Once upon a time, a typical working arrangement consisted of going to an office for 40 hours a week. Remote work was a relatively rare perk that few companies (in select industries) offered, or an arrangement that workers had to push hard to negotiate for. Then the pandemic forced many white-collar professionals to do their jobs from their homes, swapping office cubicles for kitchen tables and meetings in conference rooms for Zoom calls. When much of the world was under stay-at-home orders, remote work suddenly became the norm.
But as vaccines became available—and with the easing of lockdown restrictions—companies started to ponder possible return-to-office plans and put in place their long-term visions for work beyond the pandemic. While there’s no consensus on what the optimal post-pandemic work arrangement looks like, companies are, by and large, choosing between three options. First, there are companies, like Twitter, that are allowing their employees to work remotely on a permanent basis, if they want to. Others are opting for a hybrid model—Amazon, for example, announced it would require employees to work in the office for at least three days a week and otherwise give them the flexibility to be remote up to two days per week.
While some companies are leaving the decision to employees (and redesigning their work systems and policies to cater to both remote and in-office employees along with those who choose a hybrid schedule), others are a lot more prescriptive about what is and isn’t acceptable. And plenty of companies fall somewhere in the middle. Determining what your options are and which one would be ideal for you ultimately depends on your employer’s policy and flexibility, the nature of your work, and your individual preferences and priorities.
Your work setup can have a critical impact on your performance, so it’s important to consider whether or not your optimal arrangement aligns with your company’s. And if there’s a mismatch you can’t negotiate your way through, you might want to consider a new job at a company that can provide the work setup that works best for you.
Here are the six factors you should consider before committing to a remote, in-office, or hybrid arrangement.
1. Physical and Emotional Health and Safety
COVID-19 forced companies to pay extra attention to health and safety, and as an employee, you should remain vigilant and consider the health and safety implications of returning to the office full-time compared to working in a hybrid or fully remote setting. Is vaccination mandatory for in-office employees? What’s the air ventilation system like? Has the company instituted any physical distancing measures that can actually be implemented in practice? How often are the buildings sanitised and cleaned?
You should also examine what a remote, in-office, or hybrid arrangement might mean for your mental and emotional health and well-being.
Nadia De Ala, a leadership and negotiation coach who mainly works with women of color in the technology industry, says that one of her clients, a Black woman, “is experiencing intense anxiety about going to the office,” because of the emotional toll required to navigate a predominantly white and male space. Working from home has given her some distance and a sense of psychological safety that she would lose by returning to the office. At home, she can opt out of emotionally taxing conversations by logging off from Slack. In an office, that’s not always an option. And she is often forced to code-switch, one of the many burdens Black employees face at work. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that 97% of Black knowledge workers who are currently working remotely want to continue to do so either full time or as part of a hybrid schedule. In this specific instance, working remotely is the best thing De Ala’s client can do for her well-being. However, if she were to look for another job with a significantly more diverse and inclusive organization, the best decision might be a different one.
Of course, sometimes individual circumstances make specific working arrangements more suitable for an employee no matter who their employer is (or what their coworkers are like). Someone with anxiety, for example, “may be very distracted by noise and people working around them, so they may have a preference to work remotely,” says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health. However, “there might be another person that has anxiety and may feel anxious at home, and the office is a good distraction where there is a lot of activity around them.” For them, a hybrid or in-office model might be a better fit, depending on whether they need that kind of distraction and activity regularly or only as a balance with work-from-home time.
2. Your Job Description
The pandemic forced many companies to rethink which jobs absolutely required an in-office presence. And while that has created more opportunities for remote roles, some jobs are just impossible to do remotely (many positions in travel, hospitality, and healthcare, for example, fall into this category).
There are also jobs where you can do some of your tasks remotely, but need to—or would benefit from—being physically somewhere to tackle other responsibilities. An AI researcher may be able to do some of their research and work on write-ups remotely, but still need to be in a lab to conduct experiments. And those who work in creative endeavors like advertising may value getting together with their team with a whiteboard to work through their ideas, says Gruttadaro, but can work remotely to move those ideas forward.
So in some cases, your options might be dictated by the type of work you do with little room to maneuver, while in others you’ll have some flexibility to make a decision. If you have that leeway, list out what your responsibilities entail and consider what you need to do those tasks and where you can do them most effectively. Is there certain software or equipment that’s only available at the office? Are there certain tasks you could theoretically do from home, but the outcomes tend to be significantly better if you’re on-site? Can you deliver higher quality work when you complete specific tasks from home? Take all of this into consideration as you figure out whether to work remotely, in a hybrid setting, or in an office-first environment.
3. Communication Style, Systems, and Policies
To thrive in any workplace setup, you need to be able to communicate clearly, De Ala says, whether it’s with your clients, customers, boss, teammates, colleagues you collaborate with in other departments, or anyone else you need to interact with as part of your role.
That’s why it’s important to think about your communication styles and preferences. For example, if you love in-person meetings and casual desk chats because you prefer verbal communication and do best when you can read people’s body language, an office-first arrangement might be the best setup for you. But if you prefer the ability to pause and think about your responses, a remote-first setup might work best for you because most of the communications take place on digital platforms where you can be thoughtful and deliberate. Or perhaps you like being in a room with your team to hash out ideas, but want to be alone when you do the execution portion of a project while you check in via project management tools. In that case, a hybrid setup may be ideal.
Of course, it’s not just about your own communication style. You also need to consider the systems and culture around communication at your organisation—or at one you’re considering joining—so you can make an informed decision about which setup will allow you to do your best work and minimize misunderstandings, delays, and other communication breakdowns. After all, what makes for a sound communication system for a fully remote company doesn’t always translate to an in-office or hybrid setup, and vice versa.
For starters, it’s important to examine “how teams’ objectives are set,” says Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the Institute of Employment Studies—a research and evidence-based consultancy focused on HR management and employment. If those types of discussions take place primarily in-person, with remote employees dialing in, or often continue on unofficially after the meeting has ended, it can put the remote employee at a disadvantage. In that case, you might want to work in the office every day or at least on the days when you have important meetings. However, if those discussions occur via a digital platform with a clear process for questions and feedback, the quality of communication is likely to be equitable across all employees and choosing a remote or hybrid setup would be just fine.
As companies transition from emergency WFH to intentional, long-term WFH or hybrid models where some people are in the office and some are remote (and some are trading off), ask questions about what communication will look like. Will there be new policies or best practices? How will people be encouraged to follow them? What kind of input will employees have to hone or tweak the systems? Has the company experimented with WFH or hybrid before the pandemic on a smaller scale, and if so, what was the result of that experiment? If it didn’t go well, Gruttadaro says, “I would want to know why.”
4. Personality Traits and Preferences
Your preferences and personality traits are also relevant factors to consider. The pandemic forced many employees to go from one extreme (being in the office all the time), to another (working from home all the time)—and reflecting on those experiences can help you determine the best arrangement for you.
De Ala recommends comparing your energy levels in the office and at home. For example, do you have an extroverted personality in the sense that you get energy from being around many people? Did you find that you have less energy at home when you’re working behind a computer screen alone than when you’re surrounded by colleagues? Or are you more of an introvert who finds physical interaction draining and tiring? Do you have more energy left at the end of the day when you’re working from home than when you’re in an office and forced to engage in small talk throughout the day? Of course, it’s important to point out that not all introverts are better suited to remote work, or extroverts to in-office work.
You can go through a similar exercise for other aspects of your personality or work style. You might ask yourself what physical environment you need to be able to focus on deep work (maybe you find that isolation allows you to be more creative because the stillness gives you the uninterrupted space to think deeply) or how you best absorb and retain information (maybe you realize you learn best by observing how others do their jobs).
5. Opportunities for Career Advancement
The type of work arrangement you choose can also have an impact on career advancement. Proximity to leadership and influential figures in an organization often significantly impacts a company’s decision to promote employees. “The way that organizations make decisions about potential is still about visibility and being in the right place at the right time,” Bevan says. “I’m not saying it’s the right way of doing it,” he says, but companies may inadvertently favor their in-office employees over their hybrid and remote workers. “Those people who remain in the office full time will start to get an advantage because they will be more visible, they will have more access to some of the intangible ways [know-how gets] transferred. I don’t think organizations have really worked out how to overcome that barrier.”
Of course, some companies reward people based on results and performance rather than visibility. To assess this, it’s worth looking at how performance is evaluated and recognized at the company, Bevan says. Are people in the organizations promoted based on tangible and clear results, or are promotions based on relationships with higher-ups? What kind of support does your manager provide, and are you putting yourself at a disadvantage by not seeing your manager in the office every day (that is, if your manager is even working on-site)? If the company is giving you a choice, have they intentionally put systems and policies in place to make sure that all employees are able to advance and progress?
These kinds of considerations are particularly important for workers at the early stages of their careers, De Ala says, because they often still need to build relationships to progress. Those who don’t have a robust internal network at their company may miss out on career opportunities if they opt for a remote or hybrid arrangement, but those with strong relationships with the company’s influential figures might not suffer the same fate.
6. Personal Priorities
While professional goals are important, De Ala cautions workers not to rest their decision solely on career advancement prospects. In the long term, she says, the most fulfilling arrangements will take into account personal priorities, like lifestyle and mental health, as well as career goals. And in the end, that’s likely to translate to better work performance too.
Of course, your priorities and career goals might change at any time, so what works best for you right now might not be what will work best for you in five years’ time. Say you’re an early career employee with no dependents who wants to focus on building professional relationships. Working in an office might be the best arrangement for you right now. But you might find yourself suddenly needing to take care of an aging relative or dealing with a serious health issue that requires you to go to appointments in the middle of a workday. In that case, you might want to switch to a hybrid or remote setup.
That’s why Gruttadaro recommends asking your employer “how much flexibility exists around remote work vs. in-office vs. hybrid.” And even if you already have your preferred setup in place, she says that it’s best to ask your boss whether the company is open to you potentially changing that in the future.
Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to the ideal work setup. Only you can determine what works best for you, your priorities, and your realities at any given time.
If you’d like to speak to one of our consultants regarding a job role, feel free to ring VANRATH and speak to a consultant directly on 028 9033 0250.