luxury to offer flexible working arrangements to employees, curating their experiences to accommodate their personal circumstances and needs (doesn’t that sound just great?), there are clearly negative implications of such an approach. Most notably, when you let people make choices, you automatically increase the willingness to scrutinise their preferences. This has long been the case with trivial HR policies, such as dress code. You impose ‘dress down Friday’ and the stakes are suddenly much higher than when people were ‘forced’ to wear standard attire or an official work uniform.

Well, this will happen on steroids when you give people the choice of where they’d prefer to work. A bit like when universities offer both online and on campus education (which is increasingly the hybrid norm for all, though the online option has temporarily become the only option in many places) there are different tiers or status hierarchies attributed to each mode. So, for instance, we may assume that if you actually visit Harvard, and spend a year there – not just paying a premium for the campus experience, but also socialising and networking with the superstar faculty – you are on a different level than the thousands of students who subscribe to a remote or virtual learning programme, getting access to some of the same filmed lectures, and interacting with teaching assistants over Zoom or chat. (Remember the vintage notion of the chatroom? Well it is still with us.)

If companies reopen their offices and give people the choice to come back – and the circumstances allow for, say, 50 per cent of people to return to work – it’s inevitable those individuals able to manage impressions, play politics, be part of the in-group and network will take advantage of this situation. Not least because the big bosses are leading by example and they happen to prefer not being at home (after all, with business travel down, all they have is the office). 

Imagine a board, leadership or town hall meeting where half the employees are present but the other half are remote. There will probably be significant brownie points, reputational gains and political benefits for those who are present – even if they are just enjoying the benefits of freedom, because they have someone else working from home, looking after the kids, are single or have the economic resources to outsource parenting and childcare. 

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. If, and it’s a big ‘if’, organisations learn to measure what people actually contribute to the company, quantifying their output, productivity and performance, and focus less on style and more on substance, then a hybrid office may actually turn into a productivity enabler. It would allow people to meet up to exchange ideas and collaborate, leveraging the synergies of team creativity, and nurturing their healthy prosocial instincts. That’s a very different picture than the current reality of: ‘I’m showing up because it matters,’ ‘perceptions are king’, or, as a client recently told me, ‘but without the office, how can I pretend to work?’

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is professor of business psychology at UCL and Columbia and chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup