As we head into the end stretch of 2022, we want to take a look into the state of remote and hybrid work. What’s different now, how have the views around them changed, and what is the outlook on these new forms of work going forward, given that both seem to be here to stay ?
It’s safe to say that a lot has changed since a year ago. Yes, the pandemic is still around and presents a lingering presence. But borders have opened up and life seems to be moving towards something more “normal”.
And yet, despite everyone feeling more comfortable going back out into the world after long periods of lockdown, and even going back into the office, remote and hybrid work have remained. While not seemingly as necessary as before, these two forms of work–which very much became popularized as a result of the pandemic–aren’t going away any time soon. Some might even say that they have become even more firmly entrenched in work culture, at least for some.
So there seems to be something that people generally like about remote and hybrid work, and want to maintain as we move farther into a post-pandemic world. However, it is also clear that we are currently at the point of intersection between two worlds (or two worldviews, if you will).
On one hand, we have the traditional world of the office, with its firm structure, schedule and ease of socialization. On the other hand is the (still new and still somewhat idealistic) world of remote and hybrid work–a world of flexibility, openness and opportunity.
Both these worlds are in a state of flux, and both of these worlds are currently exerting pressure on each other–the one to innovate and the other to retain some of the traditional aspects of work. We’re also not at a point where either of these worlds are dominant.
This constantly evolving situation in work life is fascinating to look at. And it presents an opportunity to investigate how hybrid and remote work culture has changed and not changed since the start of the pandemic almost three years ago, as well as where the state of things are likely. heading.
That is what we will be discussing here in this blog post. We talked a lot in the past about hybrid and remote work. And so we want to look back at this important trend in work life, and give an update on what we’ve learned, and what all teams should know.
Benefits of remote and hybrid work
Let’s start with what’s good about remote and hybrid work. Now that more time has passed, a lot more data has emerged about the benefits of both of these work regimes, and what workers tend to like about them.
According to Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University who has been doing research on remote work since even before the pandemic, recently gave an interview in which he posits four main benefits of remote work: higher worker retention, higher productivity, greater diversity, equity and inclusion, and savings on office space.
1. Worker happiness, retention, and flexibility
According to Bloom, quit rates among remote workers have deceased around 35%, which is a pretty big decline. And this not only means that workers are generally happier with remote and hybrid work, it also is good for employers who don’t have to deal with as much turnover and can retain talented employees.
One big reason for worker happiness? Flexibility. Bloom draws on a lot of data from the much-discussed Slack Future Forum, which gathered a lot of information about remote and hybrid work and how workers are reacting to them.
One of the most revealing parts of the study is that workers like the flexibility that remote work offers. It allows them to have more agency over their schedules and control over their own workflows. Plus it gives them the chance to balance their roles as family members and/or caregivers with their careers.
All of this is obvious, but it is worth repeating, because of how–in some senses–truly radical this notion is. For a long time, only those in executive positions or who held lots of power within companies were free to determine their own work schedules and workflows. Now that many more people have experienced this type of working, it’s easy to see why many don’t want to let it go, and why resistance to returning to the office full-time has emerged.
2. Worker productivity
Again, there is much more data out there, and so we can now point to the fact that worker productivity as a result of remote and hybrid work has increased 3-4%. This is not huge, but as Bloom says, it is in a positive direction.
We wrote about a possible explanation before, which still seems to hold up. It all boils down to the fact that workers are less distracted, and can therefore get more of their “hard work” (the main parts of their job and the work that they were hired to do) done faster.
Consistent with this hypothesis is the fact that Bloom finds that remote workers tend to take less bathroom and coffee breaks, as well as shorter lunch breaks (around 20-30 minutes as opposed to an hour).
It’s likely that the reason for this is the need for “alone time”, and its importance in work. In the office, you are constantly surrounded by people. While this can be beneficial in a lot of ways (we’ll get to that later), it can also limit your own personal thinking and focus.
It’s also probable that the physical nature of the office space (bright lights, often colorless and impersonal) might also have something to do with this, and why people used to take longer breaks to escape it. Thus, contrary to expectations, more comfortable environments like homes, cafes, and even shared workspaces might help workers focus and stimulate them more.
3. Diversity, equity and inclusion
This aspect of remote and hybrid work is connected to what we said above about workers having more flexibility and agency over their schedules. What this means in action is that more types of workers, with different lifestyles, can now find positions at companies where they couldn’t before.
This includes people who are caring for young children, or for sick, disabled or elderly loved ones. It also includes the sick and disabled themselves, who no longer have to necessarily travel to an office every day. Of course, workers who live farther away from offices or city centers no longer have to commute far distances or move, and can access their work online.
A lot of the people who have benefited from this increased openness to different work/life balances are women, mothers and minorities. Which means that remote and hybrid work styles can help create the types of diverse and inclusive environments that companies often talk about, and which in turn foster more diverse opinions and ideas.
4. Savings on space
The last benefit of remote and hybrid work mostly relates to companies’ bottom lines, and that is the savings on office space. With remote work, obviously companies don’t need to spend as much on work spaces, which can have significant cost-saving benefits for companies.
However, this cost-saving becomes a little trickier when it comes to hybrid work, where companies do in fact need to keep an office space available for workers to come to.
What is the role of the office now?
This brings us to a huge question that remote and hybrid work has raised, and which is relevant to all styles of work, including full-time in-person: What exactly is an office useful for now?
In our earlier blog posts where we addressed this, we talked about the distinction between hard work and soft work. Hard work is all the tasks you were hired to do, while soft work is everything outside of that–the politicking and office socializing that supposedly makes work run more smoothly and inspires creativity.
Looking back at it, this isn’t always necessarily true. Anne Helen Peterson, whose recent work has focused on the new post-pandemic realignments of work culture, argues that a lot of the “excuses” companies make for keeping workers coming back to the office aren’t really that good.
One of these excuses is the idea that offices are inspired to be more creative through informal socialization like “hallway chatter” and meeting people in the cafeteria. This isn’t a good excuse because there’s no reason that this has to occur in the office (or even all the time).
However, she does point to two good reasons for offices to exist: familiarization and collaboration.
What informal socialization does is good for is familiarization (i.e. getting to know each other). This is especially important for younger workers who may not be so confident in new environments, and who could really benefit from one-on-one interactions from more veteran team members and bosses.
However, again, this doesn’t have to take place in an office necessarily, and definitely not every day of the week. There is potential to think of more innovative ways to induce this kind of socialization, like regular offsite team building sessions, happy hours, or coffee hours at a local cafe.
The other thing offices are good at is providing a space for collaboration. This means working together on shared projects that require some creative thinking, making decisions together, and brainstorming. Offices are especially good at fostering this last one, because you’re all there in the same space. Brainstorming sessions often require long periods of “riffing” and bouncing ideas off of each other, which is just easier to do in an office.
But again, companies should look for ways to innovate in this area, or to find new ways to do old things. Online is not the answer necessarily, but technology is improving rapidly to meet demand, and so companies should be open to trying new things now, even while knowing that they might not find the “perfect solution”.
Another idea this raises, in relation to hybrid teams, is the fact that not all team members or office members need to be there for every brainstorming session. In fact, it might be better for the team members that are working together on a project to be the only ones to go to the office on certain days, which can help draw team members to the office for productive reasons and reduce “zombie office effect” (where the office is empty when you come in, and you end up spending the whole day in Zoom meetings).
Towards an “organized hybridity”
What this points to is the need for more organization at the both the company-wide and team-based levels, as well as clear goals about what companies want their remote and hybrid work regimes to actually look like and accomplish.
Some have called this model “organized hybridity“. Instead of being haphazard about remote and hybrid work, organized hybridity stresses looking at the needs of each team and coming up with a plan that fits their needs.
This requires more work, yes, but it’s worth it. A lot of the frustrations with current hybrid work styles is that there isn’t enough clear-cut direction or stability, that coming into the office isn’t meaningful, and there is a lack of trust between employees and employers (who are finding it difficult to “believe” that their employees are actually more productive).
Creating a more organized hybrid work system can potentially help solve these problems. It can create clear distinctions between remote and in-office work expectations, guarantee that workers coming in will meet with other team members that they are actually working with, and establish a better basis of trust going forward.
Conclusion: Be more intentional
We will explore organized hybridity and how it can fix many of the mistakes that companies are making when instituting remote and hybrid work plans in our next post. But for now we want to leave you with one clear guiding principle: Be intentional about whatever work regime you decide on.
The great thing about remote and hybrid work is that it has released companies and teams from older paradigms that might not be applicable anymore, especially those concerning the function and necessity of the office. It’s time to let go, and decide for yourselves how you want to organize your work and office culture.
Whatever you decide to do, just make sure that there is intention behind it. Think clearly about your goals, your team’s needs, and each individual’s needs as well. And think about how you want to move forward into this brave new world that is coming, whether we want it to or not.