Pre-pandemic, many organizations only knew how to operate fully in person, but research from two management and entrepreneurship professors at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business shows how one organization is testing out hybrid work arrangements.

Amy Colbert and Jennifer Nahrgang have been collecting data on two units within one organization in Iowa while it pilots flexible work arrangements.

The organization started its pilot period in August, and plans to continue it through June 2022. Employees gave input on their preferred work arrangement, but they were ultimately assigned to be hybrid, remote or in-person based on the structure of their role and the type of work they do.

Employees of the units have completed two in-depth surveys, in September and November, that asked about work arrangement satisfaction, whether they feel their work arrangement matches their job requirements, and their intent to stay with or leave the organization.

Colbert and Nahrgang shared key findings as well as their insights into how businesses can apply the findings to their own return-to-work transitions. The following are the combinations of working arrangements for each unit:

Unit 1 (more than 230 respondents)
45% hybrid (21% primarily in-person; 24% primarily remote); 33% remote; 22% in-person
Unit 2 (more than 80 respondents)
62% hybrid (38% primarily in-person; 24% primarily remote); 17% remote; 21% in-person

Overall, the survey results showed that compared with fully in-person employees, hybrid and fully remote workers are more satisfied with their current work arrangement, feel that their arrangement matches their job requirements and are less likely to consider leaving the organization. Both units also self-reported on their productivity, and no significant differences were found based on the type of work arrangement.

Results of the November survey did not differ significantly from those in September; there was also no difference between the units in either survey, which Colbert and Nahrgang said are positive signs that employees are settling in well with the new work arrangements.

Nahrgang said the organization aided that process by focusing on picking the arrangement that best fit each role and then effectively communicating with employees about their new arrangement and the transition.

Employees reported a low intent to leave the organization in surveys with several factors contributing. If employees felt the decision-making process was fair or that their arrangement fit their role, they thought less about leaving. Colbert said employers still figuring out what return to work looks like for their organizations should take into account these kinds of employee perceptions.

“There is a sense that if people don’t get the work arrangement they want, they may leave. … It’s not that employees will leave if they don’t get the work arrangement that they want, necessarily, [but] the organization can influence that decision by doing a better or worse job of explaining the reasons and supporting the employees in this process,” Colbert said.

Here are some other recommendations based on the research for leaders planning or adjusting their team’s return to work:

Take advantage of pilot periods. Nahrgang said there shouldn’t be a rush to complete the transition to new work arrangements, whatever they are. A pilot period gives workers time to try an arrangement and adjust it before it becomes permanent.

“What you don’t know is that configuration of people working in different arrangements, [and] how that is going to impact coordination between people,” Nahrgang said. “I do think the pilot periods allow you to get an understanding of how is work distributed. How are individuals working together with these different work arrangements? And then how can we best coordinate together to achieve success?”

Train managers in remote supervision. The changes to the workplace have also altered how managers lead and communicate with their employees, including how they share expectations and provide support. Colbert said employees feeling that they have effective leadership, whether people are remote or in-person, was a contributing factor in their intent to leave the organization. Beth Livingston, an assistant professor in the Tippie College of Business, is currently using a $1.2 million grant to develop training for managers supervising remote workers that could be implemented in small and large organizations across Iowa.

There is more data from the pilot period to study, particularly on the units themselves and how their combination of work arrangements affects their operations. But Nahrgang and Colbert are both confident that alternative work arrangements, especially hybrid, are the new norm.

Even though many businesses are already in the transition back to offices, Colbert said the evolving labor market and ongoing pandemic will make work arrangements a priority at least for the near future.

“Ultimately, every organization is a part of the larger labor market, so what other organizations are doing with regard to work arrangements are going to impact what any organization needs to decide in order to keep their employees,” she said. “I think we’re going to see the effects of this playing out for the next two or three years as organizations settle into what their new work arrangements will look like.”