Navigating Hybrid Work, The Next Frontier

Olympic National Park, Washington; photo by the author

Overnight in March 2020, knowledge workers everywhere went from almost entirely office-bound to entirely remote. As an extrovert who’s always loved office work (even commuting!) this was quite an adjustment. At first I gritted my teeth and made the best of it, but over time I came to appreciate the unique benefits of place-unconstrained work. Of course, it helps that Brightflag had a great 2020 and first half of 2021 (the pandemic has fueled the growth of the legal operations movement).

Although the pandemic continues to run its course, and is likely to be a presence in our lives for some time to come, businesses are moving ahead with their return to office plans. The more I think about the future of work, the more I realize just how complicated it’s likely to be.

Let me start by dispelling a myth: Reed Hastings’ opinion notwithstanding, remote work isn’t all bad:

  • Avoiding commuting saves workers time and money, is better for the environment, and reduces auto injuries and fatalities.
  • For the most part, Zoom, Slack, and Google Workspace and their ilk make remote collaboration easy. (Fun fact: My first-ever blog post was about the power of video conferencing.)
  • Video conferencing is a great equalizer: in gallery view, every attendee is a rectangle of equal size. The advantage of sitting next to the boss is neutralized, as is the disadvantage of having to sit in the back corner because it’s the only seat left.
  • Great talent can be hired anywhere, not just within daily commuting distance of a physical office. A large percentage of Brightflag’s many hires since March 2020 live outside of daily commuting distance to New York, Dublin, and Sydney.
  • Rent, which for most SaaS companies was the third largest area of expense before the pandemic, after compensation and cloud computing, has been eliminated or reduced significantly.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to conclude that remote work is superior to office work. Here are some of its shortcomings:

  • It’s difficult to do your best work if you don’t have a comfortable, well-connected, and private workspace. Younger workers may have roommates, and older workers, families, competing for the same space—and bandwidth.
  • If you’re in a role that requires a high degree of synchronous collaboration (such as product design), you’re going to run into the limitations of remote work faster and more often (e.g., it’s meaningfully harder to quickly whiteboard an idea).
  • The line between working and nonworking hours is blurred, increasing the risk of burnout. Some of this is due to the pandemic itself (“I may as well keep working since there’s nothing better to do”), but I think lack of separation is the larger problem.
  • Reducing all interactions to a screen increases cognitive overhead. All else being equal, Zoom meetings are more difficult on the eyes and mind than in-person meetings. Long meetings are particularly impractical, making it harder to collaborate on strategic issues.
  • The social aspect is missing, so building culture and relationships is harder. There’s no serendipity, no proverbial water cooler; discussions only happen if someone is intentional about making them happen. This disproportionally impacts new and younger workers.

There’s broad consensus that the future for most workers and businesses is a combination of remote and office work (“hybrid work”). Like remote and office work, hybrid work will have advantages (which should be self evident), but also unique disadvantages, including:

  • The (in my opinion very real) risk that two divergent cultures develop, one for the workers who are mostly or entirely in the office and another for those who are mostly or entirely remote.
  • The possibility that remote workers will be disadvantaged, e.g., passed over for project assignments or promotions (“out of sight, out of mind”) or recalled to the office when underperforming (which could easily be interpreted as a form of punishment).
  • Managing flexible office spaces. A 1,000-employee business isn’t going to carry a lease for 1,000 desks. So, how do you feel about waking up early to book a “good” desk with natural light? What happens when all 1,000 workers want to show up on the same day?

I’m not sure anyone knows what the “right” answer is for the future of work, although that isn’t stopping businesses from staking out their positions (and holding their ground when their workers raise concerns). Netflix is requiring most of its workers to return to the office. At the other extreme, Snowflake has abandoned its Silicon Valley headquarters for Montana, although it won’t really have an office there. And in between, Apple is requiring most of its workers to return to the office on specific days of the week—a decision that’s been met with some resistance.

I’m certain that hybrid work is and will be complicated, and most businesses won’t get it perfectly right the first time around. It will take time to find the right balance between individual, team, and company needs. During that time, leaders will need to listen even more than usual, and maintain an open mind about the future of work.

Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.