Hybrid Work Doesn’t Work

After Covid-19, hybrid work is becoming more popular. That’s a problem because hybrid work doesn’t work. Going hybrid creates a clash between two different collaboration modes. By shooting for both, it’s effective at none.

For all the devastation the pandemic inflicted, we can say it had one positive consequence: It showed how remote work is not only possible but viable.

Photo by Tina Witherspoon on Unsplash, cropped.

Offices might be reopening, but many who had a taste of remote work don’t want to go back. 61% of employees want the be able to work away from the office at least part of the week, a survey found. And if remote is no longer an option, 47% are ready to look for a new job.

Some businesses are embracing remote. Others pretend it never happened. And others still are trying to make everyone happy by transitioning to a hybrid model, where each employee can choose to work from home or the office.

Having a hybrid workplace sounds good on paper. Companies can retain those folks who prefer remote work but still have an office for those who don’t. Being set up for remote work also promises access to the global talent pool.

I worked in a hybrid organization in the past, and let me tell you: Hybrid work doesn’t work.

Office Collaboration vs. Remote Collaboration

Collaboration looks different whether everyone is in the office or working away from each other. Going hybrid results in a painful clash between the two and generates an information availability gap for remote folks.

Offices promote synchronous and verbal work. People can have high bandwidth face-to-face conversations when all in the same room. Teammates can tap each other on the shoulder to ask questions, and someone might overhear and jump in to add value.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

In an office, you can have whiteboard brainstorms, pair programming sessions, or grab a coffee with a colleague while talking strategy. Of course, distributed teams can also take part in these activities thanks to tools such as Miro, Tuple, and Zoom. But, no matter how technologically advanced our tools are, they’ll always be mere approximations of the co-located experience. (And no, VR won’t solve this, only add goggles fatigue to the problem.) Besides, trying to replicate an office environment remotely misses the point.

Remote works best with asynchronous and textual interactions. To fully leverage a distributed workforce’s potential, remote workplaces shift most communication to an asynchronous, written medium. When decisions and the context behind them are written down, everyone in the company has access to them. By not requiring folks to be online simultaneously for discussions, people can have all sorts of daily schedules tailored to fit both personal life and work effectiveness. Written communication might be slower but results in more thoughtful exchanges because it gives people the time to read a proposal and think it through.

Granted, both approaches have downsides. But when a company operates mainly in one mode, it can optimize for the upsides and implement mechanisms to mitigate the downsides.

Information Availability Gap

When part of a team is in the office and the rest distributed a gap forms in access to information and context, and the remote folks are on the wrong side of it. I lost track of how many times I learned about a new project, a change of priority, or a tension between people with days of delay because I wasn’t in the office to hear about it.

Remote employees missing out on office conversations is a double lost opportunity. They don’t get a chance to contribute and risk not knowing about impactful decisions.

The information availability gap between co-located and remote people is not a matter of discipline. It’s a systematic issue of hybrid work. When people have physical access to one another, talking is easier than writing. It’s tough to put incentives in place to go off the path of least resistance. To be remote-friendly in all your interactions means exhausting your discipline reserves by awkwardly typing to someone when you could talk with them instead.

In GitLab’s co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij words, hybrid remote work offers the worst of both worlds. Remote people miss out on key conversations, while co-located folks experience all the downsides of an office without taking advantage of its most useful feature: access to all their teammates.

I fear many companies’ post-Covid hybrid approach will backfire, resulting in wasted resources and frustrated employees. They would be much better off taking the time to discover which work model is most promising for them and double down on it.

Pick a side, then make it flexible

Hybrid work policies don’t work, but that doesn’t mean fully remote or entirely office-based are the only available options going forward.

Intentional flexibility is the key to the future of work.

Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

A company can revolve around the office but still give employees the flexibility to work from home when needed, like when the plumber tells you, “I’ll be around between 9 and 17.” Another can be fully remote but establish office hubs for teams to use for creative, face-to-face sessions.

Neither option is perfect. An office-flexible company gives up access to an unconstrained talent pool and the benefits of around-the-clock support to emphasize elbow-to-elbow collaboration. Conversely, a distributed organization with hubs for ad hoc sessions incurs the extra cost of office space but doesn’t use it to its full potential. But, unlike a haphazardly instantiated hybrid environment, these alternatives make those tradeoffs intentionally and direct them towards optimizing a specific working mode.

Hybrid work doesn’t work because it tries to please everyone, which means no one can excel. For an organization to thrive, its leadership must accept the sobering reality that they can’t have the best of both worlds.

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