'Hybrid' model is never going to work
We need to go into the metaverse
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There is a lot of conversation about whether we should go back to office of not. It's the current topic that makes a resurgence on my social media feeds with hot takes left, right and centre. Well I'm here to add to that hot take. But hear me out. Plz.
I've worked with and spoken with multiple firms to help them work out what sort of working culture would be the most suitable for their firm - 100% office, 100% remote, or 'hybrid' - or, how to get the best use out of their primary communication tool that they invested in (probably Microsoft Teams). I've had the chance to look a little deeper into the real life feasibility of remote working and it’s challenges, as well as surveying people on their vibes towards remote and 'hybrid' working.
Hybrid in theory sounds great - the concept of spending a combination of your time in office and working from home/another location. You experience the best of both worlds; you get to see your co-workers when you want to, but not too much so that you hate their guts, but also get to choose the days when you can sleep in and miss that commute. You can perfectly time your late night seshs with the boys and gals knowing you can wake up 2 mins before you need to sign in the next day (those who are lucky enough to be a 'knowledge worker', anyway). Some workplaces are even going with the approach that you can work whenever you want, as long as you get your job done and 'do your hours'.
Well, I'm here to tell you the hybrid theory (absolute banger btw, RIP Chester Bennington) is never going to work and eventually everyone will switch to either full remote or full in office.
I'd like to caveat that this will only really apply to those who are 'knowledge workers' - or people who basically manage, give or handle information. Office workers with laptops/desktops. If anyone from my workplace reads this, obviously this is my own opinion and not representative of my employer at all (wow, I never ever thought I'd be one of those people but here we are. Never say never).
Communication is more more complex than people appreciate
I spoke about the high-context and low-context communication in languages previously, but in summary, some languages and communication mediums require more context and deeper cultural awareness, or other non-verbal cues and signs, to understand the true meaning of the message being conveyed.
A study a few years ago found that when you communicate electronically (through video, voice or text), there are some data points that are difficult to include in the communication than if you had communicated in person. If you have more complex or 'fuzzy' concepts to explain, you were better off doing it face-to-face.
They tested an emergency call operator that allocated work accordingly to their team. When they were in the same room, in high pressure situations, the communication to allocate work was 2.9% more efficient than doing it all remotely. When the operator is pressured for time and needs to gather information more quickly, being in the same room as their team significantly helps. Face-to-face communication allows someone to express themselves using local colloquiums or other forms of communications, such as tone inflexions, hand gestures or other non-verbal clues, that would not be written down or otherwise transmitted through electronic conversation.
There were some caveats though:
It helped if the team is homogeneous - if the team has a lot in common, the better they performed when the team works in office (basically, it helps if you are friends with your co-workers).
You don't have to be best mates with everyone. But knowing your team enough so that you can relate to your members is a very important factor. Coming into office and building that rapport is just as important as being in the same location when you work.
Teams need to be stable
This links into the previous point; if the team keeps changing, then the chemistry won't be there. You’ll constantly have to build up rapport and the communication won't be as efficient.
The takeaway being here is that, if you want to work in an efficient, high pressure work environment, where communication and collaboration is integral to the delivery of your job, then the 'hybrid' work model is not suitable for your workplace.
Even big tech don't think they can pull of hybrid working
Ok maybe I’m hyperbole-ing here, but it really does tell you something if the big tech companies aren’t keen on the idea.
Generally, whether we like it or not, big tech and banks (and to an extent/more recently, consulting firms) lead by example. They have the impression of using 'cutting edge' tech, so it is natural of them to be the most 'ahead' when it comes to working culture. There are some that have said that they will adopt remote working full time. However, many of these employers want their employees to come into office, with some employers giving set office days. A couple of these tech companies outright reject the idea of 'hybrid' working models.
Google is one of the few corporations using the word ‘hybrid’ to describe their working model. ‘Remote working’ and hybrid working are not the same, but people are using them interchangeably. We are yet to experience hybrid working and I don’t think people fully appreciate that.
What is so hard about hybrid working?
I get why people like the idea of hybrid - it gives them control over their time and lifestyle (apparently).
But it comes to the detriment of everyone else, purely due to the culture of the current workforce.
Hybrid working means that you have to always be remote - creating unequal experiences
I mentioned earlier that some employers have set days of when employees come in. That’s because studies show that letting your employees pick their days is not a good idea.
In a meeting, say with five people, if even one attendee is not present in the office, then you will need to treat the whole meeting as though it is remote. You can’t have the other four attendees in a room and the other person on video. It needs to be all or nothing, as otherwise it creates an awkward situation with everyone involved. Those present in person will have access to the non-verbal cues that the person on video won’t. This is in addition to the awkwardness of trying to fit everyone in frame, knowing where to look, making sure everyone can hear you, etc. Naturally, the people in the office will have a different (potentially more inclusive) experience than those on a phone. You’re better off all of you joining by call even if you’re in office. Trust me, I know from experience.
Letting employees choose when they want to come in and not coordinating with their team, defeats the point of coming in, as you will have to treat your collaboration time as a remote working time.
People are still in the mindset that everyone works in a synchronous manner
If you’ve worked from home, how many times has this happened to you:
You’re working and doing your thing, then you get a message from someone, saying ‘Hi, are you free?’. You reluctantly say yes you’re about for a call because it’s your manager, even though you’re in full flow. Doesn’t matter that you’re down as busy. Your manager calls, and it’s a 20 mins call because sharing screens back and forth takes time. This interaction would have been about five mins max in person or written out in a message which you could have responded to in your own time, because realistically it wasn’t urgent. But now you need a bit of a break as you are slowly experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue’. After a fives mins break you go back to work and get into the flow, only to be interrupted again in 30 mins with a similar call. Repeat.
Research has proven that your brain really needs a break after a lot of calls. The problem here is the culture of working synchronously - the idea that we all work when everyone else works and the best form of communication for all requests being voice/video calls. Majority of people who previously worked in office try to, and continue to, recreate the synchronous co-location experience and culture remotely. When everyone turns up roughly at the same time and leaves roughly at the same time and are all in the same building, going over with your laptop or whatever for a five mins chat isn’t that disruptive. However, this doesn’t necessarily work remotely.
If you are to work remotely or hybrid, people need to accept asynchronous working and collaboration. Workers need to understand that not everyone is working when they are. One of the things this would mean is to avoid calls and meetings where possible - as for those calls and meetings to happen require all attendees to be present at the same time, meaning that, by putting in a meeting at a certain time, you are under the assumption that this person will be free and mentally ready to give your meeting their full attention. Sometimes, that’s fine and that’s what you have to do, but with many tasks, it can be done through an instant message or email (cough morning standups cough).
By writing out all the details of the task so that someone can pick up your task without having to call you, they have full ownership of what time they will pick this up and when they will address it. It takes a lot of stress off the person picking up the task, and no more random calls at 9pm because that’s when your manager decided to do some work.
However, I’ve tried this at work. What happens? The person reads the request and calls me. Our inherent nature is to work synchronously - unless of course you are a remote first company, then you normally have this stuff sorted out.
Visibility and promotion will be difficult for those who are remote when working hybrid
In the people industry (and I suspect most industries), whether we like it or not, if you want to get promoted, people in your company need to know who you are and why you’re so amazing. A good portion of your job on the lead up to applying for promotion is doing things within visibility of the people that will ultimately give you the promotion. This makes sense in theory - if your bosses don’t know what you do then why should they be convinced you’re the person for the promotion?
But we all know that’s not the case. There is so much internal politics involved in the whole process regardless of where you go, and there is always someone in the company who performs brilliantly in their role but gets snubbed in a promotion because they weren’t loud enough or whatever.
I don't know the answer to the perfect promotion system that doesn't require you to play politics. But in a ‘hybrid’ environment, where people come in when they want to, those who come in and have more access to management, as well as those ‘spontaneous’ encounters, will be ‘visible’. Those working remotely won't have the privilege of co-location with management, so will need to do other things to be heard. But they'll need to be deliberate, and if they're not careful, they'll be annoying (we all know someone who loves to spam slack and teams channels with pointless posts and comments to ingrain their name and presence into you).
This is a different situation with full remote working. If everyone is working remotely, then everyone is (in theory) at the same starting line when it comes to 'visibility'.
In a hybrid environment, managers will need to make extra effort to be conscious of the contribution of all their team members, regardless of whether they come into office or not. In a small team, that's easy, but in a larger team, that's already tough to do when everyone is at the same location. The ‘in-group’ of coming into office will be favoured over the ‘out-group’ who don't.
This has the potential to undo a large amount of progress made in the previous decade of equality in the workplace. It's likely working mothers, disabled and minority groups will work from home more often than others, which may lead them to struggle to get promoted internally.
It’s difficult to train people remotely
Students around the world will tell you how disruptive it has been to take lectures remotely. When you are learning, having some face-to-face exposure is vital.
When you're training remotely, the channel of communication is limited to your screen (assuming you're video calling). As mentioned previously, explaining 'fuzzy' concepts is difficult if you're not in the same room. You can only share one document at a time on the screen, and everyone has different screen sizes and resolutions, meaning some people will struggle to see the content.
When you're learning, you need access to multiple materials for education, in addition tothe teacher(s). The teacher needs to be able to assess how the students are reacting and adjust their teaching. When the teacher can only see a screen, and only one source of information can be shared at any given point, it creates a huge bottleneck and damages the quality of teaching and creating stress - and it's not the student's or the teacher's fault.
Training anyone remotely for a new job is a tough challenge. I had to do it for my job. I was lucky I had a few days in office with the new grad and even then it was not easy. I don't know how teachers have faired in the last year.
The main problem with hybrid working is that when you have a group of people in one location and others dialling in, you create unequal experiences. So what's the alternative (other than going full remote or full office)?
Mark Zuckerberg recently gave an interview about his ambitions to build a metaverse. A metaverse is a collection of virtual shared spaces where a user can interact with virtual objects and other users. If you've heard of a game called VR Chat then you know what I'm talking about.
Mark Zuckerberg talks about the challenges of working remote and how the fact you need co-location and spatial awareness of each other to really feel present in a situation and his idea is that in the future, everyone will exist in a metaverse (ideally his metaverse) where you can virtually teleport anywhere.
Need some help with some work? Forget video calling and sharing your screen, your co-worker can virtually teleport to your space, look at your desk and documents around you, and work with you as though you both were in office. When your co-worker is done, they can disappear back to their virtual space. All without having to leave their home.
I don't like the idea of Mark Zuckerberg dictating how I work or creating the virtual world that I'll exist in, but I really do believe that this will be the future. It will require some getting used to, but it does address some of the concerns on this post.
So what do I think is going to happen?
Whether we like it or not, I see us going towards the concept of metaverse. The current structure of remote work feels like the life-size cardboard prototype of a car, with the metaverse being the actual car.
But right now, the conversation is about hybrid working. I don’t see the workforce sticking with this experiment - everyone will just steer towards remote-first with the added flexibility to work from a dedicated collaboration space, or office-first with the flexibility to work from home some days. If hybrid is to work, there needs to be a fundamental culture change, and the way we use offices need to be more deliberate and targeted towards reserving the space for group collaboration.
This isn’t a tech problem - we’ve had skype and broadband internet in the developed countries for years now. We could have done this ages ago. But we chose not to.
I don’t think we will be changing any time soon either.
If you have a better idea than I do, if I’ve missed out anything or you think I am talking absolute rubbish, feel free to reach out either by commenting on the post, or by emailing me on firstname.lastname@example.org
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