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Harvard Research Indicates Returning to the Workplace Full-Time is Unlikely

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A new study by Harvard Business School argues that hybrid work is here to stay. This is not only due to its popularity among employees, but also because of its efficiency in boosting productivity in companies’ workforces.

The researchers looked into how much productivity at work was affected by having employees in the office full-time, compared to being at home full-time or part of the time. The study found that a hybrid work schedule, with time divided up between days at home and at the office, is the best work model.

“Our test for underlying mechanisms suggests that hybrid work might represent the ‘best of both worlds,’ offering workers greater work-life balance, without the concern of being isolated from colleagues,” the researchers stated.

They found that spending one or two days in an office is the best setup — granting employees the flexibility of a remote work position while still maintaining a social connection with their coworkers.

The field experiment from Harvard Business School took place over nine weeks in the summer of 2020, when the world was still largely shut down because of the pandemic.

In the experiment, over 100 employees in human resource departments were assigned one of three randomized work schedules. Those three groups included one that spent between 0-8 days in the office over the course of 9 weeks; one that spent 9-14 days in-office; and a final group that had 15+ days in the office over nine weeks.

The first group, with people spending 1-2 days in the office each week, were labeled “intermediate hybrid workers.” The researchers found that this group produced more original work in the period of the study, as compared with the other two groups. Not only was their work better in quantity; it was better in quality, too.

Workers who spent just a couple days in the office at most sent more emails and had an overall greater “novelty of work products which were also of better quality.” However, the researchers found higher levels of “trust, mentorship, and purpose at work” among those working mainly from home, but not for intermediate or in-person workers.

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The researchers explain, “Intermediate hybrid work is plausibly the sweet spot, where workers enjoy flexibility and yet are not as isolated compared to peers who are predominantly working from home.”

A paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research studied over 30,000 Americans in a survey. The paper argues that after the pandemic ends, 20% of 8-hour workdays will be spent remotely, compared to just 5% before the pandemic.

The Harvard researchers point out that not everyone is fully on board with the idea of a hybrid workforce. They provided the example of David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who recently demanded all employees go back to working full time at the office, only to have just half of them show back up at work.

Apple and Google demanded the same, though they gave some wiggle room to allow workers to take on schedules where they were only in the office for part of the week. However, even that proved too much for some: many Apple workers have threatened to quit because of CEO Tim Cook’s demand that workers spent at least one day in the office.

However, the Harvard researchers believe COVID-19 has led to a permanent and fundamental change to the typical workplace. Hybrid work, the researchers say, has emerged as a permanent option for organizing work within firms.

“While there is a vigorous managerial and policy debate around hybrid work, to the best of our knowledge, there is not yet causal evidence on how hybrid work impacts workplace communication and work outcomes. We provide the first causal evidence on the effects of the extent of hybrid work on intrafirm communication and novelty of work products generated by workers,” the researchers stated.

A recent Gallup poll also found that workers are largely in agreement about the desirability of a hybrid schedule. A whopping 9 out of 10 workers surveyed said they’d want to maintain remote work to at least some degree. 


About Author

Marie Edinger is a multimedia journalist and news anchor. She’s originally from Gainesville, Florida, where she went to the University of Florida’s College of Journalism to study Communications and Spanish Linguistics. She loves hiking, trying new recipes, and all things relating to The Lord of the Rings.

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