The Great Hybrid “Flex”

Njon Sanders
4 min readDec 10, 2023

Like so many others, it’s been interesting to watch one of my professional orgs, SHRM The Society for Human Resource Management navigate the topic of RTO (Return to Office) over the past few years. It’s been a major focus for People Operations practitioners and trial and error has been the only means of defining paths forward for the workforce at large.

At the onset of the pandemic, they published multiple articles with guidelines on safely bringing people back into formal office settings as a default. In recent years, their CEO has taken every opportunity to link “evidence” of decreased revenue to remote work with a boomer-era focus on control over employees’ time rather than their actual productivity. Now, as the realities of remote and hybrid work start to sink in, the latest last-ditch trend to regain a semblance of control is a fixed hybrid model meant to universally “strike a balance” between workplace flexibility and the need for team engagement.

Objective observers will note, however, that one of the biggest takeaways in recent years is that there is no universal or “best” formula to strike a balance or to meet the social and engagement needs of every team and every individual. Attempts to estimate and enforce a universal cadence of in-office attendance don’t even come close to addressing most needs.

As individuals, we each have different capacities and strengths based on our backgrounds, work styles, and life situations. Working groups, teams, and departments also have a very wide range of requirements when it comes to collaboration. We know that every job has greater or lesser requirements for in-person attendance and there is nothing unfair about quantifying these distinctions when done objectively.

This is why employees find it so frustrating and demotivating when employers attempt to optimize attendance mandates universally. The requirements like those in this article are a great example of these seemingly arbitrary schedules which are perceived as an employer concession rather than an employee consideration. Simply put, 20 weeks per year does not factor in the flexibility that allows self-managed or job-specific hybrid work schedules to support productivity. My coworkers’ kids need to be picked up and dropped off more than 32 weeks each year. Our important medical or dental visits should not wait for an accommodating week.

When we take a step back and look at the actual business needs and then hire to meet those needs with the understanding that each role has unique requirements, we are empowered to treat people like individuals and adults. When we prioritize actual productivity over perception and control of employees’ time, we learn that most people adjust to the need given the opportunity. Those unable to do so on their own may require coaching or may just not be a fit for the role but it’s important to set expectations and manage productivity consistently.

The days of showing up in the office at 8 or 9 because you’re “supposed to” are over for most. Like it or not, the way companies adapt (or not) to this cultural shift will determine their potential for productivity and ability to compete for talent. There are certainly short-term productivity spikes brought on by these mandates but in the longer term, people (most especially Gen-Z) are choosing to work for companies that recognize employees’ individual capacities in addition to their business needs. Despite the claims, people generally understand the nuances of roles and initiatives requiring in-person attendance and we appreciate being allowed to work within appropriate guidelines based on actual need and not on an arbitrary attempt at “balance” that feels more like a race to the middle.

These blanket policies seem to be based on information produced by well-funded sources with methodologies that rely on feelings of nostalgia for the 9-to-5 paradigm rather than on actual subjective data. It’s not clear why SHRM has opted to toe the corporate line in this regard but I hope that leadership will evolve (or change) and a focus on people will emerge. Just as our vocation has evolved from Personnel into Human Resources, the industry is again rapidly shifting from the HR model to People Operations — one that recognizes the workforce as individuals rather than as a commodity.

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Njon Sanders

After decades of living in crisis, I feel it is a gift to be able to support my communities in serving others – making things better for us all.