When the pandemic began, everyone who could work remotely did so. As the pandemic continued, we began to call the resulting work environment the “new normal,” which was a misnomer at best. The 2020 workplace was many things, but normal was not one of them. As people returned to the office, it created a dynamic where some people were in the meeting room and others were still in their home office. This has been labeled the “hybrid workplace.”
That name is also incorrect.
The reality is things aren't very different from the pre-pandemic days. The hybrid workplace is really the old normal. The difference is the numbers have shifted towards a much more distributed workforce. The hybrid workplace marks the arrival of the future of work.
Planning for Distributed Work
My kids’ schools have a new procedure: Whenever bad weather is in the forecast, or COVID-19 numbers begin spiking, they are told to prepare for a virtual learning day. They bring everything they need to participate in school from home.
This is a very familiar behavior for many in the workforce. As laptops began to replace desktops in the workplace, people would often take laptops home due to snow, a family emergency, or some other reason preventing them from getting to the office. It only took one instance of leaving the laptop at the office, forcing a day off or trip in, to ensure they would not forget again.
This is what happened in March of 2020. All the laptops went home.
Related Article: The Myth of the Hybrid Office
What's Different About Today's Distributed Teams?
To twist a phrase from William Gibson, “The future of work was already here — it just wasn’t very evenly distributed.” Meetings with people in distributed locations were happening before the pandemic. The difference now is that the majority of participants are remote. It's no longer just one or two people who are dialing in.
Another big difference is who is working in a distributed manner. It isn’t just a handful of people with long commutes or parents with a sick kid. It is everyone. Decision makers and influencers now find themselves also working remotely, no longer able to depend on face to face interactions to gather feedback and support. To recapture the dynamics of in-person working, these leaders have recognized they need to be much more deliberate in designing how distributed teams work together.
Culture Change Makes Distributed Work Possible
Both companies and people need to undergo cultural change for distributed working to succeed. For companies, it means empowering people to do their jobs. Find what works for individual employees and each team. Guidelines should be set, but balance guidelines with a heavy dose of understanding. Even the most disciplined people are going to have their home life filter into work when their break room is the family kitchen.
For managers, planning will go far here. Find new ways to collaborate. Email is better than a meeting, but if everything becomes an email, things will get lost. Experimentation will also help: try new tools and see if they work. If they don’t, try other tools until you find one that works for your team.
Related Article: Is the Hybrid Work Model a Half Measure?
The Future Is Now
A fully distributed workforce isn't new. Automattic, makers of Wordpress, have been operating on a fully distributed model for over a decade. The reality is everyone is in the office. They're just not in the same office. It is time to acknowledge this shift. Instead of trying to blend the “in-office” and remote workers, it is time to make the distributed workplace more effective.
We are not in a hybrid workplace. We are not in the new normal. We are in the old normal. We are in the future of work. It, like our offices, is simply more evenly distributed now.