Even jobs that require in-person work are going hybrid—albeit slowly

Manufacturing, retail, and healthcare are among the industries where adoption of hybrid work models has been slowest. That won’t be true forever.

Late on a Friday in September 2022, General Motors sent a diktat to all salaried workers: By the end of the year, they must return to the office three days a week. Days later, amid fierce pushback from non-factory employees, CEO Mary Barra sent another email announcing that GM was putting the policy on ice.

GM’s swift reversal is a reminder that, for many industries, hybrid work, where employees work part of the time remotely and part of the time in-office, is a work in progress. Research by Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom finds that hybrid work adoption is lower in industries that rely more on face-to-face interaction (e.g., retail, healthcare, hospitality) and jobs that require on-site labor (e.g., manufacturing, construction, transportation).

83%

Percentage of employees across industries who want their jobs to remain hybrid

But those industries will have to accelerate their rate of adoption if they want to remain competitive and retain workers. A whopping 83% of employees across all industries want their jobs to go and remain hybrid, according to a 2021 Accenture survey. To stay competitive, companies must deliver the change that employees want, or find innovative ways to reimagine how tasks are performed.

Bloom’s latest research shows that an acceleration may be underway. Between September and October, manufacturing, retail, and healthcare (among others) all saw modest upticks in hybrid work adoption.

“Much of this may be driven by market pressures,” says Bloom. “If you want to hire a marketing or finance professional in manufacturing or health, you are often competing with sectors like finance and tech, so you need to offer competitive working conditions, which usually include work-from-home.”

But here’s the rub: 44% of jobs today can’t be done remotely, according to a Gallup survey. So employers are trying different tacks to make on-site jobs appealing or begin to convert their jobs such that they can be done remotely. Here’s how retail, manufacturing, and healthcare are confronting hybrid work challenges in their sectors.

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Graphic of a retail employee typing on a computer with an apron and book in the foreground and a pink background

Upskilling toward a hybrid work model future

Retailers today find themselves in the throes of a severe talent shortage. According to a Korn Ferry survey, 51% report having moderate hiring difficulties and 36% say they face “significant challenges.” Worse yet, almost half of frontline retail workers are thinking about quitting in the next three to six months, McKinsey finds. The biggest reason for the exodus? Employees say they want more “workplace flexibility.”

While retailers can’t offer the flexibility of remote work as an incentive for in-store workers, they can offer a pathway to hybrid-capable jobs in the future.

To that end, Target, Publix, Home Depot, and Starbucks, among others, are paying for some or all of their workers’ college and continuing education. And major retailers like Amazon and Walmart are offering technology upskilling for hundreds of thousands of employees to help them move into higher-skill, higher-paying positions.

“Retailers are thinking about frontline workers in a new way,” says Diane Youden, partner in Workforce Transformation at PwC. “Companies are willing to spend the time on their employees to help them build a path toward their future. That future may well be a career with work-from-anywhere flexibility.”

Graphic of a manufacturing employee's hand pointing at heavy machinery against a blue background with decorative charts

Manufacturing’s great divide

Even as companies with large manufacturing footprints, such as Boeing, Ford, Unilever, and Black & Decker have all pivoted to hybrid work models for their office workers, factory and supply chain workers are for the most part still punching in on-site every day.

But even these workers increasingly want—and expect—more “flexibility in alternative schedules,” according to a report by the Manufacturers Alliance, and employers can ill afford to ignore them when skilled manufacturing workers are increasingly hard to find. Deloitte predicts a shortfall of more than 2 million manufacturing workers by 2030.

One solution, remote manufacturing, is actually within reach thanks to advances in robotics, AI, and the so-called Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Digital twin technology, for example, can leverage IIoT sensors and predictive AI to monitor and manage machinery and production. Robotics can augment human workers and automate repetitive tasks.

But, as the pandemic winds down, adoption of these tools has been minimal, except among a handful of large-cap manufacturing giants like GE, IBM, and Siemens.

“The hypothesis was that post-COVID everybody would shift to advanced technologies,” explains Sam Dawes, partner in the consumer industrial products practice at consulting firm West Monroe. “But the economy came screaming back so fast. The short-term pressure on businesses to get product out the door trumped the long-term shift to a hybrid-capable operation.”

Dawes projects that, by 2030, the manufacturing sector will be less dependent on human workers for production and supply chain, and more reliant on automated and robotic systems. But by then, Dawes notes, most workers are going to either age out (the median age of workers today is 47, he notes) or opt not to pursue factory work.

In other words, manufacturing may never bridge the hybrid-work divide between office and factory workers. More likely, it may simply phase human workers out of the factory into managerial or troubleshooting roles.

Graphic of a healthcare employee's hand holding a stethoscope up to patient against a blue and light green background

Healthcare’s hybrid Rx

Beginning in March 2020, the majority of non-emergency care was done virtually, and three-quarters of doctors reported that they were able to deliver “high-quality care” remotely, according to an American Medical Association survey. Just two years later, only 38% of patients reported making a telehealth visit in 2022.

Physicians, in particular, have soured on telehealth, citing a lack of effective and integrated digital tools. Only 41% of doctors say that technology available to them can deliver telehealth seamlessly, according to a 2021 McKinsey survey. Workflows and systems don’t integrate effectively with electronic health records, and audiovisual glitches disrupt virtual appointments.

But even if some physicians are resistant, healthcare providers are embracing hybrid work models for non-patient-facing staff such as administrators and finance and billing, IT, and human resources professionals.

The Cleveland Clinic, for one, has migrated 8,000 administrative employees to hybrid work, about a tenth of its 72,500-person staff. The results: Hybrid workers report higher engagement, less burnout, and greater employee satisfaction compared to their non-hybrid colleagues.

Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare provider, has experimented with an even more novel hybrid work solution: It has created 10 “Workwell Hubs” spread across New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County with technology-rich workstations, conference rooms, and “café zones” where hybrid workers can gather close to home for in-person collaboration and social interaction.

“In healthcare, as a starting point, the mindset from an executive perspective is that the work should always be in person,” notes PwC’s Youden. But, she says, “we’re seeing leaders spending time listening to employees. The most successful ones are being more agile. Innovative ideas are coming from the employees themselves. It’s not just a top-down conversation.”

Youden’s point is a valuable reminder that as hybrid work models evolve, not only in these three sectors but across all industries, it’s not just about designing what leaders think will work for employees. The smartest move of all may be bringing employees into the discussion to create new models that truly work for them.