The false dichotomy of hybrid work

Our tale of how modern white-collar workplaces evolved into hybrid work environments usually goes like this: thanks to a massive “natural experiment” from the Covid-19 pandemic, employees demonstrated that remote work is productive, but also showed the limits to camaraderie and innovation in the workplace. As a result, white-collar workers are now mandated (or strongly encouraged) to come in a couple days a week, and allowed to “work from home” for the rest.

The issue with this description is it implies that working remotely was a novelty for employees pre-pandemic, and equates physically working inside an office building with physical interactions in the office. Neither are true.

While most white-collar employees hadn’t experienced extended remote work pre-pandemic, they were no strangers to the idea. Work wasn’t left at the physical office that employees commuted to each day; it was ever-present in our digital devices. I personally had late night and early morning calls with teammates in India, and last-minute asks after I had gone home for the day required me to work late into the night. By the time pandemic lockdowns went into effect, I was an expert at working with colleagues who I had never met in person, calling into meetings from my apartment, and furiously churning out analyses while sitting on my bed.

In a global workforce, building connections with colleagues requires intentionality beyond the work you’re responsible for; in-person work doesn’t actually mean in-person interaction. When I go into the office, I’m still squirreled away taking meetings in a conference room, or have to take some calls at my desk if everything’s full. Even if everyone on my team was in their assigned office, we have people in San Francisco, Sunnyvale, Chicago, Washington DC, New York, Toronto, and Dublin. That doesn’t even include colleagues who are fully remote, let alone the teams I partner with across Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and Latin America.

When people bring up “remote vs. in-person work”, they present a false dichotomy. I call in remotely for 99% of my in-office meetings, and I’ve made great connections with colleagues through deliberate collaboration-focused coffee chats we take while working from home. I don’t get to leave my work at the door when “working in-office”, and I don’t get to ignore my job responsibilities when “working from home”. We shouldn’t insist on “in-office” and “work from home” days for the sake of nostalgia. The distinction hasn’t existed since the proliferation of landline phones. Perhaps it never did.

Hybrid work should seek to create meaningful connection when people work in person, not force-fit meetings into an old cadence. Instead of going back to the way things were, make things better. Give flexibility to employees, let them decide what works best to produce quality work and attend to the important things in life. If we do this, we just might discover the true power of a “hybrid” workplace.


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