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‘Flexidus’: Is the hybrid debate a symptom of deep-seated issues?

With many employees across professional services being dragged back into the office, some (or a lot) are anticipating resignations. Is the hybrid debate its own issue, or does it signal a more ingrained breakdown in the employment relationship?

user iconNick Wilson 18 January 2024 Big Law
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Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Lawyers Weekly’s sister brand, HR Leader.

A certain irony has flavoured the hybrid work debate of recent times. It seems often those employers who are best suited to flexible work arrangements – whether by operating as a provider of flexible work solutions or by the nature of their job requirements – are the quickest to issue return-to-work mandates.

“Tech giants such as Zoom, Google, Meta, X, and Amazon all recently announced that staff must return to the office at least two to three days per week,” said Dr Melissa Wheeler, senior lecturer in business administration at RMIT University.


“The companies that provide the platforms for virtual productivity are leading the charge for returning to the office, and the irony is not lost on employees or the public.”

The hybrid debate

While these tech giants are not alone in requiring their employees to return to the office, the phenomenon is, for some, yet another reason to doubt the justification for such mandates. Having experienced the many personal, psychological, and even productivity benefits of working remotely, many employees question the justification for return-to-work mandates.

“Employees who demonstrated their capacity to work remotely and deliver when lockdowns and travel restrictions were mandated reported better work/life balance, less time commuting, and more physical activity. For many, work has become less important, and they prefer to focus more time on their personal life than appeasing their employer,” explained Dr Wheeler.

Considering these many benefits, the return-to-work case, therefore, must be a solid one to tip the scales. One problem, in making this case, might be that in-office benefits can often be difficult to measure.

Consider, for example, the reasons listed by Dr Wheeler: “Employers … [are] worried about the dissipation of their old work culture, drops in innovation as a function of no spontaneous meetings and discussions between employees who interact in a workspace, and a lack of bonding between team members.”

How to measure things like culture, innovation, spontaneous collaboration, and team bonding is an open question, and when the other side of the scale is so loaded by personal experience, employers have an uphill battle. Or else, they might have a so-called “flexidus” on their hands as returning workers look for the door.

A deeper problem?

While flexible working clearly matters to employees, some think the tension might be the outgrowth of something more fundamental: “Poor relationships between employers and employees have likely developed through a disconnect between preferences, needs, and expectations – both feel exploited and taken advantage of,” said Dr Wheeler.

It’s possible that the hybrid debate speaks to a disconnect between what employees want and what employers expect. According to Jennifer Cameron, chief executive at Blend Me, the nature of the employer-employee relationship has fundamentally changed in recent years.

Beginning with the rise of the gig economy and, most recently, with the shift to hybrid work, what it means to be “employed” has changed. Most concerningly, said Ms Cameron, return-to-work policies have eroded trust.

“Employees who feel that their concerns are not being taken into account may become disengaged or even quit, leading to increased turnover and decreased productivity,” she said.

“However, the lack of trust goes both ways – there is a deeply rooted perception amongst managers that remote workers are not as motivated or productive as their onsite employees.”

Beyond a lack of trust, the hybrid debate could suggest a changing understanding of what having a job really means, what it requires of the individual, and what the employer is entitled to demand.

“It could be a sign that there is a disconnect between employees and employers about what a job constitutes, what is expected from each party, what one is willing to give, and what benefits one can expect to receive,” said Dr Wheeler.

“Trends like quiet quitting are symptoms of a gap in respect between both employee and employer, and something must be done to restore trust from employers, and protection and fulfilment for employees.”

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