Will hybrid work actually work? What companies and workers should consider in a post-pandemic world
While we’re clearly still a long way from completely overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, the release of effective vaccines and a better understanding of how the virus spreads is starting to bring optimism to many.
It has also triggered a lot of discussions and actions focused on how we can all get back to more normal lives.
Key among the issues being addressed is a return to work. After a year of seemingly non-stop Zoom calls, Microsoft Teams meetings, Webex conferences and more, there’s a real sense of urgency among many to figure out how to best get people back into their work environments.
The problem is that there’s no clear answer on how to best approach this challenge. One common theme that has emerged is the concept of hybrid work, which essentially entails people continuing to work part of the time at home and part of the time back in their offices. (Of course, the word “hybrid” can be interpreted in many ways, so there seems to be an enormous number of variations on this overall theme.)
At a basic level, this seems like a reasonable approach. After all, many people and organizations have recognized that they can be very productive while working from home, and you can’t beat the commute. At the same time, most everyone is eager to get back to normal face-to-face conversations and interactions with work colleagues. Plus, remember that some companies decided to allow their employees to work from anywhere, and many people have taken advantage of that opportunity by moving to places from which they now cannot easily come into the office.
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What would hybrid work entail?
As companies start to dig into the real-world implications of what the move to a hybrid work environment really means, however, a number of challenging questions start to arise.
First, there are several issues around physical space. If most employees will end up coming in less frequently, should companies reduce the amount of office space they use and pay for? Should they reconfigure the space they do have to create more meeting rooms and collaboration spaces, potentially eliminating existing offices and cube configurations in the process? If they do, do they actually need to increase the amount of commercial real estate they maintain?
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You can build reasonable arguments for all of these approaches, but the problem is that they all imply making relatively large physical changes that could be difficult to undo if they don’t work out. Sure, it’s easy for companies to do this kind of work right now when few people are going into the office, but what happens if our return to normal is exactly that and people want to go back to the same office environment they left before the pandemic? After all, isn’t the end goal of getting large segments of the population vaccinated the ability to let people return to their normal activities and means of interaction?
In addition to questions about physical space, there are basic questions about human nature. What happens when meetings start consisting of half the people physically together in a room and half calling in? Yes, all the videoconferencing applications are making tremendous strides in improving remote participation in a meeting, but until we have fully interactive holograms, they will never replace the personal interactions, hallway chit-chat, and other means of communications that occur when people are together.
While it’s certainly going to vary by individual and by company, I have a strong sense that work FOMO (fear of missing out) is going to go through the roof once some people start going back to the office. That, in turn, could end up driving more people to return to their workspaces, which could create challenges for companies that do make large physical changes to their environments.
More questions than answers
Procedural changes could prove to be problematic, as well. If employees are only permitted to come in a few days per week, how can they be certain it will be the same ones that colleagues they want to meet with in person are also there? If companies eliminate most individual offices or cubes and move to a hoteling arrangement where you have to check out a different cube each day you come in, won’t that get to be an annoying hassle? Plus, how much time will people have to spend figuring out where the co-workers they want to chat with are located?
To be clear, not all of these concerns are insurmountable, and a number of companies have created and used successful and effective flexible work environments for many years. But there are bound to be frustrating challenges if rock-solid policies and procedures are not put into place.
There is no question that the pandemic has forced companies and individual employees to rethink their work practices, schedules, policies and more. And I am convinced that we will see important, positive changes to how we work coming out of our collective experience – not the least of which is a better sense of work-life balance.
I also believe that the ability to work from virtually anywhere – as long as you have internet connectivity – will provide us with new ways of working. Fully embracing a completely hybrid work environment without thinking through the critical details that might come with it, however, could end up being an expensive exercise in frustration.
As companies think through and implement their post-COVID work-environment plans, it’s critical to remember that the “new normal” may not need to be that different from the old one.
USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.