Even experts can’t agree on the ideal hybrid workweek combo, says Harvard future of work professor: ‘We’re building the plane while flying it’

Nov 21, 2023 7:40 am | News

So said Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury at Harvard’s Future of Business conference earlier this month. Choudhury began studying the “geography of work” a decade ago, he later explained to Fortune, observing how people are hired in research and development labs. He found that there’s a lot of pain, both to individuals and their families, when companies move them around to different locations.

By 2018, he’d settled on his approach: “I thought, ‘what if companies organized work by letting people live where they want to live?’ That was the origin of the work from anywhere idea.”

That took on a new meaning shortly thereafter, when the pandemic hit and every white-collar job moved to remote-first, at least for a time. Nearly four years down the line, some form of hybrid has become the dominant structure, with workers insistent on retaining some of their pandemic-era flexibility despite bosses’ wishes. Today, the fully in-person workweek is just about dead.

But, as Choudhury told HBR panel attendees, even the experts can’t say with certainty how many days in office precisely are best. “I won’t pretend to know the answer—we need to study for years,” he said, nonetheless citing that recent research showing that ideal hybrid plans are somewhere between 23% and 40% in-person. “You’re in the best of both worlds when you balance flexibility with isolation.”

Guided by that basic belief, Choudhury, who has spent years advising companies of all sizes on flexible work arrangements, shared a boilerplate recommendation to leaders initiating a return-to-office plan: Aim to pair top-down policy with bottom-up experimentation. 

Gathering feedback from every side

Top-down policy, Choudury explained, is another way of describing decision-making that stems from the C-suite and is instituted all the way down the totem pole without much room for varied opinions. Bottom-up experimentation, on the other hand, focuses on leading with the preferences and needs of the workers at the bottom of the totem pole. 

“The idea is that we shouldn’t move from one top-down regime, which is five days a week [in-person], to none a week,” he said. “There’s a much better way to initiate change.”

Suffice it to say, despite their popularity, top-down approaches aren’t exactly effective. Companies who have initiated broad mandates have nonetheless seen their offices sit half-empty. That’s led them to threats and bribes to try and goad people in, only to yield predictable outcomes. The latest data provided to Fortune from building security from Kastle Systems shows that last week, offices in the ten major U.S. metro areas were 49.8% full. 

Choudhury joins legions of other remote-work advocates in recognizing the usefulness of in-office work—once in a while. “There’s no debate that we need to be in person occasionally; every team needs to do that,” he said. It’s not in-person work that’s the problem; it’s the mandates. “Instead of saying three days per week, make it more flexible and let teams choose different ways to organize that.”

He suggested thinking longer-term: 25% or 50% of the time, whatever is optimal. (This is the plan executed, to great success, at J. M. Smucker Co. in Orrville, Ohio.) The ideal philosophy is to balance a loose policy from the top with letting individual teams experiment with set-ups that work for them collectively. “Once you’ve done that for six months or a year, the new best practices will emerge, and teams will teach other teams.” 

‘Experimentation has to be part of this’

No unified plan will work for everyone, Choudhury cautioned. “Experimentation has to be part of this,” he said. “No expert or CEO can claim to know the correct answer. Companies that experiment more will figure it out better.”

Another reason experimentation is necessary: It yields greater employee buy-in. “If you force a top-down mandate down employees’ throats, people will complain,” he said. But if you give teams the space to experiment, they’ll be committed to the process, because they’ll feel like they’re part of the solution. It’s much easier, he pointed out, to get accountability inside a 30-person team than among a 30,000-person organization. 

One best practice Choudhury has personally tried: Kicking off every annual planning cycle with opening up the team calendar and jointly agreeing which days are in-person—and sticking to what the team agrees on. “Hopefully that’s not the team manager mandating what’s convenient to him or her, but the team collectively deciding,” he said. “Then there are no surprises, and the team holds itself accountable.”

Even though leaders may be hesitant because they’ve driven to work for 40 years and love their corner office and how they conduct meetings, they shouldn’t let that guide them. “There has to be some humility here, as a leader,” he said. “You might be a leader in banking, and know everything about banking—but no one’s an expert on work arrangements.” 

Indeed, the new “world of work” is one that must be collectively learned. Choudhury name-checked Stanford economist and WFH Research leader Nick Bloom—his peer—as being just as in the dark as he is about the actual answers. “We’re all trying to study and figure it out,” Choudhury said. “We’re building the plane while flying it.”

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