What's the future of work: Home, office or something new?

·Senior Editor
·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic last spring forced businesses and their employees to radically reimagine their day-to-day work life. In industries where remote work is possible, everyone had to figure out how to get things done from a distance seemingly overnight. Now, as vaccines slowly reduce the threat of the virus, companies are planning a transition back to a new normal — a shift that some experts say could be just as jarring as the retreat to remote work.

The challenge lies not just in the logistics of bringing staff back together in the same space, but also in the fact that a year-plus of remote work — for all its flawshighlighted the drawbacks of traditional office life and left many workers loath to go back. With that in mind, some of the biggest companies in the U.S. are embracing a hybrid model that includes a mix of at-home and in-person work.

Facebook, General Motors, Microsoft and Google are just a few of the companies offering some form of flexible work arrangements. The details vary, but generally hybrid work follows one of two models: Either all employees spend at least two or three days a week in the office and have the option to work remotely the rest of the time, or a company’s workforce is divided between full-time in-person workers and full-time remote staff.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for a hybrid system, where workers split their time between the office and home, say it offers the best elements of both while reducing the drawbacks. A number of surveys show that employees want to keep the flexibility that remote work brings, but also hope to spend at least some of their time in the office. Hybrid work, proponents argue, can spare workers from the rigid grind of everyday office work while still creating room for the social connections and collaborative spontaneity that are key to a happy, effective workforce. Models that offer employees the choice between full-time office and remote work allow people to choose the arrangement that works best for them, supporters say.

Skeptics say managing a hybrid model will be too complicated for many companies to pull off, and the result will mean employees endure the worst of both worlds. Labor experts worry that employees who capitalize on the opportunity to work from home will be considered less invested and fall behind their colleagues who spend more time in the office — a trend they say would cause parents, especially mothers, to be overlooked for promotions. Some CEOs argue that having everyone together in the office is critical for companies to succeed. “[Hybrid work] doesn't work for those who want to hustle; it doesn't work in terms of spontaneous idea generation,” said Jamie Dimon, the CEO of the JPMorgan Chase.

What’s next

Hybrid work will be the norm for a significant portion of the white-collar workforce in the coming months as companies slowly bring staff back to the office. It’s unclear, however, whether flexible models will have staying power after the pandemic has ended.

Perspectives

Supporters

Hybrid work provides the best of both worlds

“As companies come to decisions on new working arrangements, they will be essentially making a basic trade-off: the expectation of greater creativity in new projects at the office, but greater productivity on existing tasks at home. And, as with most trade-offs, the right answer is not all or nothing — five days or zero days at home — but something in the middle.” — Nicholas Bloom, Guardian

Hybrid models give workers much-needed autonomy

“By letting people choose their own office adventures, employees can gain back some of what’s sorely missing in American work culture: self-determination. Need to plow through a task that will take you a full day? Stay home. Need to talk through some plans with a few co-workers? Everyone goes in. Kid got the sniffles? Expecting a delivery? Have dinner plans near the office? Do what you need to do to manage your life.” — Amanda Mull, Atlantic

Remote work has advantages, but it’s unsustainable

“Clearly the staggering numbers of the people who want to retain some form of remote work corroborate the positive aspects of remote work. … But we know that remote work is not a panacea. Employees are also learning that unchecked and untrained remote work can lead to the blurring of work/non-work boundaries, longer work hours, tech exhaustion and professional isolation, among other things.” — Virtual work researcher Tsedal Neeley to Marketwatch

Hybrid work allows companies to find the arrangement that works best for them

“There is no single right way to design a hybrid workplace. But asking the right questions can help each team shape what we call the Goldilocks plan — with not too much or too little remote work.” — Robert C. Pozen and Alexandra Samuel, New York Times

Skeptics

Managing a hybrid workforce is too complicated for many firms

“Executives are already grumbling that picking just two days a week for remote work, seen as the bare minimum, is complicated. If Monday and Friday are likely to be overwhelmingly popular, what then? What happens to productivity if the office is packed three days a week and empty the rest of the time? If employees are told to pick different days, when will they collaborate with colleagues face-to-face?” — Lionel Laurent, Bloomberg

In-person work is necessary for companies to succeed

“There are a lot of positive reasons for having everyone together in an office setting, including making it easier to manage compared to hybrid models, onboarding new hires, mentoring young employees, the serendipitous meetings that take place in the office, the ease of connecting with people throughout the day and keeping alive a corporate culture.” — Jack Kelly, Forbes

Managers will favor in-office workers over hybrid employees

“If someone comes in 5 days, and another person 3 days, let me tell you I'm giving a promotion to the 5 day and I'm sidelining the 3 day. Because the 3 day is not committed to work as much as the 5 day.” — Jim Cramer, MSNBC

Working mothers will fall behind

“One thing that this shift to a hybrid work environment might do is exacerbate the very same disadvantages that mothers tend to experience, which has to do with their disconnectedness from the workplace due to demands on their time. They might be given the option of flexibility, but that comes with a tradeoff, which is that social relationships in the workplace tend to weaken.” — Columbia Business School professor Dan Wang to CBS News

Segregating staff will hurt office morale and undermine trust

“The risk is that over the long run, those who are in-person will bond more strongly than those who are at a distance. Those in the office will feel a much greater sense of belonging, and those who aren’t will often be seen as outsiders or an afterthought. … Ultimately, a two-class system has the potential to be corrosive to a sense of trust. It could breed resentment and even paranoia.” — Jon Levy, Boston Globe

Schools show how badly a hybrid model can fail

“At its worst, hybrid work may resemble the subpar hybrid schooling too many American students have endured over the past year, with overworked teachers struggling to simultaneously handle in-person and remote students.” — Bryan Walsh, Axios

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