In 2020, almost every team was talking about remote work. How to do it effectively, what the challenges were and if it was a good fit for them. In 2021, the conversation has now shifted to discussion of the hybrid model. How can organizations combine remote workers with an in-person component at their existing office spaces now that people are starting to gather in person again?
As workplaces start to reopen, organizations are finding that their workforce is not keen to give up remote work. People who started working remotely due to COVID-19 overwhelmingly support it and want to continue doing so. Companies can no longer say that they can’t operate remotely (a common reason to avoid remote work pre-2020), but with an ongoing global pandemic, they also can’t ask employees to come back to the office full-time. The most popular solution is the thing that every organization seems to be grappling with at the moment — the hybrid model.
People refer to the hybrid model a lot, but there isn’t exactly one clearly defined example. Ultimately, it involves some combination of working remotely and from an office. So far, the hybrid model looks different for every organization, but there are a few clear themes. Whatever the specifics, however, companies that choose to incorporate a hybrid model will all face some challenges.
Variations of the Hybrid Model
Many leaders are choosing to go remote-first, meaning that their operations will closely mirror those of a fully remote company, with a few exceptions. Notably, most will keep their offices as space for employees to work from. Some also won’t allow the same flexibility to every employee, meaning that they may require some employees to continue coming to the office if their job requires their physical presence.
Remote first will look slightly different for everyone, but the main principle is that the company should act like a fully remote company with employees spread out across time zones and defaulting to online communication.
We can already see examples of businesses shifting to this structure. For instance, Quora announced that they were moving to the remote first model. Their CEO, Adam D’Angelo, explained their model thusly: “Remote work will be the primary orientation of our company — the default for all choices.”
This approach means that employees can relocate away from the office, but that the company will keep its office space for those employees who value it. Notably, he specified that he would not work out of the office or be there more than once a month and that the leadership team also wouldn’t be in the office.
Dropbox is also shifting to a remote-first orientation. Although Dropbox has office spaces worldwide, the company intends that their model be more prescriptive about how employees can use those spaces. In a blog post on this topic, the company said, “Dropbox Studios will be specifically for collaboration and community-building, and employees will not be able to use them for solo work.”
This dictum from Dropbox is a great example of remote-first thinking. The company will be less likely to run into some of the common challenges with the hybrid model if it has delineated specific uses for its office space rather than allowing operations to turn into a more office-centered version of the hybrid model.
Note that, just like fully distributed remote work, remote-first does not mean that teammates never see each other. Most fully remote companies organize some type of annual retreat, and many employees who live in the same city at remote organizations can occasionally choose to co-work together.
Some companies are eager to get back to the office. Maybe they don’t want to lose money on unused office space, or they still aren’t sold on remote work. These businesses may set up a hybrid model that can be described as office-occasional.
The idea here is that employees come into the office a few times a week. Unlike Dropbox’s remote-first setup, in which office spaces are purely to be used for collaboration, this model uses the office to blend in-person collaboration and solo work. Depending on the company’s needs, this can be quite a loose policy (e.g., employees are instructed to come into the office two days a week of their choice), or there could be more firm guidelines (e.g., employees are expected to work from the office every Monday).
The core of this model is that the company isn’t going fully remote-first like the first example. Instead, they choose to keep an office and require employees to spend some time in it. Some employees may even want to spend more than the required amount of time there. Regardless the workforce will be mostly local rather than distributed because employees have to come into the office occasionally.
Although this model ideally sits in the middle of remote-first and office-first, it can easily get pulled in either direction without clear guidelines. For that reason, it’s important to establish best practices for communication early on. Leadership should also pay close attention to the varying experiences of teammates depending on how often and how regularly they work from the office.
Office-First, Remote Allowed
Another option is to keep both the office and remote work but designate the office as the primary place for working. This was a common setup prior to COVID-19; companies would have a small percentage of their workforce be remote and the rest worked from one main office space. This approach is particularly common if the entire leadership team is in the office. The rest of the company is likely to become office-centered by default as the leadership team will generally have in-person conversation and collaboration, excluding remote workers.
In this model, the company offers a remote work policy and might have some employees scattered, but those who work in-office and those who don’t are differentiated by the connections and opportunities in-office folks get by working so closely with the leadership team.
Another way for this setup to take shape is if the bulk of employees work from the office, including most of a specific team. For example, if most of the marketing team is in-office but a few individuals choose to remain remote, there’s a good chance the rest of the marketing team will have conversations without them and form closer relationships purely as a result of working together every day. Overall, the biggest pitfall of this approach is that remote workers can end up feeling like second-class citizens. They also often have fewer career opportunities. That combination is bad for employee engagement, productivity and retention.
Overcoming the Hybrid Model’s Problems
A hybrid model can seem like an easy solution to the current problems companies face because they get to keep their office space while also accommodating both those who prefer in-person and those who prefer remote work. As with most things, however, the easiest solution isn’t always the best. The hybrid model may seem like an easy solution, but it’s not without hurdles that must be overcome.
Pay Attention to Where Leadership Works
A big part of successfully running a hybrid model is determined by where the leadership team spends their time. If the company leadership works primarily from the office, other people will also likely want to work from the office. This arrangement could unintentionally shift things to an office-first culture if it wasn’t already the case.
Quora’s CEO was explicit on this point: “I will not work out of the office, and I will visit the office no more than once a month. Our leadership teams won’t be located in the office.” Here, D’Angelo makes it clear that the company recognizes that there are often benefits to working alongside the leadership team in-office and that, to fully embrace their remote-first culture, leadership needs to work primarily remotely.
An unbalanced culture in which leadership is primarily in the office could lead to inequalities around recognition. Employees who choose to work alongside leaders in the office space will be more visible and may attract more attention to their work. This setup ultimately disincentivizes remote work and can lead to remote workers feeling like an afterthought.
Be Aware of Who Is Promoted and Recognized
Along these lines, Dropbox raised a significant issue that many people have flagged with the hybrid model — promotions might not be awarded equally. As Dropbox’s statement said, “Hybrid approaches may also perpetuate two different employee experiences that could result in barriers to inclusion and inequities with respect to performance or career trajectory.”
Research on this topic supports the idea that office workers are more likely to be promoted. According to a survey by Gartner, 64 percent of managers are more likely to give office-based workers a higher raise than remote workers as they believe that office workers are higher performers. Despite this bias, the data shows that full-time remote workers are 5 percent more likely to be high performers than their office-bound counterparts.
Organizations can mitigate this problem by having leadership and managers work primarily remotely so that they aren’t unintentionally privileging in-office workers. They can also train managers to identify biases against remote workers while they’re doing performance reviews. Doing so will ensure that remote workers have a chance to grow with the company, leading to better long-term retention.
Offer a Consistent Experience
One of the other pitfalls of the hybrid model is that it’s more likely to make remote workers into second-class citizens. As much as possible, organizations should strive to give remote and in-office employees the same experience by creating guidelines that prioritize communicating online over in-person.
The company should plan meetings and events with remote workers in mind. Rather than gathering most people in a meeting room and having remote workers join from a screen to the side, everyone should have the same experience by joining the meeting remotely from their own laptop. This way, remote workers won’t feel uncomfortable speaking up or contributing.
By shifting most communication to online rather than in-person, organizations are also less likely to have issues arise from remote workers not being aware of certain conversations or decisions that have been made in-person. Prioritizing online-first communication is a simple step that offers huge number of benefits to a hybrid workspace.
Consider Going Remote-First
The workplace of the future will likely continue to be some hybrid blend of remote and office work. In my opinion, the strongest hybrid model is the remote-first option that Quora and Dropbox have implemented. It avoids many of the pitfalls of having employees split between office and remote and puts the whole company on a level playing ground rather than rewarding those who work from the office.
Notably, both Quora and Dropbox are keeping their office spaces but leveraging them as co-working spaces rather than as full-time offices. This is another aspect of their models that will contribute to their success and that smaller companies can emulate without the need for expensive office space rent.
A strong remote-first culture will mitigate the inequalities that naturally arise with hybrid workspaces while still allowing employees the flexibility to work from where they feel most productive. For some people, this means not working from home.
Although much of the current conversation focuses on the difference between working from home versus working in an office, there is also a third option that provides an alternative place for remote workers to work, allows for in-person collaboration and doesn’t require an office — co-working.
Co-working has always been popular in the remote work world as a way to still get occasional in-person interaction without needing to be tied to an office space. As I mentioned above, even fully remote or remote-first organizations will still gather occasionally to co-work. At Buffer, if we have several teammates in one city, they arrange occasional days where they gather at a co-working space and work alongside each other for the day.
Offering a co-working option is a natural fit for full remote teams and the remote-first hybrid model. Some remote workers still prefer to work outside of their homes, and pre-2020 remote work was not necessarily synonymous with working from one’s home.
Christelle Rohaut is the CEO of Codi, which offers daytime workspaces in private homes close to where users live. She’s seen firsthand that working from home isn’t always the best solution: “Assuming that everyone can be as productive and fulfilled working from home is just not inclusive. Many do not have the right conditions at home to feel productive every day (roommates, kids, studio, etc.).”
Remote work doesn’t need to be synonymous with working from home or with never seeing colleagues. The most successful way to do remote work, however, does mean thinking remote-first and not setting up processes for remote workers as an afterthought. This extra planning and attention can ensure the success of the hybrid model and is less likely to leave remote employees feeling left out and unengaged, something most companies are working hard to avoid.