A woman works on the laptop at her desk in her home. A monitor and two plants are also seen on the desk

Working from home has become the new normal for many, but whether it is best for business is hotly contested.Credit: Richard Lautens/Toronto Star/Getty

The COVID-19 pandemic upended lives around the world. And for one group of mainly higher-skilled, higher-earning office-based workers in sectors such as computing, marketing, accounting and finance, it meant an almost-overnight revolution in working practices. Working from home, previously regarded as an oddity or a perk, became the norm for millions of people.

Now, many employers want to roll back the home-working revolution amid fears that remote working harms productivity, creativity and collaboration. In some cases, they are mandating that employees return to fully in-person working, often to strident protests from their employees.

As a result, which mode of work — remote, in-person or a hybrid of the two — produces the best results has become a hot research topic. Previous work has shown that fully remote working has negative effects such as harming cross-company collaboration1 and reducing the generation of breakthrough ideas2. The latest study3, published this week in Nature, builds on existing evidence to indicate that there is, at least, less for employers to fear as far as hybrid working is concerned. As ever, with such a complex topic, however, more research is needed.

Hybrid working has become widespread in many parts of the world since the pandemic. Between April and May 2023, the third wave of the Global Survey of Working Arrangements, an international academic research collaboration based in the United States, asked more than 42,000 people across 34 countries about where they worked (see go.nature.com/4elh7h5). The results show that, although 67% of people work fully on-site, more than 25% now have hybrid working arrangements, with another 8% working fully from home. Home-working rates are highest for graduates, and are particularly high in the English-speaking world. The most common pattern of hybrid working is three days a week in the office and two days at home.

The latest study is the first randomized controlled trial of the benefits of this sort of hybrid working, according to its authors: economists Nicholas Bloom at Stanford University in California and Ruobing Han at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen in China, and James Liang, chairperson and co-founder of the online travel company Trip.com in Shanghai, China. More than 1,600 graduate employees of Trip.com were randomly assigned to one of two groups for a six-month period, with members of one group working five days a week in an office, and those of the other working three days a week in the office and two at home.

The authors found that the hybrid workers generally had increased job satisfaction and reduced resignation rates, and were as productive as those who worked entirely in-person, as measured by performance reviews. The reduction in resignation rates was particularly pronounced for those with longer commutes and for women. Reduced attrition rates were not seen for managers, who made up one-quarter of the trial sample — perhaps because managers rely more heavily than non-managers on coordinating people and forming social connections, which tends to be easier to do in person.

This adds to evidence that hybrid working offers benefits compared with all-office working. But many questions remain. The findings might differ for other countries and cultures, for example, and it is unclear whether alternative hybrid working arrangements, such as three days a week at home and two days in the office, have similar effects. What the results might be for workplaces that require different levels of collaboration and creativity is also up for debate.

Randomized controlled trials are a gold standard for determining the answers. More employers should be willing to collaborate with researchers and to trial different working policies in different contexts. Even if it turns out that hybrid working is not a panacea in workplaces that can sustain it, such studies might also pinpoint groups that could derive particular benefit from a more flexible approach. They might, for example, give insight into how people with care-giving responsibilities can be better integrated into companies, stay longer in their positions and be happy in their roles, driving greater equity and inclusion.

Ultimately, it is in employers’ interests to listen to what research says about creating happier and more productive workplaces. Losing workers is expensive: Trip.com estimates that recruitment and training costs amount to US$20,000 for each new worker. Whereas the company previously required employees to work on-site all week unless they were travelling for business purposes, Han says that, following the trial, it has expanded its hybrid working policy to all employees.

It’s not just about employers and employees, however. There is a wider, under-researched social context that must be considered, too — for example, the sustainability implications of maintaining office buildings that are less populated versus fewer commutes, and the impact on the wider economy and the livelihoods of other, often lower-paid people in the service sector if fewer people are travelling to city centres for work.

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic was a large, uncontrolled experiment in adapting to different working practices. It’s not too late to put some science behind it.