The Future of the Hybrid Office

It’s time to go back to the office. Some of us are already there and others, like me, will be back sometime in 2021. A lot has changed since 2019. Now we all know what a fully remote workforce looks like and most of us know how to host a Zoom meeting (though it’s still surprising how many times I need to tell people to mute their phones).

In his annual letter to JP Morgan shareholders, Jamie Dimon says that he learned that “Performing jobs remotely is more successful when people know one another and already have a large body of existing work to do. It does not work as well when people don’t know one another.” I learned these lessons over years of working in hybrid environments. When I was at AIG, my entire team, including my boss and my teammates were all based in Charlotte North Carolina while I was based in New York. We learned that we needed to meet in person a few times a year to build trust and agree on what to do. These conversations were imperative to getting everyone on the same page. These were the times to have disagreements about what to focus on and what could be postponed. We left these meetings with a plan. Then we could all travel to our own locations and get our work done.

Transactional work can be done remotely, but relationship work and innovation need to be done in person. As much as we try to use technology to do remote work, there’s a human aspect of seeing a person face to face and building a relationship that’s imperative to doing productive work. Think about one of the most human experiences—sharing a meal together. The famous celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain built his career sharing meals throughout the world, showing that no matter how different we are, we can all connect through food. He said:

I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had as dining companions over the years everybody from Hezbollah supporters, communist functionaries, anti-Putin activists, cowboys, stoners, Christian militia leaders, feminists, Palestinians and Israeli settlers, to Ted Nugent,” after his dinner of noodles and beer in Vietnam with then-president Barack Obama. “You like food and are reasonably nice at the table? You show me hospitality when I travel? I will sit down with you and break bread.

Anthony Bourdain, Obama, Bourdain Chew the Fat in Hanoi

Think about the opposite extremes—the most transactional experiences—calling customer support or paying for your meal at Mcdonald’s. Think about how different your discussion would be if you shared a meal with this person before making the transaction. You’d have a lot more empathy and trust for them; however, it would take a lot longer to get your webcam fixed or get your cheeseburger.

During COVID I met two managing partners of consulting firms who helped me understand what work was essential in the office. First I met Steve. Steve is the managing partner of a technology consultancy that specializes in Financial Services. When I asked him when things were going to come back to normal, he said, “I don’t think they’re ever going to come back to the way they were. I have a business analyst who’s video conferencing with the client every day and it works fine. They’re not going to want to pay to fly this guy to their site and put him in a hotel to get essentially the same level of work.” Clearly, Steve’s customers don’t need a lot of in-person work from his business analyst.

Then I met up with my friend Rich. Rich is the managing partner of a strategic consulting firm that specializes in change management. I told Rich about my conversation with Steve and said, “It must be nice not to have to travel anymore.”

He said, “Actually it’s not. While I enjoy seeing my family more, the inability to travel is causing a lot of problems. I live in Boston and one of my clients is in New York. We did a huge change management project for them but I have a sinking feeling it won’t be adopted. I wasn’t able to have dinner with the client and know what they really thought about it. I couldn’t chat with people at the water cooler and get the inside scoop.” So while Steve’s transactional travel wouldn’t come back, Rich’s travel was essential.

Physical space is also key for innovation. Jamie Dimon pointed out that innovation is crippled by remote work, saying, “Remote work virtually eliminates spontaneous learning and creativity because you don’t run into people at the coffee machine, talk with clients in unplanned scenarios, or travel to meet with customers and employees for feedback on your products and services.”

In 2010, I visited the MIT Media Lab when it moved into its new building. The architects explained how the building was designed to make sure that people from different departments would randomly bump into each other as often as possible. It was designed with openness and energy that brings people together. Clearly, the building was an essential part of the lab’s innovation.

A woman from IBM said, “I work at a company with hundreds of thousands of people and half of them work from home. Did you ever think about creating this building as a virtual experience?”

The people on stage we befuddled and didn’t know how to answer. Finally, they just said, “No.”

As a final thought on working during the pandemic, expectations have been lowered. For me, trying to do work while kids are stuck at home is a big challenge. Last year, I had a meeting with a colleague who joined a video conference Zoom covered in sweat after finishing her Peloton ride. These things won’t be acceptable next year.

My friend Jim explained how working from home is supposed to work. For the last 2 decades, he worked remotely as a sales support engineer. As a manager, he had to interview a lot of people remotely and many of these people would work remotely as well. People would come to Zoom meetings dressed in nicely tailored suits—or at least what looked like nicely tailored suits from the waist up. Then he’d ask them to stand up to see if they were wearing suit pants.

“That’s not fair!” I said, talking to Jim wearing a sports jacket and jeans.

“Calm down Rob. This was before the Coronavirus. I just think it’s important for people to dress like they’re at work even if they’re working from home. It shows a level of commitment to the standards of the job.”

We’re in for quite a change in the next year. While much of the everyday work can be done remotely, real change and innovation is still better in person. While I can’t know what the future of the hybrid workplace is, I know it will be different from 2019 but also very different than the work from home environment in 2020.

Note: Matt Levine has a similar take at the bottom of this newsletter. The section head is Working from Home.