After a year of navigating the “new normal” following the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have a better understanding of the impact this event has had on the world of work.
The first major revelation was the global experience with remote work. After two years of this model, one thing has become clear: the future of work will be hybrid. However, the concept of what constitutes a “hybrid” model is up for debate. Many assess this concept solely based on the amount of work done in each location, often defining it by the number of days spent working remotely or in the office. However, the ideal model or format should depend on the very definition and meaning of WORK.
Some mistakenly view work as mere task execution and argue that it can be done from anywhere. On the other hand, many scholars, including myself, understand work as a broader social phenomenon that involves not only task execution but also constant collaboration, exchange that fosters teaching and learning, social interaction, communication, relaxation, competition, status, inspiration, and other factors, including personal fulfillment. While we can certainly perform individual tasks from anywhere, work is more than just deliverables. Several studies already point to decreased performance in remote work, increased issues like social isolation and burnout, and hindered integration and learning for newcomers and new hires who end up feeling isolated in the remote model.
Another crucial factor is the weakening of organizational culture, a crucial ingredient for engagement and a sense of belonging in purpose-driven and high-performing companies. I venture to say that, in the long run, even the survival of an organization may be at risk if this equation is not carefully planned. It is important to emphasize that this reality is even more impactful for smaller high-performance companies like startups. Research coordinated by Professor Steve Blank, known as the “startup guru,” states that startups in a physical or hybrid model grow 3.5 times faster than companies in a fully remote model. In these emerging companies, culture is being built or matured, and the negative impact of this fragmentation is evident.
Therefore, aiming to foster a broader discussion and present a critical perspective in contrast to some advocates of exclusive remote work, I present this manifesto on the hybrid model:
Regarding Personal Connection to Work
Whether you like your job or not should not determine which model is better or worse. This issue is individual and should be resolved through the free will to pursue something that brings personal fulfillment as an individual and social being. Some people see work as a mere sale of labor, while others see it as part of their personal fulfillment as individuals. Everyone is free to choose what best suits their needs and desires, and they can even build companies based on this view. And that’s okay.
What Hybrid Work Means
Hybrid work is not simply working from home on some days and at the office on others. Hybrid work means organizing work in terms of quality, not quantity. It means organizing types of work, defining moments for task execution that require concentration (which can be done individually), and scheduling in-person meetings for interaction, collaboration, learning, and exchange, where physical contact makes a significant difference in the quantity and quality of interactions. It makes no sense to commute to the office to perform individual tasks or spend most of the time connected via Teams or Zoom.
Employee and Leadership Perspectives
In general, employees are more focused on the short term, while leaders have a more long-term perspective. Therefore, it is challenging for employees to understand the impact that remote work may have on a company’s overall performance. It is impossible for a company to establish a high-performance culture without three strong pillars: clear objectives and goals, engagement in teamwork, and a strong organizational culture. Exclusive remote work weakens these three pillars, and as an employee, you often don’t realize this. As an example, I believe that IT personnel, especially developers, may not be able to objectively evaluate the issue since they have a completely different situation from other professions. However, keep in mind that in any profession, significant strategic decisions and constructive exchanges still occur in a room with people physically present. If you are never called to one, reflect on that.
Productivity is not a uniform or linear metric. It varies for countless reasons: personal issues, environmental factors, biological factors, and many more. However, it is impossible to say that someone is always more productive at home or in the office. Productivity is always linked to the type of activity being performed, considering all the variables that can influence performance. You don’t need to commute to the office to create a financial spreadsheet, but it is not advisable to stay at home connected online to develop a strategic plan or create a campaign.
Planning The Hybrid Model
Demand that your leaders qualify the physical workspace to prioritize interactions between teams and even the spontaneity of unplanned encounters between people from different teams. Together with your leaders, develop a plan that clearly defines the reasons for in-person meetings, identifying the teams involved and the types of activities that can be done remotely. All other activities should be done in person. During these moments, virtual connection should be avoided. If inevitable, it is important to use appropriate technology that allows the in-person team to avoid using individual equipment, which should be reserved for remote team members.
Performance in The Hybrid Model
If you are among those who believe they can work solely from home, be prepared to work in a company with a weakened culture, low engagement, and low performance. High-performance companies have strong leadership to define collective strategies and provide autonomy to their leaders and employees during the execution phase. Success lies in quality meetings for planning and defining strategies and plans, where teams celebrate achievements together, as well as autonomy in the execution of tasks, which can be done in small groups or individually.
Remote Work and Organizational Culture
Over time, an exclusively remote work model erodes a company’s culture. Remote work needs to be understood as an alternative, a benefit, and not the other way around, where in-person work seems like a punishment. A strong culture is not built with welcome kits and online happy hours alone. Imagine a soccer team without a stadium? How do the players identify with each other, the club, the symbols, the colors, and, most importantly, the fans? Traditions are the result of habits and rituals that need to be created, transmitted, and executed as a group over time. A culture cannot be built overnight, and it cannot be ingrained without rituals and camaraderie. These values hardly flourish through Zoom or Teams meetings.
Remote Work Gurus
Beware of remote work gurus. Most of them take an aggressive stance on this issue, creating a confrontation between employees and employers. Few approach it with curiosity, which should be the tone when discussing something that is still not fully understood. Most proponents of the end of office work are individuals who usually work alone, at home or in cafes, and have never had the experience of leading a company with more than 20 people or high-performing teams. They tend to view work in a transactional and individualistic manner: work on what I like, when and where I like, to earn my money and live life as I please. There’s nothing wrong with that! But behind this mindset, there are high-performance companies supporting this pattern, and that’s perfectly fine. There is room for those seeking tranquility as well as those pursuing performance and growth. I invite these gurus to build a company based on the model they advocate and hire those who believe that in-person work is a punishment from employers.
Remote Work and The Threat To Learning
The world needs physical interaction for various important reasons. One fundamental reason is that learning is more effective through in-person exchanges. Isn’t it strange that the same people who advocate for the end of the office are usually against remote learning? How can someone starting their corporate life grow without contact with their colleagues? Even with physical contact, interns and young apprentices already feel somewhat disconnected, so imagine the challenges of remote interactions. It simply doesn’t work.
Lastly, a final provocation. No collective and collaborative activity can be better executed remotely than in person. With technology, we can enable online execution, but never with the same results as in a face-to-face setting. In personal and physical interactions, spontaneity is much higher, as is the quality of the interactions. Communication is much clearer and direct, without signal loss. Asynchronous remote work addresses many aspects of work, but it can never reach conclusions and alignments as quickly as in-person interactions. In smaller high-performance companies, such as startups, some alignment and future vision planning meetings may not even happen without an office. People become so focused on their individual tasks that they neglect broader alignment needs. Now, imagine this problem extending over time: lack of communication, amplification of individualities, weakened processes, loss of culture, and declining engagement. All of these combined in the long run can even result in the demise of the business!
Lastly, I appeal to employees, employers, and HR coordinators:
HR coordinators, if you are seeking an exciting and united work environment focused on growth and excellent performance, don’t fall for the rhetoric of remote work gurus. Treat remote work as an alternative, a benefit.
CEOs and entrepreneurs, don’t be misled by the agenda of remote work gurus. If you want a solid company with a strong culture, clear objectives, and engaged employees focused on success, don’t give up on in-person work. Adopt the hybrid model to accommodate everyone’s desires and take advantage of its benefits, but don’t neglect planning how this hybrid will function. Invest in an office that is more than just a place for task execution, providing options for different personalities and activities. Establish routines, rituals, and collaborative work habits.
And finally, for you, the employee, understand that even with the inconvenience of commuting and meeting your colleagues in the office a few times a week, you will contribute more to your company’s performance and, in return, to your own success. If you feel that nothing changes whether you are at home or in the office, I suggest reflecting on your real role in the company and your contribution to the future of the organization you are part of. Depending on your occupation, the percentage of individual tasks may be higher, and in those cases, remote work can be more frequent. However, if you work in sales, marketing, planning, human resources, facilities, or any field that involves more interaction and decision-making, go to the office and build strong relationships with your colleagues.
Images: Adobe Stock
Authors: Mário Verdi and Fernanda Belo