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At least 2 days in office is the ‘sweet spot' for hybrid workers, according to new research

Thomas Barwick

Employees overwhelmingly prefer hybrid work, but the optimal number of days in the office is still up for debate.

According to new research from McKinsey, spending half of working time in the office is the ideal setup for hybrid work, as it gives employees the flexibility they crave without the isolation of working remotely full-time.

For McKinsey employees whose work often includes traveling to client sites for extended periods of time, that could mean spending one week working in an office, and being remote the following week. For other workers on a 5-day workweek schedule, that may mean 2 or 3 days in office each week.

Throughout 2022, the management consulting firm analyzed data from its roughly 4,000 teams working around the world, including behavioral data and anonymous surveys, and found that working on-site 50% of the time — either at a client site or an office — works better than an all-or-nothing approach.

"When over 50% of time is spent in-person, we see trade-offs begin to emerge," Katy George, McKinsey's chief people officer and a senior partner at the firm, tells CNBC Make It. "Individuals and teams have less flexibility, time for recovery and opportunities to do focused work."

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There's some nuance to this; for McKinsey's employees, spending 50% of their working time in person doesn't necessarily mean they're going to the office the same weekdays, or number of days, every week.

McKinsey does not have any in-office requirements for employees, a firm spokesperson tells CNBC Make It. Rather, employees and managers are encouraged to get together in person for team bonding events, one-on-one meetings, client presentations and other projects, depending on each team's needs.

The research found that when workers spent at least 50% of their time together in person, it vastly improved mentorship, collaboration, trust between colleagues, retention and overall team performance. "Our research shows it's the 'hybrid sweet spot,'" George says.

On the flip side, working remotely two to three days a week gave employees more time for focused work, and improved teams' feelings of psychological safety and belonging. 

Offering equal opportunities for employees to work in-person and remotely benefits a wider swath of employees versus one workplace personality type, George points out.

"Work can be very individual ... I'm a huge extrovert, and do my best thinking in a team meeting, but I've had colleagues who identify as introverts tell me that their deepest thinking comes from having some solitude," she says. "This kind of arrangement gives people the opportunity to take advantage of both environments."

But to be effective, any work arrangement must have clear boundaries and expectations for employees.

In other words, "you shouldn't require people to come into the office if everyone is going to be heads-down in their cubicles all day," says George. "You need to be intentional and anchor those office days around activities that are most effective in-person, whether it's career workshops, feedback sessions or team brainstorms."

The most successful return-to-office strategies have clear operating norms that go beyond how many days employees should be working together in person. 

"Bosses should also be working with their employees to figure out: What are our objectives for meeting in person? How should we check in with each other on a regular basis? How, exactly, are we measuring productivity?" George explains. 

The greatest advantage of a true hybrid setup, she adds, is that it helps stave off burnout

"Before the pandemic, a lot of us were on autopilot — we were good at turning on the gas and working overtime when needed, but we were not as intentional about building recovery time into our workflow," she says. "My hope is that we're now getting smarter about how to work, and optimizing performance by fitting the contours of work around our individual needs." 

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