The jury is out on hybrid work, but who’s really on trial?

The year I graduated from high school, my aunt gifted me a shiny new coin. I was seeing this coin for the first time; the Canadian government had just replaced the paper dollar bill. I came across that coin recently, in storage for more than thirty years, and flipped it into the pile of change on the kitchen counter. Had my aunt intended a gift to last, she would have fished a paper bill out of her purse and given me that. The coin is now dull, ubiquitous – the bill is the novelty.

Working from home is like our dollar coin. Anyone who talks about “returning to normal,” if by “normal” they mean trekking every day to a shared office, might be trying to bring back the old dollar bill.

Job trends reporting on Canada’s workforce indicates that new postings offered as “remote” have gone up nine times since the pandemic started, to 12% of new jobs. Not only that, but those remote jobs attracted 20% of all applications. For software and IT services, remote jobs are 30% of postings, up from 12.5% pre-pandemic. For attracting and retaining talent, this upheaval in the market will have a disproportionate effect on support and service areas.

Still, as someone who used to have dollar bills in his pocket, I have had misgivings about remote work.

Ten years ago, our Operations team was on its own floor, behind a locked door, and for security reasons related to gift processing, the elevator didn’t even stop on our floor. Visitors had to get off on either the fourth or sixth floor, walk the stairs, and bang on the door.

The team was cut off from the life of the department and of the campus. We were largely invisible, which helped create an us-them dynamic in our support and service relationship. We were much less likely than members of other teams to volunteer for events, less likely to raise our hands to serve on departmental committees or take on new challenges. You might say we were remote.

Then the pendulum swung. We moved from our isolated aerie to an open-plan office. In-person collaboration increased, but there was less privacy and it was difficult to control distractions due to noise and people’s movement. Socializing became more visible and sometimes it was discouraged, either because it was disruptive to one’s neighbours or was perceived by managers to rob from time on task.

This is our story, but many workplaces have similar stories. Staff persons’ sometimes passionate defence of remote work is probably in part a backlash against the open-plan office.

That’s not all it is, though. I miss the old folding money, but I do favour employees having a choice about where work gets done. In that old office that isolated us from the rest of the department, I doubt having Zoom or Teams would have made the difference. Other things were missing – communication, shared goals, inclusivity – which by now we should know are not things we can leave to chance.

For hybrid to succeed, of course we must get the technology right. That’s only a start. We must look beyond individual productivity as the only meaningful measure of WFH effectiveness. We must consider team cohesiveness, engagement, shared values and goals, and culture. We must be deliberate about communicating objectives, about onboarding thoughtfully, about running meetings mindfully so engagement is not dictated by proximity.

In a year or two, this post might seem naïve – either the great experiment with remote and hybrid worked out, or it didn’t – but I don’t think it will be that clear. More likely, hybrid will succeed in some settings and fail in others. Its success in any given culture will be a judgment not on remote work but on the competencies of individual managers and leaders.

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