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The Remote/Hybrid Debate

August 11, 2021

By Mary E. Corrado, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

As employers struggle with how to return to the office I have seen varying viewpoints, all of which have some good points.  In this week’s blog, I present two differing viewpoints.  I think there are aspects to consider from each of them, and what you decide is dependent upon your office culture, the type of work you do, and employee sentiment.

Viewpoint 1 – The End of the Office

In a recent blog by Seth Godin, he writes about the end of the office. He makes some excellent observations:

  • Offices used to be just a small room off of the factory floor, upstairs from the bakery, or next to the stockyard.  It was located where the work was being done.
  • Over the last 50 years or so, offices moved further away from where the work is being done.  Today, many office workers, even executives, have never even seen the factory floor (where applicable).
  • Over time everything became quicker – letters sent via the mail are now sent instantly via email.
  • Zoom allows meetings to be held virtually.
  • Over the last 18 months, many systems became more efficient. Projects were no longer restrained by physical proximity.
  • Over the last 18 months we discovered that the technology was already here to support remote work and make work more efficient.  It turns out – it was the office holding many back.

Viewpoint 2 – Hybrid Offices Won’t Work

In a completely opposite point of view, FastCompany recently published an article, “4 Reasons Hybrid Offices Won’t Work.”  The article lists four considerations when determining your return to office plan:

Proximity Fosters Innovation

The article sites a study titled “Distance Matters: Physical Space and Social Impact” that measured the effect that technological advances have had on the power of proximity in social influence.  They concluded that despite major advances in technology, a relationship between distance and social influence remains. They claim that in-person, often ad-hoc, conversations lead to increased innovation.

Being Together is Energizing

The article claims that “all of the most ambitious projects in human history were driven by a team working in close proximity to build and collaborate towards an audacious goal.”  It sites four very good examples of how online versus in-person relationships and experiences differ:

  • Watching sports on tv versus going to a live game
  • Hearing a song on the radio versus seeing it live, in concert
  • Developing a friendship or relationship online versus in-person
  • Communicating with others on a social platform such as Facebook versus in-person

Proximity Fuels Productivity

Advocates of remote work often cite periods of intense focus and deep work as contributing to increased productivity, while advocates of the office cite studies that claim that the reason remote employees often work longer hours is due to less efficient productivity.  This debate will likely continue over time.

Community is a Networking Effect

Network effect is a principle that states that the value of a product, service, or platform depends on the number of buyers, sellers, or users who leverage it. Typically, the greater the number of buyers, sellers, or users, the greater the network effect—and the greater the value created by the offering.  The FastCompany article claims that being in an office and working face-to-face has a network effect. It says that when you reduce the number of people in an office, that effect diminishes. The office becomes lonely.

In summary, Seth believes that organizations should embrace technology and innovation and use it to propel their organizations forward. The FastCompany article claims that a strong physical community in the office is what will create a more productive workforce.

Who’s right? Probably a little bit of both. I see both sides. I think it depends on the nature of work your organization does, the personalities and preferences of your employees, and the workplace culture.

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