The Hybrid Office Is Anti-Worker - And A Failure of Management

The New York Times published yet another challenge-free “remote workers will get left behind in hybrid work” piece, where the author-backed by the usual stack of McKinsey and Stanford brain masters - hammers home that those who are going to be in the office will be the victors of the hybrid debate. It includes every trope I’ve grown to love - the academic that says that there will be an in-group and an out-group, some sort of study, a bit of technology that claims it can “bridge the gap between in-office and remote workers,” and absolutely no possible consideration that these biases are avoidable if the company thinks about how to avoid them.

These conversations always have a layer of inevitability to them - that the remote worker will always be a second-class citizen to the in-office worker, that there will be bias, and that bias is unavoidable because we must have a hybrid environment. I do appreciate the author’s inclusion of the absolute bare minimum amount of “oh there’s a really obvious solution that basically anyone could do”:

Another change that companies such as Zillow and Salesforce are making to level the playing field for remote workers is in how they conduct meetings. Instead of having in-office employees gather in a conference room while remote employees dial in, if one person is not in the physical room, everyone will dial in separately on their laptop, regardless of whether they’re in the office.

And just like that, there’s an immediate solution to “leaving people out” of meetings. Weirdly, the same level of obvious problem solving is rarely applied to the supposed bias between those who are visible and those who are not, mostly because it is fairly easy to see when that’s happening and put a stop to it…if you want to as an organization. The article also feeds into the delusional thinking around spontaneity and “small talk,” citing a Harvard Business Review piece that, of course, champions these chance encounters and tries to make an academic suggestion that “mandatory fun is good.”

Let me be blunt: all of these articles exist because there is a vested interest in prolonging the inevitable from the executive class. Hybrid work is not the future - it is a stopgap between a reframing of what an office actually is, and an attempt to hold back the future of work, which will be primarily remote for those who can do their work at the computer. It’s a frenzied attempt by executives and managers to keep some form of control other than “paying and treating people well enough to keep them working for you,” with bizarre attempts to recreate after-work drinks and social events that nobody at work really needed:

Other tactics include creating “virtual lounges” in Slack or Teamwork where teams can socialize and holding regular virtual coffees, trivia nights, and happy hours. A recent INSEAD study of more than 500 professionals working remotely across the world showed that the teams that were thriving in the new virtual environment were formally scheduling social gatherings involving quizzes, shared playlists, book recommendations, and movie clubs. Although this mandatory “fun” might have felt a little awkward at first, the teams that didn’t engage in such rituals struggled to adapt to the new normal and reported feeling less connected.

While this study may seem like it justifies these rituals, it creates a false equivalence between “job is good” and “feeling connected to coworkers.” While it’s nice if you go to a job and you make friends, this should not be the reason that you work for someone, and I’d argue a manipulative thing for your workplace to use to sell you on staying. Feeling “less connected” is a very specific matrix to view one’s workmates through, unless connected means “can I rely on them to do stuff I need them to do so I can do my job,” in which case you are no longer describing connection, you are describing competency.

We are at a point where people are actively coming up with reasons not to go remote, and hybrid work is simply their way of instituting a compromise, with the (potentially) intended consequence of alienating those who don’t come into the office. It is being framed as the inevitable future - that some people will want to come into the office but some will not, and the reason all of that is happening is that there will always be people that want to come into an office.

For some reason, nobody ever seems to raise the point that we’ve done one thing for a long time that only some people wanted to do - going into the office - and we all had to do that.

Hybrid work is a sham. I’m sorry, person reading this who has a hybrid office that they’re very proud of, but it sucks. You are doing a half-assed office and a half-assed remote company at the same time, making neither side particularly happy. Hybrid work is a failure of imagination - it means that whoever runs the company cannot be bothered to think about how to run a company remotely, and doesn’t understand how work is actually done.

The studies and articles justifying our “need” for in-person communication are falling for another way corporations attempt to compensate people other than dollars. The “we’re a family” mantra (usually promoted by terrible organizations!) is abstracted from the idea that we make our friendships at work, and that’s a reason to go to work other than, say, to make money. Those who are heavily pushing hybrid work are likely desperately using this as a defense - don’t you want to see everybody? Surely you miss your coworkers? And perhaps you do - but that’s not a reason to start commuting to work again or to go into an office, nor is it a reason for you to stay at a job at all.

Hybrid work fails in any form it takes. If it’s not got hard-and-fast mandated days in the office, you’re likely to not have any of the supposed cohesion or social interactions you had before because there’s no predictability as to who will actually be at work. If it’s got mandated days that you have to be in the office, you have to ask the question as to why - why these days? What makes these days special? Are these the days that we have blocked off for us to all talk about our weekends? What makes them so special?

I should add that my definition of remote work doesn’t mean never seeing a single coworker ever again. I’ve run my company remote since 2013, and we see each other at least once a year at CES, and occasionally two or three times depending on events or off-sites. I imagine if I lived closer to them we’d hang out more often, but…not for work reasons? We’ve also been regularly beating other PR firms that all sit in the office together, so whatever.

The only reason for hybrid work to exist is for the C-suite to feel better about a large amount of bullshit real estate they invested in, and to placate workers that are beginning to question why they’re not able to do everything from home. It is a stopgap - a bargaining chip - a means through which to keep people tied to a company without having to pay them more, framing the company as “generous” for allowing them even a few days off.

The funny thing is, full-remote doesn’t mean people can’t physically get together and hash stuff out. If it’s a big project with tons of moving parts and you want to focus people on it, yes, you can probably do it remotely, but if you really think that getting people in a room is necessary, go and rent an Airbnb with a nice view for a few days and make it fun. I struggle to even imagine what that might be - perhaps it’s an extremely intensive design effort, perhaps it’s a huge pitch meeting and you all want to focus up and put stuff on a whiteboard. I don’t know. But the answer isn’t “we should be in the office.”

Maybe it’s fear. Maybe they’re scared that people won’t work as hard because they’re not in the same place. Maybe it’s just pure magical thinking - that things won’t happen that would’ve happened if you were in the office, non-specific things that are nevertheless very scary and justify not being in the office.

The conversation needs to shift away from hybrid as the new future of work, because it isn’t futuristic at all. Any company that’s going hybrid is admitting that the office is unnecessary because if it was necessary, you’d need to be there all the time. Those that want to go into the office should have to justify it - and if that reason is “I like seeing my coworkers,” then work needs to be done to disconnect our need for social interaction from our professional lives.

Hybrid is a cop-out and a failure of management. It is not the future - hybrid work is a desperate attempt to keep us from moving forward.