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Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand: A Metaphorical Case for Hybrid Work

There has been a lot of media attention paid to the question of whether employees were more or less productive while working at home during the pandemic. Even with the far-less-than-ideal arrangement of tele-working while parenting a homeschooling child and sharing limited workspace and wifi bandwidth, the overall story has been about productivity gains not losses. For me, working from home, even before the little crowned germ turned our lives upside-down, has always been about productivity gains not losses. It’s because I work on the rocks and pebbles at home. At the office, it’s almost all sand.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock Photo

Why am I talking about rocks?? Well, as a self-proclaimed ‘Rockhound’, the metaphor of how to fill one’s proverbial time jar with rocks, pebbles, and sand really hits home for me. The basic idea is that we all have big, medium, and small priority work to do. We should prioritize the rocks and put them in the jar first, then add the pebbles and, lastly, the sand. If you fill the jar with sand first, you’ll never get all the rocks and pebbles in later. That is, if you spend all day on email, having spontaneous conversations in the hallway, putting out fires, and doing other sand activities, you’ll never get to the more important but less urgent rocks and pebbles.


"If you spend all day on email, having spontaneous conversations in the hallway, putting out fires, and doing other sand activities, you’ll never get to the more important but less urgent rocks and pebbles."

--Heather Cluley, PhD


Why Hybrid Works So Well

For me, certain tasks are just faster and more efficient when done at home. I can deal with rocks and pebbles in a quiet, focused workspace (unless my kid can’t go to school, then most of the day becomes sand). Much of my job involves tasks that require my full and extended attention (my pebbles) and some longer-term planning and programming (my rocks). Working from home, ideally 3 days per week, means I’m spending much of my time tackling these important aspects of my job.

But, my job is also highly team oriented and includes a service component, without which we would cease to exist as a program. Much of this work is more efficient and effective in person or with a high level of back-and-forth communication (my sand). In the jar metaphor, sand gets a bad rap. But who doesn’t love sand! Sand is the beach on a sunny summer day. When it comes to working, sand is the social glue – just like it’s a binding agent in mortar and concrete – it’s the building material that binds us together. Sand maintains relationships through responsive communication and taking care of others’ needs. Sand builds trust because it’s how we share information, involve others in decision-making, hold each other accountable, and share fairly in routines and tasks. Sand is often best when we are all playing in the sand box together – i.e., when we are at the office together. Many of us are more authentic and more vulnerable to each other when we are together in person, and thus we develop deeper human connection. Although many work teams have found great ways to communicate and connect remotely, probably the majority of us connect best with some regular face-to-face time. So, I head into the office two days a week (or more – I don’t want to miss out on any beach parties) to get my fill of sand.

Photo Credit: Matt Jackson,

Long before the pandemic, research made it clear that part-time telework – the hybrid approach – is an effective way for many people to get their work done and still collaborate with others. Of course, my pebbles may be your sand or rocks. Different jobs come with different tasks and different priorities and may require a different balance and prioritizing of focused vs social work tasks. Hybrid work can work for employees doing many different kinds of jobs – although it may take some experimentation and compromise to workout just what will work best for you and your team. (And, yes, some jobs cannot be done remotely, but there are plenty of ways to explore scheduling and flexibility initiatives that allow on-site workers to bring their best selves to work, too).

Many of us can do it all with when we have a hybrid work arrangement. We can fill our time jars in the order that makes the most sense for our work AND have great synergy on our work teams.


Heather Cluley, Ph.D. is the Associate Director in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here!

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