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Will the hybrid model work for older employees?

Two years on from the start of the global pandemic, the world of work is still going through convulsions caused by the great lockdown of offices in every city you could name. The story today is all about hybrid working, which in theory at least is set to offer millions of employees more choice and flexibility in where and how they work in the future. 

For older workers, the rise of a hybrid model is a reason to be cheerful. Hybrid working combines some attendance in the office with work at home and in other local places such as  coworking or satellite venues, thus curtailing the difficult daily commute. Hybrid makes it easier for people to administer care to themselves and others, or to manage non-work commitments such as volunteering or hobbies, while holding down a job. Many flexible workers, including myself, have learnt a new musical instrument since March 2020.

So, for an older person, what’s not to like about hybrid? I’ve talked in this column before about how older workers have suffered disproportionately from regular attendance in high-density open-plan offices. Who wouldn’t want to be freed from that form of tyranny? It all depends, however, on what industry sector employs you. Hybrid working sits on a spectrum. Some companies are ‘hyper hybrid’ while other are ‘hardly hybrid’. Most firms sit somewhere in the middle.

According to research from Worktech Academy, if you work in finance or law, it’s quite possible you have already been mandated to return to the office full-time. These employers are ‘resolute returners’ worried about the impact of remote work on culture, collaboration and training. They are keen to get back to the over-the-shoulder mentoring of junior staff by senior partners. The big US banks have led the charge on this approach with Goldman Sachs  CEO David Solomon on the record as calling remote work an ‘aberration’ that needs to be corrected as soon as possible.

But if you work in technology or life sciences, it’s more likely that you’ve been given freedom to work in any way you choose. These employers are ‘choice champions’ who are learning to trust their people to make the right decisions on how best to get work done. Big tech firms have led the charge in this area – Twitter, Slack and Salesforce have all told their employees they are not required to go to the office every day. Salesforce boss Brent Hyder has said: ‘An immersive workspace is no longer limited to a desk in our towers – the 9-to-5 workday is dead.’

The trouble is that there are probably many more older people still employed in banking, insurance and law firms than in social media and software. Several studies have shown a demographic divide between younger workers, who generally want to get back to the office to socialise in teams and build a professional network, and older workers who already have that network and who crave more flexibility. We could soon be in situation in which the age cohort most eager for greater working autonomy are denied that choice by the ‘resolute returners’, while the millennials most anxious for friendly face-to-face encounters in the workplace turn up at the ‘work-anywhere’ organisation only to find nobody is there or those in attendance are busy all day on Zoom.

In its most basic scientific meaning, hybridity is about different elements being mixed together. As demographic preferences reveal themselves in the hybrid workplace, there’s a danger that things could get very mixed up indeed.

About the Author

Jeremy Myerson is Professor Emeritus in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art, and an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. He is the co-founder and director of Worktech Academy, a global knowledge network looking at  how we’ll work tomorrow.  

Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute

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