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“Hybrid is Hard” – The Myth of The Collaborative Workplace.

Phil Bennett Posted by Phil Bennett in Uncategorized 8 min read

We’ve been sold the myth that hybrid work is the perfect mix between being productive and being focused in your curated, comfortable home office space. Then spending a day or two in the office being hyper-collaborative with your teammates.

However, my recent survey shows that 60% of hybrid workers are rarely or never in the office with their direct colleagues.

People have worked out how to work and be collaborative online. Excellent tools like Miro, Zoom, and Google Meet have rapidly accelerated teams to be functional across locations. The pandemic pushed people out of the office, and we worked it out. Like humans always do, we adapted.  The business world didn’t come crashing down around our ears.  Remote work works.

However, most people want to go into the office, at least sometimes.

The survey comments also talk about missing social connections working from home. Water cooler talk, random corridor interactions, those accidental 15 extra minutes on your lunch break catching up about how incredibly awesome Andor is. All of these things are missing when working from home.

You can try as hard as you might but socializing in a remote environment isn’t the same.

The Loneliness Epidemic; Finding Solace in the Workplace.

It is no secret that the world is becoming more lonely, especially for younger generations. Young adults spend an extra 30 minutes alone compared to their older peers, and the number of single-person households has skyrocketed in the last decade. The Financial Times recently asked if we’re facing a “Loneliness Epidemic.”

In “The Power of Ritual,” Casper ter Kulie studies how we’re moving away from religion being a binding community force. Previous generations would use places of worship, churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques as their core community base.

40% of younger generations in the USA now classify themselves as atheists or agnostic; the numbers are even higher in Europe. In extreme cases, like the Czech Republic, 91% of 16-29 years old claim to be non-religious.

In Matthew Lieberman’s epic book “Social,” he covers how humans have evolved to be social creatures with a strong genetic need to be socially connected to others. The research covered in the book outlines how humans have similar physical reactions to social isolation as they do to physical pain.

Research shows that in extreme situations, social isolation is a contributing factor to extremist terrorist behavior.

So why do hybrid workers want to come to the office but not when their colleagues are?

Quite probably, they’re coming to alleviate the pain of social isolation.

I see that there are three possible ways we proceed with this information. Burn the Office, Burn out the People, or Burn the Handbook.

Burn Down The Office

The first stance we could take on this is that the office shouldn’t be a place where people seek to make social connections. We could suggest that the separation of colleague and friend is necessary. I’ve written about this before. So the workplace becomes a place where we work, a transactional place where doing our job is the key priority. We get along with our colleagues, get shit done, then go home for some solid “work-life balance.”

There is a trend for this style of working. WeAreAsync extols the virtues of ‘async transactional’ jobs. The concept is that you log in from anywhere, get your assigned tasks done, close your laptop, and then do the other things that make you happy.

In this model, as an extreme, fully remote concept, we don’t need the office for most work. Let’s burn it down.

There are indeed positives to this style of working. For years we’ve talked about companies abusing the social connections between their employees, offering social activities, food, drinks, etc., purely to keep them in the office for long hours.  This style of working removes any ambiguity on this topic.

I do work for you, we make profit, you give me some, I log out and spend it on fun things.

This contract between employee and employer is clear, and I see it appealing to some.

But it sounds utterly miserable; where is the fun, the achievement, the excitement?

Burn The People

The next option is to take a similar approach, that you don’t see the social connection of your employees as something that should be solved in the workplace, but you do hold on to the notion that face-to-face collaboration is valuable.

The solution then becomes to dictate specific office days for your employees to be in the office, so they can take advantage of being collocated.

According to the data I collected, most people don’t seem to feel that a push tactic of forced office days is working out. There has been a significant public backlash of Elon Musks’ focus on moving Twitter employees back into the office or Snap’s recent ‘4 days in the office minimum’.

Additionally, companies that allow more flexibility are shown to be more diverse. I hope that despite the current extreme behavior of white, middle-aged, middle-class dudes, we all still think diversity is positive.

People do want to come into the office, but they want to do it on their terms.

Trying to enforce this seems like a fool’s errand.

Burn the Handbook.

But there is a third way: to accept the reality that the workplace will never be the same again, and we re-think the workplace as a responsible social hub.

People need human social connections. The office is a great place to provide this. If we can build a mutually beneficial relationship between employees and employers, both parties can benefit from it.

However, there are a few key factors I think we need to be careful of in this scenario.

Productivity Bomb

We’ve spent hundreds of years trying to work out how to make the office a place to be productive, with cubicles, quiet focus spaces, noise-canceling headphones in open-plan offices, etc. However, I feel we need to rethink productivity in the office.

If we’re only coming into the office one day a week, all of those social connections will be compressed. What was spread over a week, hidden around the water cooler, will all happen in that one day.  

The office isn’t going to be where we are productive. That’s for home. We need to accept that for those primarily working from home the office day is not about productivity; It’s about connections.

Redesign The Office

Modern office spaces all tend to be designed around a similar model. A significant amount of space is assigned for focused deep work, desks, cubicles, etc. Then a reasonable amount of space is allocated for collaborative working, meeting rooms, collab areas, etc. The, more minor, remaining space is allocated for socializing, and they are typically focused on eating and drinking.

We need to shift this a little to provide more space for social activities. The focus and collab areas are still important, but if we don’t make space for the thing, people are coming into the office for this will happen in those areas instead.

Collaborative on Extreme Mode

Even if we’re focusing on the office as a social hub, there is still space for collaborative work. But we need to reconsider what “collaborative working” is.

Asana outlines that we should be doing “strategy and planning, onboarding, 1:1 meetings, and training” in the office. But I think all of these things really can be done efficiently online.

We should be using the office space for activities where we’re almost physically bouncing ideas off each other, where throwing post-it notes around and jumping up to share ideas on a whiteboard generate a buzz and excitement. Design Sprints, interactive workshops, trying out new styles of retros on whiteboards, and even messing around with Lego. These are the things we should be doing in the office.

Be Responsible For People’s Social Health

If the workplace becomes the custodian of social connections, things become tricky. We have to be realistic that, at the end of the day, companies are corporate machines. Their primary goal is to make the company’s shareholders money. Their primary purpose is not to help their employees fulfill their social needs.

If we are going to try and provide this social sustenance for employees, then we need to act more like the pastors in religious communities (the good ones 😬) than business folk.

We need to consider our responsibility for the social health of the employee carefully.

Mutual Contract

However, I think the critical factor in this situation is we need to be super clear and transparent about the mutual contract between employer and employee and what’s expected on both sides.

We still need to get stuff done, and we’re not creating direct replacements for alternative social hubs. Companies still need to be profitable.

But we can’t expect 100% productivity all the time. People are going to need to come into the office and chat, mess around, and build social connections with their colleagues. This WILL happen on company time.

It did before. This “social time” was just hidden in the kitchen, the canteen, and around the smoking area outside.

Burn the Handbook and Start Again.

There is an opportunity here for us to create an extraordinary mutually beneficial future for both employer and employee, a place where companies benefit from a hyper-engaged workplace, and people get part of this social fix in the office on agreed terms.

So burn the company handbook, and start again. We can create better companies and a better world.