Why hybrid workplaces are heading for extinction
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have offered a hybrid work setup to attract talent. The promise of hybrid, which combines in-office and remote work, is that employees can have better work-life balance.
However, Scott Brighton (pictured above), CEO of business software firm Aurea, believes that the hybrid office is headed for extinction. Instead of a “happy middle,” hybrid work is a “messy middle” that companies use as a stepping stone as they figure out how to operate a fully virtual office.
According to Brighton, employers that mandate hybrid work will lose out on the best workers, suffer from disconnection and lack of organizational cohesion, and lose the innovation race. This is contrary to their stated goal of attracting talent that will spur innovation.
“We see hybrid work as the worst of both worlds,” Brighton told Corporate Risk and Insurance. “You retain the negative impacts of in-office work such as the dreaded commute, the forced employee relocations to live near the office, and the creation of work-life compromises for employees that may exclude some employees such as working mothers. But you also miss out on the benefits of being in the office, such as the connections, critical relationship development, and spontaneous interactions that occur when everyone is in the office together. And you miss out on these things because while with hybrid some people will be in the office, you won’t have the critical mass that creates that spontaneous magic.”
Another criticism Brighton has against a hybrid setup is that he says it’s too complex. By pursuing a hybrid work strategy, employers are trying to create a model that works for both in-office people and remote people simultaneously.
“This is how you end up with absurd situations – such as a group of people in a meeting room each individually logged into a video conference session via their laptops so that the remote folks don’t feel disadvantaged at an information or collaboration,” Brighton said. “Trying to create a work environment that is effective for both remote and in-office ends up creating one that works for neither.”
Instead of going for a hybrid work model, Brighton said that employers should instead choose whether to go primarily remote or primarily in office.
“In a remote model, the work infrastructure is optimized to enable remote workers,” he said. “There are an array of technologies to enable collaboration and communication. People can live anywhere they want. You lean into flexibility as a critical differentiator. There are no offices. And periodically (perhaps monthly or quarterly), you get everyone together for intensive in-person collaboration and relationship development.”
For an in-office model, employers will do the reverse, with all employees expected to be in the office, with the work environment and tools fully catering to that expectation. According to Brighton, this provides Google-like opportunities for people to bump into one another and spark serendipitous interactions.
“You lean into the things that make in-office great,” he said. “And then, periodically (monthly or quarterly), you offer “WFH flex days” where people can focus on uninterrupted individual work and you do that for all (or most) employees simultaneously. In both cases, the key is to have a core work model that is the center of what you do and what you build your people infrastructure and culture around, and avoid the compromises introduced by trying to straddle both.”
Industries that can greatly benefit from a remote-first model are those where the means of production are just as accessible at home and in the office, he said.
“For example, in our business of software, the means of production are a laptop, a set of applications, and a high-speed internet connection,” Brighton said. “All of those technologies are readily available at home. The same is true of insurance. All of the technologies and tools that most insurance workers need can be made available at home. Industries such as manufacturing or service are obviously different. The tools required to do their job – the factory or the service location – are not available at home.”
According to Brighton, businesses must weigh all risks properly before choosing a particular work model, as it is critical for the organization’s success.
“Have a reasonable and realistic assessment of the risks, pick a model that is consistent with the assessment of those risks, and communicate clearly and authentically the what and why of the work model to employees,” he said.