The three possible futures of hybrid work

I’ve been thinking about hybrid work.  Again.  About what are we seeing, so far.  About how people are feeling now it has moved from the abstract to the reality.  It is of course still early days and there remains much to learn.  But there are early warning signs that are already giving me cause for caution.

Tales of ‘banter’ about flexible working.  Banter of the ‘getting your washing done in between Zoom calls are you?’ variety.  I am hearing too of people wondering why they are going into the office at all as they are not finding any value from doing so.  Of managers insisting people come in on certain days, because they are in the office themselves, or ‘just in case’.   And of offices environments unchanged but expected to support very changed working practices.

I believe that the future of hybrid is not certain.  That we cannot assume that hybrid will endure, or that the case for flexibility is made.  Hybrid working is guaranteed to be the future of work. 

There are, in my opinion, three possible futures for flexibility:

  1. Hybrid as envisioned, as hoped for by employees. This is the form of hybrid that resulted from those very many surveys undertaken during the pandemic which indicated – consistently – that employees wanted to spend some of their time in the office and some from home.  This form of hybrid is the 2/3 day split, delivering what we hoped it might.  A reduction in commuting, greater work life balance, work mostly organised around whether tasks need to be completed in person or independently.
  2. Unrealised hybrid.  Hybrid that starts off with good intentions but increasingly fails to deliver upon its promises.  It becomes too complex, too messy, and hard to manage.  The ‘get back round the watercooler’ narrative becomes too strong.  The office and all its habits, draws us back in.  Monday-Friday dominates once again, and those that can perform this ideal worker norm reign supreme. 
  3. Predominantly remote hybrid.  We realise that even more work can be done from home than we first thought, that the need to spend time co-located with others has even within they hybrid model been overstated, that we need offices less and less. Slowly, work becomes ever more remote, and we find new ways to fulfil our need for social connection and to collaborate.  The extent to which this future is possible will to some extent rest with technology. 

The latter presents the greatest shift. Not just in work but in where and how we live, how we travel, what we own.  This stands in complete contrast with what we knowledge workers know best – the deeply held cultural norm that is the office.    

There may be additional possible futures that I cannot yet see or factors that I have not considered. Regardless, only time will which of these three (or more) possible futures will result.

Inverted E Letter

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