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Hybrid work isn’t radical, we’ve been doing it for years

By Nick Wilson | |7 minute read

While many business leaders see hybrid work as a risk, others claim the fears derive from a misconception. Hybrid work is nothing new, they say.

In 2020, when Australian software company Atlassian rolled out its “Team Anywhere” work model, the hybrid work landscape was markedly less charted. Hybrid and remote work were not unheard of, but deciding to put the decision entirely in the hands of workers was, and indeed still is, radical.

“It was important to us that we put a stake in the ground even if we didn’t have it all figured out,” said Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, co-founders of Atlassian.

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For all the newness and novelty of their approach, the company, in its recent Lessons Learned: 1,000 Days of Distributed at Atlassian report, was careful to claim that so-called “distributed work” is nothing new.

Distributed work

Put simply, distributed work is work carried out partly online, partly face to face. In that sense, it’s another species of hybrid work, and it characterises the way most of us already work. Even when in the same office, a large part of our collaboration occurs digitally.

“Even the few teams that are co-located are likely not working ‘together’ in the traditional sense,” said Atlassian. “Research has long shown that we don’t talk regularly to colleagues who sit more than 30 feet away, even if we technically can.”

In other words, we’re already working in a distributed way. The change is just about removing the requirement that we do so under the same roof.

“Being distributed is not controversial. It’s just a word that describes how almost all work gets done today: on the internet,” said Annie Dean, global head of Team Anywhere at Atlassian.

To that point, when Atlassian surveyed 200 executives in 2023, every single respondent said their teams work in a distributed way, while 99 per cent agreed that work will only become more distributed in the future.

According to research from RADICL, only 19 per cent of work teams are primarily co-located. Meaning that most work is done with a degree of physical separation. Even among those who are co-located, many don’t take advantage of the proximity.

Reframing: Not where, but how

Productivity, said Atlassian, is not a result of where teams work, but how they work. This is hardly a controversial idea, as 98 per cent of surveyed executives agreed. Getting this distinction right could open the floodgates to broader uptake in hybrid work.

“The biggest blockers to productivity, connection, and innovation are not location-based. They centre around how work gets done: back-to-back meetings, vague priorities, confusing email threads, and streams of distracting notifications,” said Atlassian. “All knowledge workers face these challenges, regardless of where they work.”

In October of last year, Gallup said the “jury is still out” on how flexibility interacts with productivity. This is still the case. However, some research has pointed to its benefits; consider the following statistics:

  • Ninety-two per cent of Atlassian employees report higher productivity, and 32 per cent cite improvements in focus since working hybrid.
  • A Gallup survey found that 52 per cent of hybrid workers see increased productivity as a benefit of hybrid work.
  • A PwC study found that a majority of respondents reported heightened productivity over the pandemic, when working remotely.
  • Some research has also claimed that productivity gains can, in many cases, be expected as an indirect impact of boosting employee wellbeing and work/life balance – a clear benefit of increased flexibility.

For every positive study, however, there are negative ones to be found, including the following:

  • A Stanford study found that fully remote workers tend to be 10 per cent less productive but that hybrid work “appears to have no impact on productivity”.
  • A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the productivity of workers “randomly assigned” to working from home is 18 per cent lower than those in the office.

To the extent there is any consensus on the flexible work data, it appears to be that fully remote workers might be slightly less productive, but hybrid workers – who employ a mix of in-office and from-home work – can often be slightly more productive.

Absent any conclusive productivity data, it appears that the efficacy of hybrid work programs will come down to the particulars of every approach.

RELATED TERMS

Hybrid working

In a hybrid work environment, individuals are allowed to work from a different location occasionally but are still required to come into the office at least once a week. With the phrase "hybrid workplace," which denotes an office that may accommodate interactions between in-person and remote workers, "hybrid work" can also refer to a physical location.

Remote working

Professionals can use remote work as a working method to do business away from a regular office setting. It is predicated on the idea that work need not be carried out in a certain location to be successful.

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson is a journalist with HR Leader. With a background in environmental law and communications consultancy, Nick has a passion for language and fact-driven storytelling.