Does hybrid working actually work? Previews of 30,000 emails

The first COVID-19 lockdowns sparked a controversial debate raging in the workplace: Can businesses thrive if employees continue to work remotely?

Skeptical CEOs, such as Goldman Sachs and Starbucks executives, say they need full-time office workers to foster a collaborative environment. At the other extreme: companies like 3M, SAP and Twitter allow many employees to work from anywhere. Caught in between: employees leaving inflexible jobs as part of the “big quit” and new hires feeling adrift without regular contact.

“Hybrid schedules in which employees roughly split their work weeks between home and the office seem to work best.”

The ideal solution, according to a new work document, could be a trade-off: hybrid schedules in which employees roughly split their work weeks between home and work seem to be the most effective. These schedules allow for a good mix of flexibility and engagement that not only makes employees happier, but also more productive and creative, which translates into higher quality work, according to the study.

“There seems to be a middle ground,” says Prithwiraj Choudhury, Lumry family associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

In the first study of its kind, Choudhury analyzed more than 30,000 emails sent to colleagues experimenting with various working arrangements during the 2020 COVID pandemic. He teamed up with Tarun Khanna, Professor Jorge Paulo Lemann at HBS, HBS PhD student Kyle Schirmann and Christos Makridis from Stanford University and Columbia Business School.

Emails Reveal Quality of Work

Choudhury and his colleagues conducted a field experiment involving 130 human resource administrators at BRAC, the world’s largest nongovernmental organization, based in Bangladesh. The experiment took place in the summer of 2020, at the end of the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.

Researchers studied employee emails and attachments before and over a nine-week period using machine learning and textual analysis. They supplemented their analysis of the e-mails with qualitative surveys of the employees involved in the study and their respective managers.

Employees were randomly assigned, via a lottery, to certain days when they would work in the office. Choudhury and his team then divided the participating HR workers into three groups based on how they divided their time between home and the office. The mostly home group went to the office for up to eight days during the study period. Hybrid workers spent nine to 14 days in the office, and the mostly office cohort worked more than 15 days in the office.

Employees responded to surveys that gauged their sense of satisfaction with their various work arrangements. During this time, their supervisors rated worker productivity on a seven-point scale ranging from “unsatisfactory” to “excellent” in categories such as ability, cooperation, job knowledge, creativity, productivity and quality of work.

Hybrid is the right balance

In all three categories (number of emails sent, work-from-home satisfaction, and quality of work product), members of the hybrid group outperformed their peers.

“The new working paper may be the first to generate data on the impact of hybrid work schedules on corporate communication patterns and work quality.”

Hybrid work resulted in 0.8 more emails sent per day, and office work resulted in an increase of 0.5, compared to the group that mostly worked from home. Additionally, hybrid working is associated with a 58% increase in unique email recipients compared to those who work primarily from home, a metric that indicates workers in the hybrid category had email networks broader intra-organizational ones.

That’s important, given concerns that remote work could lead to siled messaging networks, a pattern that could affect collaboration and innovation. Hybrid category workers also produced more emails and attachments, with novelty measured using text and machine learning methods.

For employees, the paper says, “hybrid working could represent the best of both worlds.” Worker surveys conducted at the end of the experiment revealed that hybrid employees were more satisfied with working from home, better work-life balance and lower isolation compared to the other two groups.

“If you’re in the middle group, you get the most flexibility without having the costs of isolation from your colleagues,” says Choudhury.

The results may also be good news for employers: work has not suffered from flexible hours; In fact, just the opposite. The results showed that the hybrid workers produced more new work than the other two groups, with managers subjectively evaluating their work as being of higher quality than the others.

Choudhury notes that the new working paper may be the first to generate data on the impact of hybrid work schedules on business communication patterns and work quality, but warns that more work needs to be done to flesh out the results.

More proof that “work from anywhere” works

Choudhury, who studies the future of work, had conducted numerous studies of remote working long before the pandemic forced companies into a giant hands-on experiment against their will.

“His research points to a highly productive and happier world of work where flexibility could become the rule rather than the exception.”

The results of the BRAC experiment follow Choudhury’s separate study from the US Patent and Trademark Office. This research found that patent examiners able to “work from anywhere” examined 4.4% more patent applications, without a significant increase in rework or deterioration in quality. The results of the study suggest that reviewers may have struggled to produce quality work the first time around while maintaining close contact with managers.

Choudhury has also studied remote and hybrid work policies at several organizations, including Tata Consultancy Services, Tulsa Remote, GitLab, Zapier and MobSquad.

His research points to a highly productive and happier world of work where flexibility could become the rule rather than the exception. He cites Indian tech giant TCS, which recently announced that employees should only be in the office 25% of the time, and that days may differ from group to group.

“It doesn’t mean you have to be in the office every week,” he says. “The guiding principle is that the team decides the colocation schedule.”

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Image: TONL, LLC

Norma A. Roth