Over 2 years ago, we faced a threat that hasn't being faced by humanity for more than a century. The global pandemic that ensued pushed governments to enact nationwide lock-downs, forcing a large portion of the workforce and most companies to learn how to work remotely from home.
Now that the pandemic is subduing and more under control, there are legitimate questions about what work will look like in this "new normal": bring everyone back to the office, accommodate for an hybrid mode of work, or embrace a fully remote culture.
Pushing people back to the office won't cut it for most of us.
After 2 years of (more or less) successfully operating remotely, arguments for going back to the office full-time need to have some weight. Employees overall have been more productive, despite having to deal with a deadly pandemic and numerous lock-downs. Remote work also provided a better work-life balance for employees who would previously need to commute to an office, effectively giving them back up to a couple of hours per day.
It can be argued that, fundamentally, going back to the office full time is only necessary in controlling environments, where the remote nature of work in these past 2 years have made it more challenging and awkward to micro-manage. There is anecdotal evidence that going back to the office might create higher attrition in some companies and for some roles where there aren't strong arguments for reverting to the way work used to be conducted, in particular in tech roles. Surveys have also shown that minorities and underrepresented groups tend to prefer not going back to the office in a higher proportion.
It is true though that working mostly remotely for the past 2 years has created challenges around belonging and collaboration that didn't use to exist in an office setting. Offices also created environments where more junior employees were able to benefit from "ambient mentorship", which would facilitate their professional growth.
A future where all the workforce comes back to offices seems to be the preferred way for most traditional companies.
Can hybrid be the way forward?
Despite the benefits of working co-located in offices, most people aren't ready to give back some of the benefits of working remote, such as more flexibility and a better work-life balance. So maybe a hybrid model that caters to both sides can be the way forward?
Being forced into remote work has shown that in-person collaboration is easier and more effective, and that there is a stronger feeling of belonging with in-person interactions. On the other hand, most people are demanding more flexibility and less micro-management. Hence, it would seem like hybrid work, where employees come to the office a few days per week and work remotely for the rest of the week, provides a decent balance.
And it is true that hybrid sounds very appealing on paper, but there are unique challenges to hybrid work that can make it trickier than going full remote. Some of the pain that came form being remote for the last 2 years came from the fact that most companies tried to keep their in-person processes while being all remote. Hybrid is a way to avoid facing that reality and continue using a chimera of processes that are ill-suited for the future of work. Hybrid setups are also viewed at some companies as a step back to an in-office setup.
A major risk of hybrid work is that it can effectively create 2 distinct cultures in a company, one in-person in-office culture and one remote culture. This has the potential to generate issues for people who don't have the same facilities to go to an office (minorities, caregivers, ...), and choosing the work remotely and prioritize on work-life balance can negatively influence promotions and career growth. Another very real risk of hybrid work is a feeling of exclusion for people working remotely, as having a hybrid setup can lead to the creation of "in-groups" within a company.
Most tech companies that were founded before the pandemic seem to prefer a hybrid setup moving forward, but hybrid work lacks the depth of studies that exist for co-located work environments, or even for fully remote ones, so it is unclear what its effects might be. If there are only a few examples of successful remote companies, there are even less examples of successful hybrid companies.
It is also fair to ask ourselves if hybrid is just a step towards moving back to the office?
Remote is hard, but worth it!
As stated in the previous paragraph, there are only a handful of examples of successful remote companies compared to traditional in-office co-located companies, but that number is growing. Forced remote due to the pandemic and subsequent lock-downs have also shown how difficult it could be to maintain a sense of belonging and collaboration in a remote setup.
Going full remote requires a reshaping of company culture and processes, and a more deliberate way to infuse collaboration and belonging, as those won't be happening by osmosis anymore. Nevertheless, remote work enables more freedom and flexibility, a better work-life balance, and higher productivity! By removing constraints on location, companies can also open-up their talent pool and recruit a truly global workforce while hiring the best person for the job. Finally, performance evaluations at remote environments are usually purely results-based, which creates a more meritocratic culture.
The challenges that come with remote work have been for the most part identified, and an important part of those challenges have been successfully resolved at a number of companies. It is true that most of those companies are tech companies, but current advances in technology have allowed most companies to weather the pandemic, so the fertile ground to bread successful remote companies is there.
Ultimately, every company needs to decide on the trade-offs they are comfortable making. There is no one shoe fits all, and it is a good thing that different companies are going on different directions trying to figure out what the future of work will look like.