Now that the post-pandemic world is starting to open up, offices big and small are trying to determine when—and if—they’ll open their doors. Where a lot of them are ending up is something kind of in the middle. “Hybrid,” a word once used to talk about cars or biology, is now the focal point of discussion regarding an approach to balancing work between home and office.
But is hybrid really the most important question? Over the past year, a good deal of the world’s offices have moved operations online. After a year of success, that begs the question, “What is the real purpose of the office, anyway?” Millions have proven they can do work—sometimes their best work—away from a traditional office atmosphere. If remarkable work can be done from anywhere, what’s the point of having the physical office space?
When discussing a hybrid workforce and the future of work, the conversation needs to shift from the workplace to the workspace.
The office was already on the way out
In February 2021, JPMorgan COO Daniel Pinto told CNBC that he saw a zero percent chance of 100% of people going back to the office, 100% of the time. This sentiment is one I agree with.
That traditional office where everyone commutes to the office every day with a coffee mug in hand and worked eight hours a day was already on its way out even before the pandemic. And now, I don’t see it ever coming back. To put this in context, I remember having conversations with people from my organization where they’d say, “I need to work from home today because I need to get work done,” so they could escape the distractions at the office.
Despite this realization that office was less of a less productivity priority, there was that friction in changing the status quo and opting for something other than spending eight hours physically at the office. Now that we’ve tried working fully remote and seen the results, working from home is a legitimate way of doing things.
However, this is not to say the move to an all-remote or hybrid model won’t come with its own set of unique challenges.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently told the Wall Street Journal, “I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.” He’s not alone in that idea.
With remote work, you do miss out on a few things, particularly those serendipitous moments that just pop in around the office. When you’re not together everyday you miss out on those casual “watercooler” conversations while you’re waiting for the elevator or for a meeting to start where you can make human connections with your coworkers.
Some companies have tried to recreate those moments online, but what’s missing is the opportunity to meet people where they are at that moment. In everyday life, you don’t have to make time to meet people when you pass them in the hallways or while grabbing coffee, it just happens.
Moving to a distributed or hybrid model can have huge advantages including allowing businesses to expand where they’re hiring from. You can be a San Francisco company but have employees in places where the cost of living and generally employee’s salary requirements are significantly lower. With lower staffing costs, businesses are better poised for growth.
Moving to an all-remote staff also affords the added benefit of putting all employees on an even playing field of sorts. Whereas you might have previously had some friction when most of the employees at the company worked at headquarters and a few individuals remote, this disconnect is no longer a concern when everyone is remote. Remote work is centered on the output of the work rather than how long you spend showing up at the office.
I recall a time before the pandemic, where the assumption was that working outside the office would hurt productivity. Now leaders and workers like agree that remote work can be productive. Heightened flexibility has allowed remote workers to take care of kids and other commitments, while not having to deal with things like a long, stressful commute.
The office’s purpose
The truth is there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to what the future of the office looks like. What’s right for one company might not be the right fit for another. The key is discovering what your company needs and what purpose your physical office serves.
Jim Kalbach, a colleague of mine at our virtual whiteboard organization, says, “Work is not a place. It’s what you accomplish together.” This statement encapsulates a large part of my argument; with a workspace rather than a workplace, companies give people the resources they need to get their job done whenever and wherever they need to.
For years, companies spent time optimizing the office, chasing the perfect office layout, where departments are grouped and seating arrangements are meticulously optimized for efficiency. Now, the same is true for the digital workspace. During the pandemic, we used Zoom for voice and video chats, Slack for asynchronous communication, Google Docs for documentation, and Asana for project management. These software platforms are where modern workers “clock in” these days. The question before companies now is how best to marry these software platforms, and how to train up their workforces in using them, so that collaboration is easy, engaging and productive, no matter where it happens.
No matter whether hybrid, in-person or distributed, innovative businesses will find ways to balance digital and in-person resources to get the most out of the time teams spend collaborating together, wherever and whenever that work happens.
Adriana Roche is the chief people officer at Mural, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. Mural is a fully remote company, employing over 600 people working from 30 different countries.