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Why We Are Stuck in a Hybrid Vortex and How To Break the Cycle

By Tori Paulman | May 22, 2023 | 0 Comments

Information TechnologyCIO Leadership, Culture and PeopleDigital Workplace ApplicationsDigital Workplace Program

In December of 2022, right in the middle of the 2nd major set back for “return to office” (omicron variant), I was struck with an inspiration to adapt Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” for the future of work. According to Maslow, human needs are arranged in the form of a hierarchy, with physiological needs at the bottom, and the more creative and intellectually oriented ‘self-actualization’ needs at the top. More importantly, that humans could not hope to achieve higher level needs like esteem, belonging, and self-actualization without a solid foundation. 

Today, more than a year and a half after I first published this graphic, leaders are still asking what they can do to get workers to return to the office. In my own client interactions, I have more than conversations every single day with leaders who want to know what how to entice workers to return. They say, “We are trying to use a carrot — not a stick. But we are not getting results…” A sampling of headlines from last week prove that we are lost…

– “Office Mandates. Pickleball. Beer. What Will Make Hybrid Work Stick?” (NY Times)

– “Hybrid Work Is the New Norm—and So Are Half-Full Buildings” (Barrons)

– “CEOs thought the return to office debate was over. It looks like they were wrong.” (NBC)

– “Employees say returning to the office is breaking the bank.” (Business Insider)

Hierarchy of Needs for Workers


It’s easy to see that organizations benefit far greater from employees who are having their belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs met. Yet, most organizations are stuck, unable to meet the foundational needs of physical and safety. 

  • Physical: I am empowered to choose to work in a space that meets my physical needs.
  • Safety: I experience predictability and stability because I am empowered to design work patters that meet my needs.
  • Belonging: I have rich interpersonal relationships with colleagues and feel connected to groups outside my immediate team.
  • Esteem: My work is evaluated based on outcomes and deliverable, not the number of hours I am present.
  • Self-Actualization: I feel purpose in my work and see my contributions reflected in our success.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Adapted for Workers

How Hybrid Work Is Planned Today


Today, hybrid work strategies are typically planned by having leaders figure out how much predictability they need or want in the system and how much flexibility they are willing to allow. I don’t know about you, but most people I know aren’t very flexible. And, when they realize that in order to become more flexible it means they’ll have to put in a lot of work to change lifestyle choices and suffer through the pain of progress, it becomes less of a priority. This is why we are still seeing a attachment to one-size-fits-all hybrid work strategies, or worse, the magical thinking of a full return to a majority of days / week in the office. 

  • Predictability: Organizations that mandate the number of days, e.g. 3 in 2 out, or the specific days, e.g. Tue, Wed, Thu lose out on providing the flexibility at the core of the push for hybrid work.
  • Flexibility: Organizations that empower workers to work wherever and whenever they want lose out on providing the predicability that makes the effort to come to the office worth it. 
  • The Compromise: Organizations that push the decision down to the team level often lack the capabilities that make hybrid work planning easy and therefore the effort to plan an office day becomes a deterrent. Often these organizations leave it up to individual managers which creates inequity and adds even more to the manager plate. P.S. My Dad used to always say – once you begin to compromise no one is happy…


How To Break Out of the Hybrid Vortex


Our 2022 Digital Worker Experience Survey found that 92% of workers want to participate in hybrid working. But, only 14% of them wanted their organization or manager to decide which days they would come in. Even more impactful, we found nearly equal numbers of workers wanted to personally select from a minimum mandate, have total autonomy, or plan their office days with their immediate team. 

At face value, this is not great news. It means that any attempt to create a hybrid strategy that works for all workers will alienate more than 50% of your workforce. But, there is a good news story here that can help leaders break out the cycle of the hybrid work vortex:

  • Define a hybrid work strategy that prioritizes the role of the employee, not the manager, in planning the right days and times to come to the office.
  • Implement workplace experience (WEX) apps to help workers plan the best days to go to the office, and reserve workspaces for their personal and group activities, as well as parking, lunch, and amenities.
  • Enable and socialize capabilities inside collaborative work and personal and team productivity apps that help workers coordinate with others such as “find a time” features.
  • Provide managers and leaders with capabilities to orchestrate work, nudge workers to come in, and identify any workers who are not visiting the office.


Gartner clients can get more insight with the following research:

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