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Hybrid work for many is messy and exhausting

Working both remotely and in the office is creating new headaches for workers and complicating collaboration, tech tools and work-life balance

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

As a remote worker for a year and half during the pandemic, Lauren Scott had a relatively relaxed daily routine. The assistant at a media company in Pennsylvania would wake up somewhat rested around 7 a.m., change into comfy clothes, take a walk, warm up some coffee and log online for work around 9 a.m.

During breaks throughout the day, she might start a load of laundry, stretch on the floor to ease her chronic back pain or step outside for some fresh air. She would cook herself a hot lunch and play podcasts in the background as she worked. At the end of the day, she had time to take a crack at a new dinner recipe.

But after switching to working three days at the office as mandated by her employer in February, she says many of her newfound benefits dissipated. She now has to get up an hour earlier to get dressed, put on makeup and prep her lunch. She spends about an hour driving to and from work to avoid public transit, which she says has more crime and drugs since the pandemic. She says she feels an unspoken and self-inflicted pressure to always be at her desk, cutting out breaks for fresh air and stretching. And she saves walks, cooking experiments, podcasts and chores for the weekend. While she’s enjoyed reconnecting with colleagues in the office, by Friday she says she’s less productive.

“I’m just wiped out,” says the 37-year-old Scott. “I don’t know how I used to do it.”

Tell us what's happening at your workplace.

Scott is among a growing group of workers who have been called back to the office in a hybrid environment, a catchall phrase for working part time in the office. Market research firm Forrester predicts that this year, 60 percent of offices will adopt a hybrid work policy, but it also expects that one-third will fail at successfully executing as companies continue to design the workplace around face-to-face interaction.

And workers say they are discovering new frustrations with hybrid work as they adapt to both virtual and in-person work. From keeping track of their belongings to having two functional workspaces and ensuring that their visits to the office coordinate with those of their colleagues, this model is rife with unexpected hurdles, they say. To be sure, workers say they prefer hybrid work over being in the office full time.

“I didn’t realize all the fringe benefits [of remote work] until we had it,” said Ryan Faulk, a manager with a Los Angeles-based faith-based nonprofit, who declined to name his employer. “Going to hybrid, now there’s all these growing pains.”

At Google, which employs more than 156,000 workers and had its official return to the office on Monday, workers are worried about covid risks in a hybrid work environment, said a member of the Alphabet Workers Union who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution. The company is requiring that employees be vaccinated to return to the office but does not plan to test vaccinated employees. Workers also don’t understand what led the company to choose a three-days-a-week in-office workweek and only some employees are eligible for full remote work, which could come with a pay cut, the union member said.

“Google workers have proven they can deliver when working from home as is evident by the record-breaking profits Alphabet has enjoyed [during the pandemic],” said Parul Koul, a software engineer at Google and executive chair of the Alphabet Workers Union. “If Google will not even choose to keep workers informed or involved in decision-making … how can we trust that the policies they are putting in place will effectively protect all workers?”

Google says its decisions were inspired by worker feedback. It also said it is offering employees weeks where they can work from anywhere as well as the ability to apply for work-from-home extensions. For those considering fully remote work, the company debuted a work location tool to help employees determine whether their pay will change if they moved away from campus.

In other workplaces, a hybrid schedule sometimes means going to the office and discovering you’re the only one there. Workers who can choose their in-office days say they often have to coordinate with other colleagues to ensure they’re all in at the same time. (Mondays are not popular, according to one worker.) But for those with assigned in-office days or whose job doesn’t require collaboration, the requirement to go to work can feel forced and unnecessary.

Four-day weeks and the freedom to move anywhere: Companies are rewriting the future of work (again)

Jeremiah Dylan Cook, an analyst for a financial aid agency on the East Coast, said his job is somewhat siloed. In a week, he might have only one team meeting. When he’s in the office working alone, he wonders why he’s not at home with his wife and cat instead.

“It was like why am I here specifically?” he said about going back to the office. “There are managers that might need to be on-site and collaborate more, but I’m not one of those people.”

Hybrid work is also a nightmare for those trying to keep track of the different tools and files workers need to have with them when they do their jobs.

For Mario Dcunha, a senior product designer at financial software company Intuit, keeping track of the numerous adapters and chargers he needs for various screens has been somewhat irritating. Dcunha, who can choose how often he goes to the office, said he likes his hybrid working arrangement. He just wishes technology made transitioning from a conference room to his office desk to his home setup easier.

“Even with all the latest gadgets, I have to keep carrying around my adapters,” he said, adding that he’s often left his adapters in the wrong place. “It never was such a big of a problem because I could just borrow someone’s charger … but now, there’s no one next to me.”

Workers are putting on pants to return to the office only to be on Zoom all day

Faulk, the nonprofit manager in Los Angeles, said he often uses paper files and handwritten to-do lists on top of tech tools like his laptop and charging cables. But remembering what he needs to truck back and forth for the following days’ work quickly became a challenge, he said.

“I’ve left my laptop charger at work before and had to use my phone’s charger,” he said. “I was able to get through the first half of the day, but it was dicey.”

Faulk said hybrid work is also affecting his finances. Now that he’s switched to microwaveable meals and buying more lunches from eateries, many of which have increased their prices, combined with astronomical gas prices, he’s taking much less pay home than when he worked fully remote.

“My dollar is not stretching as far,” he said. “Being able to work from home felt like a small raise.”

Getting used to the office technology can be especially challenging after two years, during which time much of the conferencing tools were upgraded. Karen Budell, vice president of brand marketing at Momentive, maker of SurveyMonkey, said her first week back in hybrid mode last month was full of technical blips and awkward social cues.

Budell, who voluntarily chose to work in a hybrid model, said when she used Zoom from a conference room screen, she’d often miss out on links people shared in the chat box. She also had to get used to being fully present when physically on camera in the conference room, which prevents her from multitasking during Zoom meetings.

“I had to bring my full self to the meeting, which means I’m now behind on Slack messages and definitely behind on email,” she said. “So I’d be in a meeting at which people are referencing an email that I hadn’t seen yet.”

Meeting RSVPs have also become confusing, she said. Momentive allows employees to work remotely, hybrid or in the office, and change their plans or days at any time. That means when someone RSVPs to a meeting, she never knows when she should book a conference room or host it entirely via Zoom. At the same time, if she sees someone on Zoom in a conference room she intends to enter, she doesn’t know whether that’s her meeting or a prior meeting. And she says it’s hard to tell if someone is video conferencing from their desk or just listening to music.

“It feels like a game of charades,” she said.

The most awkward adjustment Budell has had to make? Finding the right shoes that are office appropriate but also won’t hurt her feet. She has been cozied up in slippers for two years.

Video calls can be a pain for hybrid offices. Tech companies say relief is coming.

As for Scott, to ensure she is successful in the new hybrid environment, she’s shelled out a little cash to ensure she has two functional work setups; she bought duplicate lighting and keyboard wrist rests so that she could be comfortable both at work and at home.

But echoing many workers’ current sentiment, Scott said she wants to choose when and how often she goes into the office.

“Personally, I don’t love it,” she said, adding that her preference is mostly remote. “Hybrid for me is … not preferable.”

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