By Tariq Rauf
The work-from-home culture wars are reaching a fever pitch. Between Goldman Sachs’ commands to get back to the office and Apple’s hybrid battle with employees, the way we work has never caused so much debate.
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Millions have now adapted to a fundamentally different way of working, and for some, the prospect of hybrid threatens to introduce even more upheaval.
Before taking the plunge, companies would be wise to challenge their assumptions. Is hybrid a silver bullet for creating trust? Is it a fast-track to a more creative workforce? Are hybrid and flexible work mutually exclusive? This lens helps expose foundational issues regarding trust, flexibility and creativity in modern work, and is an important starting point before considering the transition to hybrid.
Hybrid complicates transparency and trust
Over the past year, we’ve become accustomed to living within specific apps at work. Branding teams might live in a project management app like Asana, content teams organize their work in an online wiki like Notion, and sales teams track everything in a CRM like Salesforce1.
The problem is that around two-thirds of us don’t know what our colleagues are actually working on. This impedes trust: How can you trust that the sales team is on course to meet its targets if you have no visibility of conversations with prospects?
Hybrid is scattering our teams among homes, headquarters and coffee shops. That’s more fragmentation, and a higher risk of Team Remote becoming suspicious of Team Office. Leaders are waking up to the urgency of shaping a culture that promotes transparency between teams across organizations, but the hybrid model is making that harder.
Debunking the myth of watercooler serendipity
Companies are often tempted to bring employees back into the office because of the lingering myth of the “watercooler moment.” But there’s no evidence that this really does anything for serendipitous creativity. We’re blindly pinning our hopes of creativity on totally chance encounters.
Unfortunately, fostering creativity isn’t easy sailing in the virtual office either. Sure, we’ve had this explosion in tools that simplify collaboration, from Zoom to Slack to Google Docs, but it’s chaotic.
Forty-three percent of people report spending too much time switching between different applications, and losing up to an hour a day in the process. Context switching drains cognitive function — human brains are not wired for a working day of glancing among your inbox, documents, slide decks and everything else that has become core to the world of work.
Enabling a culture of fair, structured creativity that spans the physical and digital needs urgent attention before taking the hybrid plunge.
Hybrid and flexibility don’t have to be mutually exclusive
Worker expectations for flexibility have never been higher. If remote work was no longer an option, 1 in 3 remote professionals would quit their job. Indeed, a record 4 million people in the U.S. quit their jobs in April alone — including engineers at Google who quit over directives to go back to the office.
But hybrid and flexibility don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Hybrid can be an option for workers, not a command. Authentic flexibility happens not just because you can work from home, but because the culture puts you in control of your work. This culture is brought about through transparency, clearly defined policies and clarity around goals. Transparency and clarity cut the need for constant check-ins, giving people more freedom to plan work around other responsibilities.
Unfortunately, we found that as much as 52 percent of workers say different departments track their goals in different ways. This inconsistency puts as many limitations on flexibility as a hybrid model, and is crying out to be fixed before returning to the office.
Treat hybrid with caution
The WFH culture wars are reaching fever pitch, and rightly so. Work isn’t working, and this battle will help us break from the outdated norms of the 9-5.
If anything, hybrid work is a distraction from the foundational issues of trust, flexibility and creativity that need attention in the modern workplace. Leaders should focus on these before jumping into the unknown and risking employee unrest.
Tariq Rauf is the founder and CEO of digital work hub Qatalog, a new kind of work infrastructure for modern businesses.
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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