Research has shown the benefits of hybrid work—but what’s the ideal amount of time for colleagues to come together in person?

McKinsey has analyzed a raft of data—including anonymous surveys and behavioral data—about its roughly 4,000 teams working around the world at any given time, and has found that being on-site roughly 50% of the time works better than all-or-nothing approaches. There’s some nuance to this; for McKinsey’s teams, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same number of days in a given week.

To better understand the findings and the implications for other organizations, we reached out to Katy George, McKinsey’s chief people officer and a senior partner at the management consulting company. Here are excerpts from our recent exchange by email, edited for space and clarity:

When you say that a 50% on-site configuration ‘works better,’ does that mean better productivity, engagement, satisfaction?

McKinsey found that hybrid work—defined as spending roughly 50% of working in-person at a client site or an office–works better than all-or-nothing approaches, as it strikes the right balance for apprenticeship, workforce sustainability, and client impact.

Client co-location: Our recent research suggests that spending at least 20% of their time with a client can yield improved individual, team, and client outcomes. This of course varies by team, depending on the nature of work, the length of a project, and the roles of the individuals on the team.

Team co-location: We have found that teams see steep increases in development, connection, trust-based relationships, and overall team performance when roughly 50% of their time is spent in-person, over the course of a project. For example, colleagues are 10x more likely to feel that they are working well together when co-locating 50% of the time.

You also found that more than 50% in-person didn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes…

Our research shows that co-locating 50% of the time is the ‘hybrid sweet spot.’ When over 50% of time is spent in-person, we see trade-offs begin to emerge, with individuals and teams having less flexibility, and less time for focused work.

For example, colleagues who co-locate no more than 50% of the time are twice as likely to have sufficient recovery. Co-locating above 50% can start to have detrimental impacts on an individual’s recovery.

As the labor market—and employer and employee expectations—continue to evolve, it’s important that workforce strategies also continue to evolve. That’s why we are using people analytics: so we can continue to make informed decisions to evolve the ways our teams work by using real-time insights.

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Can you share a few specific examples of the tasks or projects that benefit from in-person time or virtual?

There are multiple examples of when in-person work is beneficial, including: mentorship and sponsorship, with data showing the perceived quality of mentorship increases by 25% when time is spent in-person; the ability to foster organic touchpoints to build short- and long-term connections with colleagues; and when a project requires complex coordination across roles, and therefore effective collaboration.

Individuals who are working remotely are more likely to have significant time for focused work, and feel it has a lasting impact. All roles reported most of their heads-down time happens when a colleague is at least partially remote. Technical colleagues benefit from more ‘heads-down time’ available to them in remote settings, and report improved psychological safety and alignment when not in-person.

What are you doing differently now as a result of this learning?

McKinsey had already established a strong people analytics team that was collecting data through an annual employee survey and using advanced analytics to generate longer-term predictors of employee satisfaction and performance. After the onset of the Covid pandemic, we saw a need to push this capability further to access more immediate employee sentiment in addition to the foundational longitudinal data. In short, we needed to build a continuous-listening strategy that would allow us to quickly identify important changes that were affecting colleagues in the moment and determine how best to address them in real time.

Based on our learnings, here are a few examples of changes we’ve made:

Making data accessible in real time: In response to demand from managers, the people analytics team built a self-service portal through which pulse-survey-driven reports can be filtered by date, population, and other characteristics. The portal also allows users to compare the reports with longitudinal data to guide real-time decisions.

Tracking team health: The people analytics team rolled out a manager alert capability that combines pulse survey results and other employee data to identify issues that certain teams and groups may be experiencing. Leaders and managers use the alert tool to identify emerging challenges before they turn into deeper issues, facilitate more constructive team conversations, and guide teams toward more sustainable norms and practices.

Mental health: The people analytics team used free-text analytics to structure and quantify colleagues’ written submissions about specific mental-health-related topics that were top of mind for them and then identify potential solutions. Solutions resulting from the analysis have included events dedicated to acknowledging the stigma associated with mental health and discussing ways to access virtual therapists and other forms of digital support, as well as physical-fitness resources.

Do you have any advice for organizations that are hoping to apply this finding?

Through this continuous-listening process, business leaders can both monitor the pulse of the organization in the moment and create an ongoing dialogue with employees. This dialogue can engender trust and partnership and spur long-term and continuous improvements to employees’ workplace experiences and performance, as well as companies’ ability to retain top talent.

Read our conversation from earlier this year with Paul Bennett, the chief creative officer of IDEO, about the specific stages of projects that benefit most from in-office time.

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