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Operational Challenges & Opportunities of Remote vs. Onsite vs. Hybrid Work

By SRAI News posted 11-10-2021 03:18 PM


Operational Challenges & Opportunities of Remote vs. Onsite vs. Hybrid Work

As we all begin the fall quarter or semester at our institutions, we struggle to learn the new paradigm of varying workforce engagement. The new models being developed create challenges and opportunities. This creates options to develop a new truly 21st century workplace. 

As we all begin the fall quarter or semester at our institutions, we struggle to learn the new paradigm of varying workforce engagement.  While the past year has been one of remote work, multiple options are available for employees moving forward.  Some institutions are requiring a return to fully onsite work, while others are continuing remote work.  Most are evolving into hybrid models.  While this has created advantages for both employers and employees, it has also brought much anxiety, confusion, and pivoting.  Supervisors need to determine how best to toggle a workforce which is no longer together in one location and has differing needs.  This is something new for most supervisors at academic institutions, where the workforce has been cohesive and consistent previously. 

The primary challenge for managers is to ensure that staff are treated equally and equitably.  While it is natural for onsite workers to receive more immediate and individual attention (due to proximity), remote workers to receive benefits including more protected time and the lack of a commute.  Are remote workers ignored or under-prioritized?  Are they able to perform more analytical work because of fewer disruptions? And how does the concept of hybrid work play into these concepts? 

Hybrid work is defined as work that is both onsite and remote.  Workers may alternate times or days, allowing them the benefits (and detriments) of both.  Is this the best or worst of both worlds?  The key seems to be in how management implements this and how much interaction and engagement employees have. Some surveys have shown a preference for continued remote work. However, experiential data shows that employees do want to return to onsite work, if only for its social aspects.  Employers do indeed enjoy the benefits of a remote workforce (reassignment of space and reallocation of resources), although the loss of cohesion and culture remain primary concerns.  

Careful planning of hybrid cultures can potentially mitigate many of these concerns.  Bringing staff together onsite on a recurring scheduled basis for team-building, joint meetings, socialization, and training seem to be necessary.  However, it would seem unnecessary to bring staff onsite if only to have everyone sit in Zoom meetings throughout the day.  Supervisors need to clearly define the purpose of onsite work (beyond “customer service”) and plan out the goals and activities while the team is in the office.  Similarly, parallel activities should be well-thought-out and planned if all are remote.  A hybrid structure should not prevent any of this, although an amalgamation of the two seems to be the most challenging aspect.  How to engage a team when they are partially off- and partially on-site?  Early successes include conference room–based Zoom team calls, creating a larger whole for the onsite workers while engaging the offsite workers.  Scheduled activities for the team on both sides of the divide are also beneficial.  Encouraging use of Slack or Teams instant calling creates more immediacy.  Maintaining some consistency of experience for customers or faculty is also key. Onsite employees should not offer an enhanced experience—for instance, if this (unintentionally) denigrates the remote experience when engaging with stakeholders.  And, assessing each role independently (i.e. a programmer vs. a student affairs officer) is important, as the former seems to have little need to work onsite while it remains essential for the latter.  While this may seem to create inequity, job functionality should be a prime determinant of the institutional needs of the position, and whether or not it can be hybrid. 

Finally, for the manager who must now become a professional juggler, the manager should re-frame the discussion.  What options that formerly were not available, now are?  Issues of space, facilities, resource management, interpersonal concerns, and others have a wider variety of options on how to handle.  Rather than viewing the workforce in individual buckets (onsite, remote, hybrid), consider the options to maximize the strengths of each employee and work function.  Would Thursdays be the optimal days for employees to work at home, while NIH grant deadlines the optimal times for onsite work?  Could split morning/afternoon onsite shifts be designed, with the lunch hour the opportunity for overlap among teams?  Could a “call in” model be designed so that in-person work is only based on local needs?  The manager now has much more flexibility in determining who, what, when, and where.  Re-frame this challenging paradigm as a bold opportunity to re-think needs over convenience and what would optimally work best for the unit. 

Beyond the day-to-day operational challenges and opportunities, managers must also be prepared to navigate workforce retention challenges, particularly if their organization is fully on-site or even adopting a hybrid model. According to a survey conducted by LiveCareer, approximately 30% of U.S.–based workers would likely switch jobs if they were expected to return to fully on-site work (Woolf, 2021). With COVID kicking off a broad adoption of permanent remote work opportunities, some organizations have taken full advantage of this adoption to expand their search for talent beyond a commutable distance. And employees have overwhelmingly responded positively, according to the survey conducted by LiveCareer, which included 1,022 verified respondents, “81% of working professionals enjoy working remotely” and “65% of respondents said remote work positively affected their work-life balance” (Woolf, 2021). No longer do research administrators need to confine their employment search to their immediate geographic area or go through the stressful process of uprooting their lives to take a job in another state. Instead, research administrators are now easily able to find institutions that have fully embraced remote work as an option in order to retain and bring in talented individuals.  While there are no doubt downsides that remote work may present for some individuals, offering the maximum flexibility for employees and trusting them to make the best decisions for themselves may be the best compromise and way to meet the needs of institutions and employees. Furthermore, savvy managers can develop creative solutions to help mitigate some of the most often cited challenges of remote work such as staying motivated, communication, collaboration, loneliness, and unplugging after work. 

What has become clear is that, rather than confining ourselves to a single model, the post-pandemic work environment may become more fluid, creating opportunities for both employees and employers to re-think options and create a truly 21st century workplace. Now may be the best time to look within and brainstorm to create a more sustainable work life. 


Woolf, 2021.

Authored by Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer
University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Neurobiology

Authored by Tyler Tulloch, Grant Services Manager
Michigan State University