Research & Thought Leadership

The Benefits and Challenges of Hybrid Working

Professor Debbie Bayntun-Lees & Professor Andy Cross

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While flexible working existed long before COVID-19, the pandemic upped the ante, forcing companies around the world to adopt more flexible working practices. Businesses everywhere were given no choice but to re-examine their approach to hybrid working models. Many found they were able to embrace a fully digital workforce, with teams continuing to work positively and productively, in many cases, regardless of role. Since then, however, attempts to introduce hybrid working as the ‘norm’ have proven problematic, with continuing concerns about engagement, productivity, and technical capability. Since the pandemic, we have talked extensively to leaders about the continued evolution of flexible working arrangements.

In our latest research Rethinking Leadership for the Hybrid World of Work, we heard how senior leaders were experiencing the post-pandemic workplace, the issues that remain most topical, and the decisions being weighed as they attempt to navigate the myriad challenges and build effective working norms. 20 senior leaders took part from a range of sectors and global organizations.

Despite repeated claims of increased productivity, efficiencies, and other benefits, our conversations with leaders found widespread ambivalence about flexible working. We have determined that there is a real need to think critically about how the future world of work is shaped and that the challenges ahead –and the resulting impact on managers – must be carefully considered.

Our research was conducted in the preliminary stages of the move to hybrid working. We anticipate our insights and accompanying toolkit developed with our participants, will inform a strategic and considered approach as leaders look to embed new working arrangements and support managers in leading performance and culture change in a hybrid context.

So why are leaders pursuing hybrid?

Ninety-five percent of our research participants said they were exploring and/or implementing a hybrid model and believed in the importance of balancing colleague connection with flexibility. Additionally, most saw this as a workplace evolution rather than a pivotal transformation, albeit accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Most also believed that making progress with hybrid working will realize many benefits for organizations and employees. These anticipated gains are predominantly based on those already realized during the virtual working from home necessitated by the crisis or experiments in virtual working before. So, not necessarily a hybrid combination of working from home and working in the office.

This summarizes the reported benefits to both employees and organizations. Obviously, not all have or will experience every one of these benefits, yet it is evident these are driving choices and expectations around who, if and when people will return to the workplace.


One of the main things virtual working did was enable more flexibility around when people work, not just where. When asked about the switch to remote working, many participants reported that their organizations were able to pivot quickly, creatively and successfully. They reported significant increases in productivity and efficiency, they became more resilient, and were able to offer better value to customers. They shared first-hand experiences of establishing virtual workplaces within weeks, with most people – except for those in essential services and/or manufacturing – able to work from home:

The leaders we spoke to also shared examples of creativity evolving as various teams navigated the complexities of stakeholder management/ and relationships and the challenges of managing, recruiting, and onboarding new staff. These included using technological innovation, conducting meetings in new ways, walk and talks, virtual social events and more.

They were also acutely aware of their learning and achievements during this time with many enjoying a better work/life balance, including one interviewee who said “It’s made a huge difference to me… I had never watched my seven-year-old swim because my mum used to take him… now I am empowered and trusted

that I will do right by the organization, and I can go watch him swim.”

We can see here – the benefits were many for both the business/organization, and for employees. However, the leaders we spoke to were also clear that if hybrid were to be successful there needed to be a balance between enabling flexibility and people coming together to achieve. Achieving this was perceived as just one of the many challenges to overcome.

The challenges of designing and leading in the hybrid workplace

Our research participants were very candid about the tensions and challenges they encountered as they transition their organizations from a virtual to hybrid model of work. The approach taken by many was emergent by necessity, recognizing that there are a wide range of questions and decisions to be made to achieve ‘hybrid by design.’ However, in other organizations, the approach was intentional often with disagreements and often discomfort in an experimental approach, and, in these cases, leaders and managers sought guidance from HR professionals.

Many organizations involved in our research said that workplace design was definitely moving up the agenda, and whilst cost-cutting was a consideration, designing the hybrid workplace is seen as enabling a balance of flexibility and connection to get the work done. Also, to remain competitive as an employer of choice.

The figure below shows the challenges leaders are experiencing relate to establishing the new working environment, how work will get done and the skills to lead and manage in the hybrid environment to ensure the needs of employees are balanced with the needs of the business.

new world of work - challenges

The most significant challenge we heard was how many leaders appear to be stuck in outdated and rigid ways of thinking and ingrained ways of behaving. In organizations where corporate leaders were mandating that employees return to the office, this mindset seems to be driven by fear, negative assumptions, and a lack of trust. One manager said “I want to see people working”. Trust is a predominant factor.

Managers and leaders also face challenges on the right – they will need to develop new skills for successfully negotiating with employees, for facilitating hybrid meetings and other conversations about how performance will be managed, how culture will be created, etc.

In order to address these challenges, we believe old ways of working will not achieve success. There is a need for redistribution of power between leaders and managers, and employees. This must be achieved collaboratively with leaders and employees taking responsibility for building trust and relationships. This doesn’t mean performance can’t be managed, or that employees will have everything they think they want. But it does require leaders at all levels to learn new skills for new conversations and to lead the development of new working norms.

Download the research study Rethinking Leadership for the Hybrid World of Work

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