Remember when you first thought that office workers forced to work remotely might be able to stay remote permanently? Sounds great for both employers and employees! If the employees abandon their offices to work at home they get flexibility, time, comfort; they could live where they want. Employers could diversify their workforce (by sex, geographic location, and more) and close down expensive offices. It seemed like a win-win assuming they got the same productivity, which many found they did. The Wall St. Journal quoted a head of remote at software developer GitLab Inc., saying “companies will come to realize that a dispersed workforce is a far more efficient and productive way of doing business, and many will be prompted to install more permanent remote-work infrastructure and applications” (May 21, 2020).
Then around June the zeitgeist shifted to the idea of hybrid workers that rotate between home and an office by various methods. It could be entirely the employee’s choice, or a rotation schedule such as some coming in on Monday/Wednesday while others are Tuesday/Thursday.
So the question becomes:
Is hybrid the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds?
Many of the gains in the dedicated remote scenario (where many workers permanently work at home) disappear in a hybrid scenario. Employers don’t get all the real estate savings. They may have to supply duplicate equipment or pay dual communication costs. Employers and employees are back to being anchored to big expensive cities. Employees still lose some time commuting but they get flexibility and a mix of convenience and social interaction. For employers it may mean more costs.
What I would like to see is a subset of the hybrid arrangement where it is at the level of the team instead of the individual. This shifts the value back to the employer who cares about team cohesion. Teams that are together every now and then are much more effective at working remotely the rest of the time. They learn each others’ faces, expressions, sense of humor, and worldview. That makes them more likely to understand how to interpret dry emails and social postings and to leverage shared experiences. This assumes we get to the point that several people can safely sit in a conference room together for an afternoon – we’re not there yet.
Back in the 2000’s I was a remote worker at a company that funded periodic get-togethers. They were quarterly for the team and annually for the whole department. Being locked in a conference room for a few days to pour over boring spreadsheets of client interactions, doing research planning, and arguing about where to go for dinner resulted in team cohesion and interpersonal dynamics that can’t be replicated with Zoom meetings. Twenty years later I still find it easier to work with and interpret emails from members of that old team than others on my current team whom I have never met in person.
Look to some form of hybrid locational arrangement to emerge for former office workers. And, if it’s not done properly, look for some higher costs too.