Hybrid Remote Work Offers the Worst of Both Worlds

Article from Wired by Sid Sijbrandij

Post-pandemic, many companies plan to let employees work from home and a main office. But trying to do both ensures neither experience is good. 

REMOTE WORK, ONCE considered a novelty or an odd experiment, has become a necessity for many businesses in the Covid-19 world. This has challenged the common assumption that remote work environments hinder employee productivity. Executives across industries have marveled at productivity remaining consistent or even increasing as employees rapidly shifted to working from home, with many of them doing double duty as home-school teachers. Yet, somehow, the lesson that companies have deduced from this isn’t that they should go all-remote, but instead that they should go hybrid: combining remote and co-located work. No matter how you approach it, hybrid-remote is hard, and in the end, companies that attempt to do both will either go all-in with remote or go back to being office-based.

Hybrid creates two fundamentally different employee experiences to manage. Despite recent successes with remote work, employers are reopening offices to some of their employees to encourage social bonding, reinforce culture, and increase business collaboration. The assumption underlying these reopenings is that some critical things can’t be done as effectively outside of the office. Leaders who built their businesses in offices counted on shared space to act as a glue for culture and as a stopgap for inefficiencies in communication systems and processes. While the office-based model has historically proven to be successful for many companies, it will provide significant challenges for companies committed to also supporting a remote workforce. If an office is the “glue,” and processes and systems don’t adapt for a remote workforce, remote team members will not feel included and will face constant communication barriers. This will make it harder for them to perform at the same level as their in-office peers.

And whenever there is a head office, a physical co-located space where leadership resides, there will always be two ways of communicating. To get everyone on the same level, a company would need leadership to leave the shared office so no single physical place holds more power than another. Realistically, however, most leadership in hybrid-remote firms will keep working from the head office, degrading the default way of working from “remote-first” to “remote-allowed,” where remote employees are not penalized for working outside the office, but are also not proactively integrated into the fabric of the company. This will be a particularly frustrating result for team members whose organizations sold them on the idea that they could opt in to remote work as a perk. Employees will quickly discover that the company didn’t make the shift from the old ways of rewarding attendance (equating “being seen” in an office with being a great worker) to a new way of rewarding output (equating achieved results with being a great worker). Eventually, remote workers will find that they are not getting promoted at an equal rate, because they are less visible, and the productive remote employees will leave for all-remote companies that invest in their remote team members.

But it doesn’t have to happen that way. Success with a remote workforce, hybrid or fully remote, requires operational intentionality. Unquestioningly sticking to systems and processes that made an office-based model successful will doom any remote model to fail.

As a cofounder and the CEO of GitLab, I proactively built an all-remote company after discovering early on that you don’t need everyone in the same building to achieve results. Our executives, managers, and individual contributors all work remote. We don’t even have an HQ. This avoids the complexities of having to cater to onsite and offsite employees. It also fosters a shared commitment to our unique way of operating and iterating to improve over time.

Working from home will never be the best solution for everyone, and “remote” doesn’t always mean “home.” If a team member wants to work in an office because their home isn’t conducive to work, they’re distracted by roommates or family members, they want the social interaction of a coworking space, or they simply feel more productive away from home, we’ll pay for the space. We have noticed, however, that some people who prefer an office in the beginning transition to work-from-home during their first months.

We also care about and encourage informal digital communication such as coffee chats and even all-remote talent shows. This isn’t to say we don’t recognize the importance of in-person face time: Pre-pandemic, we organized an in-person, all-employee event every year and encouraged local meetups amongst team members who live in the same region. We also offered visiting grants, which provided company-subsidized travel to visit team members in another location anywhere in the world, and we look forward to bringing them back.

Proactively setting up your organization for remote goes beyond where you sit and how often you see other people. That’s why we don’t have employees from different disciplines report to the same manager, even though much of our work is multidisciplinary. Instead, we require each individual to be a “manager of one” who can self-organize and work asynchronously without a project manager.

While leading an all-remote company will require many managers to rethink and rework how they run their businesses, all-remote is possible and will lead to greater resilience to crises, increased efficiency, and access to talent that was previously out of reach. There is so much talent outside of major metropolitan areas, and this talent will suddenly be able to compete for high-paying and rewarding jobs at the world’s leading companies. This will help spread income a bit more equally around the world (even if inequality will still rise).

In the time since offices shut down, some companies have already canceled their leases with the intent to go all-remote. On the other hand, many companies are intent on reducing their in-office presence, rather than eliminating it, and plan to go hybrid-remote. Those who do hybrid, if not intentional about making systemic changes and treating every employee as if they are remote (whether in-office or not), will see their most effective remote people leave. The hybrid companies will then blame the lack of productivity on remote instead of the actual cause: Managing two distinct employee experiences is a very arduous task. These companies will write off remote work as a novel experiment, blame it for operational difficulties, and pull remaining remote workers back into the office.

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