Don’t like hybrid working? You may be doing it wrong

Dividing time between two settings also means dividing tasks accordingly – into those easily done at home, and those best done at the office. Doing so ensures that time is being spent well in both settings and arduous commutes to the office are only made when really necessary.

In China, the shift to hybrid work is showing no sign of losing momentum. According to a study that surveyed over 2,000 Asia-Pacific business leaders, only 14 per cent of those in China expect all of their employees to work fully on-site in the long term. A key reason for companies offering such flexible schedules was attracting talent.

In turn, another study of employees in 27 economies by tech company Cisco found that 80.7 per cent of respondents want hybrid work, while 93.5 per cent report that their bosses are supportive of this desire. These numbers indicate a bright future for hybrid work in China.

However, managers often struggle with hybrid models, especially in guiding employees on what can be done at home versus what should be done at the office. Given that 86 per cent of all Chinese business leaders are in the process of adopting a hybrid work model, optimising this division of tasks is critical both for the success of individual companies, and the economy as a whole. So how can it be done?

Some might say it’s simple: just let rank-and-file employees and their immediate supervisors figure it out for themselves. However, my experience has taught me that employees often fail to maximise their productivity. It’s not because they’re lazy or deliberately inefficient; it’s just that they have never learned how to do hybrid work effectively, and don’t know what they don’t know.

Without guidance and professional development in this area, lower-level supervisors and middle managers in particular end up shoehorning traditional office-centric methods of working into hybrid settings. The result is lower productivity, engagement, and morale, harming company bottom lines and employee well-being and success.

There is one key filter for determining what to do and where: to maximise productivity, hybrid work models have to minimise employees’ commuting time. Trips to the office should be for a specific purpose that outweighs the significant costs – in time, money, and stress – involved in the commute.

A survey by office rental agency Hubble asking what respondents liked about working from home showed that 79 per cent of respondents enjoyed the lack of commute.

Chinese workers waste a lot of time commuting. A 2022 report from the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design found that many city dwellers in the largest cities in China commute over an hour each way – what it calls an “extreme commute”.

Moreover, commuting to work costs a lot of money. In their survey, Cisco found that Chinese workers saved an average of US$9,984 a year by working remotely.

Early morning commuters walk through Central MTR station in Hong Kong on January 26.

Peer-reviewed research has found that longer commute times correlate with lower job satisfaction, increased strain, and poorer mental health. And happy workers are productive workers, as found by economists.

In fact, much of the work that most employees do is more effectively done from home anyway, even if commutes weren’t an issue. For instance, much of the work done by individual employees involves focused tasks that they do by themselves. Research shows that workers are more focused when working at home, without the distractions of the office.

Another category of work that takes up a great deal of time for employees is asynchronous collaboration and communication. That might involve sending emails, editing a Google Doc or Mural board, or doing virtual asynchronous brainstorming. A McKinsey analysis shows that emails alone take up an average of 28 per cent of the work time for knowledge workers. There’s no reason to commute to the office just to read and send emails.

A third major activity best done from home is virtual meetings. In a survey by the collaboration software company Slack, employees report spending two hours each day in meetings. Stuart Templeton from Slack said that employers risked turning their offices into “productivity killers” by having their staff come in just to do video calls: according to him, “making a two-hour commute to sit on video calls is a terrible use of the office”.

Of course, for those workers who don’t have a comfortable and quiet home office, it’s important for employers to provide an alternative workplace for these three tasks, either in an employer-owned office or a co-working space.

Still, the large majority of employees prefer to work on such tasks at home. That means most hybrid employees should spend the substantial majority of their time working remotely.