Expert reaction: hybrid work includes great benefits for women

Years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced office workers into impromptu working-from-home setups, many workplaces are yet to fully embrace a return to the office, and a new study out of a Chinese tech company shows this is likely not a bad thing.

To test the viability of a hybrid office/working from home setup, travel agent divided 1,612 of its employees randomly into two groups, with one group required to work in the office all week, and the other able to work from home two days a week over a six month period.

At the end of the study, the researchers say quit rates reduced by a third in the hybrid working group, and hybrid workers had higher job satisfaction. Women, non-managers and people with long commutes were responsible for the reduction in quit rates, the researchers say.

Monitoring the productivity of the employees over two years, the researchers say there were no differences in performance grades or promotions and managers surveyed were more likely to have positive views about working from home than they were at the beginning of the study.

Dr Paula O’Kane from the University of Otago business school told the NZ Science Media Centre that with many workplaces now trying to reduce the time employees spend working from home, this was useful data to show that may not be the best choice.

“The study provides an interesting and objective insight into productivity in hybrid working, and their use of a randomised control study is considered a strong research design,”O’Kane says.

Many of the study participants were software engineers whose productivity can be easily measured, and the researchers say there were no differences in lines of code written between the office and hybrid groups.

O’Kane says this objective measurement, alongside similar more subjective findings from other research in this area, suggests that generally “productivity remains the same or increases in hybrid environments.”

“Often it is more a lack of trust, or leadership skills to manage remote employees which creates the potential illusion of reduced productivity. Given the right tools, support and communication we can harness the value of alternative work arrangements for both employees and organisations.”

Dr Amanda Wallis, from the NZ-based workplace wellbeing services provider Umbrella Wellbeing, agrees that most research currently available on workplace arrangements supports hybrid working as an optimal setup for employees. She says the reduction in employee turnover associated with that flexibility often leads to revenue savings for the company, a conclusion the experiment supports. 

She says as the daily commute is harder for some than others, hybrid work can have positive flow-on effects for employees in their everyday lives.

“Of note, women in the study benefitted most from hybrid working when it came to staying in their jobs,” Wallis says.

“This is evidence that work flexibility may help to tip the scales towards gender equality, keeping women in paid employment, and enabling men to take on a greater domestic role in the household by freeing up commute time for household tasks.”

“Even with these benefits, other research shows that hybrid workers still need support to work effectively from home. Being set-up with the right tools and technology, establishing team norms about hybrid working hours and availability, and ensuring access to equal opportunities for mentorship and professional development all help to make hybrid work successful.”  

You can read the full NZ Expert Reaction here

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