Since the pandemic, flexible work has transformed from a nice perk to a must-have with a growing number of employees. According to Gallup’s latest survey of workers, over half of remote-capable employees expect and prefer to work in arrangements where they are both in-person and at home, otherwise known as a hybrid work.
Hybrid is here to stay in offices, but it’s still an open experiment. At its best, it can give employees and managers more autonomy over their days, which can make work more efficient and less stressful. But it can also come with a unique set of challenges ― and in some cases, not just frustrations but actual issues that can drive employees out of workplaces.
HuffPost asked career experts and professionals who have worked through hybrid job arrangements about the telltale signs that a hybrid work policy is going to be problematic for an employee’s well-being. Here are the common red flags:
1. Sick days are seen as days to work from home.
One of the biggest red flags that a hybrid arrangement has the potential to be toxic is when it blurs your work/life boundaries. Under this unclear policy, your flexible schedule becomes an excuse to keep you working longer, even when it would be a detriment to your health.
Brianna Doe, who is the co-founder for marketing company Verbatim, said she experienced this firsthand at a past hybrid job.
“When I took a sick day, the mindset that my manager met me with was like, ‘Well, the perk is that you get to stay home, you still have to work,’” she recalled. “In a healthy culture, whether you’re fully remote, or fully in-office, or a mix of both, work-life balance is still going to be available, you’re still going to be encouraged to take care of yourself.”
2. There is no formal policy outlined for employees.
HR consultant and talent development expert Deirdre E. Orr has been responsible for both crafting hybrid policies and working under them. She said the biggest red flag that a hybrid arrangement can become toxic at a job is when there is no official policy, especially when there is an influx of new employees arriving.
When hybrid arrangements operate in a “grey area,” it can have employees worrying, “Is this really real? Can you take this away from me?” Orr said.
Orr said it can also create a feeling of unfair favouritism when employees hear “through the grapevine that Lisa has been able to work from home, and she’s taken her computer, but every time I ask I can’t do it.”
In worst cases, Orr said unclear reasonable accommodations for hybrid work can open the company up to discrimination claims. To avoid that, Orr recommended an ironclad hybrid policy where employees know which days they should be in the office or not, and managers can explain why these days were chosen for higher productivity or other metrics.
3. Your boss and colleagues act totally different when you’re remote vs. in-person.
If your boss becomes a Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde depending on if you’re working in person or not, it can create a confusing, exhausting environment.
In a past hybrid job, Doe said when she worked her three days in the office, “everything was fine.” But on the two days she worked from home, “trust flew out the window” with her boss, and she worked longer hours to keep her boss up to date with what she did when her manager couldn’t see her.
“I had to send in exactly what I did all day at the end of the day, I had to compile the list,” Doe said. “I felt like I wasn’t trusted. I felt like they thought I needed to be followed up on. And it was really, really demoralising.”
It’s not just bosses who can undergo an unwelcome transformation when you’re remote ― peers can also use the hybrid policy as an opportunity to be ruder than they would in person.
Although the opportunity to work remotely can help create much-needed distance between you and backstabbing, gossiping colleagues, sometimes it can also have the opposite effect. Abbajay said that people can be more conscious of their words’ impact face-to-face, and in worst cases, colleagues can be ruder in emails and Slacks than they would out loud.
“When we’re separated by hybrid, I don’t necessarily have that physical in-person social cue to modify my behaviour,” Abbajay said as an example. “I’m just talking to a screen, and I don’t care how that screen feels.”
4. You often get excluded from invitations to meetings or celebrations.
Abbajay said the hallmarks of a toxic job are when employees feel disempowered, belittled and devalued.
“When there’s a lack of concern or care for the employee experience from management, upper management, that’s going to lay the groundwork for toxicity and of course, physical, emotional, psychological abuse,” she said.
And one troubling sign that you’re not being considered is when you’re not being invited to happy hours or decision-making meetings because of your hybrid status.
“I would just feel worry and panic, like, ‘What does this mean? Do they not see me as a valued member of the team? Did they forget about me?’”
– Brianna Doe, co-founder for marketing company Verbatim
At her toxic hybrid job, Doe said she experienced getting excluded from meetings that people who were in the office more got invited to, which made her feel less connected to her team and worried about losing her job.
“I would just feel worry and panic, like, ‘What does this mean? Do they not see me as a valued member of the team? Did they forget about me, which is even worse?’ It’s just like, ‘I don’t even know if I’m safe here anymore,’” Doe recalled.
She’s not alone in feeling left out. According to Deloitte’s 2023 survey of 5,000 working women in 10 countries, 58% of women who are hybrid workers in tech, telecommunications and media said they believe they have been excluded from decision-making meetings and informal interactions due to being hybrid, which was higher than the 33% of fully remote women who reported the same.
Abbajay said hybrid policies can also stoke the toxic flames even higher by exacerbating in- and out-groups that might already exist. She gave the examples of certain cliques only going into the office on certain days, while others do not, creating more distrust and disconnection between the two sides.
5. There are zero or few hybrid employees getting promoted into leadership.
Look at your org chart and see who is at the top of each division and who is getting promoted into those leadership roles. Are any of them working a hybrid schedule? If you don’t know any, that should give you pause.
If you look at a company, and you see that all the leaders are in the office all the time, Doe said it’s an “indicator of how remote work is actually viewed, regardless of what the official policy is.” In her view, it’s not necessarily a red flag because people may just have personal work preferences, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
“A lack of remote or hybrid higher-ups could indicate that you won’t have long-term success at this company unless you are 100% in-person,” explained a FlexJobs report on hybrid policy red flags.
Quitting is not the only option. Try these steps if you’re experiencing these red flags at your current job or worried about the policy of a new job.
Sometimes, a bad or toxic working environment is beyond your control to change or know about until you’re in the job. But in many cases, there are steps you can take to change the parts of the hybrid policy that are making your work life hell.
Ask about the hybrid policy in the job interview.
If you’re a job seeker whose nonnegotiable is flexible, hybrid work, Orr said to be wary if the recruiter tells you that the company is still exploring hybrid work or cannot give a clear answer about how the policy will work.
“If they’re kind of flighty about what they’re doing when it comes to whatever their flexible workplace policy is, don’t trust it, because it’s probably going to be a mess,” she said.
Many times though, the hybrid policy can be clearly stated, but it’s the interpretation that can be all over the place.
To get answers on that, Leslie Perlow, an organisational behaviour professor at Harvard Business School, said she recommends job seekers to ask, “How much leeway is there around the policy and then in what ways is that interpreted?”
“I think it’s the lack of norms right now that are the problem,” she said.
Talk to employees about the hybrid policy before accepting a job offer.
Doe recommended talking to employees who already work at the company or have in the past to make an informed decision about how the company’s hybrid policy has been used and interpreted.
It’s an action Doe wishes she had done before she accepted a hybrid job that turned out to be toxic for her. “I really do believe that if I’d gotten honest feedback, I don’t think I would have taken the role,” she said.
Talk to your manager about how their interpretation of the hybrid policy is making you feel.
If your boss seems mistrustful about what you do when you’re not physically present, bring this up with them before rage-quitting.
To make it a productive conversation, do not accuse them. Instead, frame the conversation around what you can do to get them to trust you to get your work done, Doe suggested. See if there are actions that you can do, so that you can actually take time off without needing to be available for work remotely.
“I think the most important thing is making sure you’ve opened lines of communication,” Doe said. “When you see how your manager reacts, then you’ll know what to do next, whether it’s talk to HR, look for a job, talk to your mentor.”