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.

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.

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.

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.