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Home or Office? - New research examines attendance in hybrid work environments

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the workforce has transitioned to hybrid work arrangements, working from home on some days and in the office on others. While hybrid work seeks to combine the benefits of in-office and remote work, it also presents challenges, says Yuan Yuan, an assistant professor in the management information systems area at Purdue University’s Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business.

Yuan addresses that dynamic in “Navigating the New Normal: Examining Co-Attendance in a Hybrid Work Environment,” which he coauthored with Marie-Laure Charpignona from the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dehao Zhang, Fereshteh Amini, Longqi Yang, Sonia Jaffe and Siddharth Suri from Microsoft. The study was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer-reviewed journal of the academy.

“Face-to-face encounters resulting from in-office work can improve team collaboration and connection and facilitate activities like brainstorming,” Yuan says. “Remote work, on the other hand, offers flexibility, saved commute time and enhanced individual focus time, while also enabling access to a broader talent pool and potential cost savings for organizations and employees. Hybrid work aims to retain some of the remote work advantages, while capturing some of the collaboration and productivity benefits of in-person time. However, the synchronization of in-office workdays among employees can pose a challenge. Misaligned work schedules can lead to missed opportunities for in-person interactions — one of the top reasons employees come to the office.”

In their study, Yuan and his coauthors quantify attendance patterns among 43k employees at a global technology company, leveraging anonymized building access data obtained from electronic badges used by employees at three major office sites worldwide, along with data on each employee’s job category, workspace type and new-hire status. “We focus on the tendency of an employee to co-attend with their direct manager and teammates,” Yuan says. “Although our approach does not allow us to determine who is influencing whom to go to the office due to the reflexive nature of co-attendance, it enables us to reliably assess alignment of in-office work schedules. Our overall objective is to understand the extent of team coordination in office attendance among the employees we study and knowledge workers more broadly.”

Using two-way fixed effects regression models to investigate the association between an employee’s presence in the office and that of their manager and teammates, the analysis shows that employee in-person attendance was 29% higher when their manager was present. Moreover, a one-standard deviation increase in the share of teammates who were present yielded a 16% increase in the individual employee’s attendance. The study also observed greater co-attendance among employees who were recently hired, have a corporate or operations role or work in shared office spaces. “While we find evidence of some voluntary alignment of work schedules, companies could bolster it by leveraging digital scheduling tools or providing guidance specifically aimed at increasing co-attendance,” Yuan says.

Yuan says the findings are evidence of “organic coordination” among employees. “Even with the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited attendance expectations, employees went to the office more on the days when their manager and teammates were present,” he says. “Our research suggests that companies implementing hybrid work policies may wish to complement such approaches with efforts to increase bottom-up coordination. These could take the form of team-level discussions and explicit coordination of regular in-office days, software tools to facilitate coordination among coworkers or both. Companies requiring office attendance on certain days of the week are missing many of the flexibility and office-use efficiency benefits of hybrid work, but could still benefit from bottom-up coordination for employees to align their schedules when they need to do in-office work on non-required days.”

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