Often, as technology advances, we take a while to catch up. Long after horse-drawn carriages were replaced by automobiles, people would still readily tip their hats to passing cars.
Our approach to hybrid work is the same: all too often, the vestigial memories of what came before, limit what companies are able to achieve.
And as the hybrid world develops an air of inevitability (see yesterday’s Kastle RTO data), the analogue to hat-tipping seems to be the “three-days back vs four-days back” debate.
But if we shake off the past, and consider what we want from hybrid work to be from first principles, a new model is coming into view.
One where companies blend remote and in-person working, but not by mandating a certain number of days each week in the office.
Instead, employees are free to choose where they work, but teams meet up regularly throughout the year, whether to focus on a specific project, or do some big strategic thinking.
A new and recent definition of this style of hybrid comes from this excellent paper at the Stanford Remote Work conference a few weeks back.
The paper suggested that the optimum pattern of work is remote-first, but where teams come together “for 4-5 days every 6 or so weeks.”
It sounds good in theory, but would it work in practice?
I think it does. How do I know? Because it already has.
A pioneer of this new way of hybrid working is Automattic - a company that has been experimenting with remote work longer than pretty much any other tech company around - and the process they’ve developed over the years.
Automattic employees work remotely, but have an extremely structured system of meet-ups throughout the year. These meetups come in three flavours:
Attempting to capture the flexibility and autonomy of remote, alongside the magic that comes from in in person meetups, is a trend that is catching on.
For example, Dropbox operates according to a 90:10 rule, where 90% of an employee’s working year is spent remotely, with 10% in get-togethers.
Or the US company Smuckers have gone even further, building their working policy around 22 ‘core’ weeks a year where employees get together (the rest of the time, Team Smuckers can work and live, wherever).
Moving to a Hybrid 2.0 model makes sense. Companies enjoy hiring from a broader pool, employees are trusted with more discretion around how to shape their work, whilst at the same time still capturing that magic that happens when people work together.
I also like it for a few other reasons.
First, Hybrid 2.0 compliments, rather than clashes with, the creative process. I’ve written previously that the best thing we can do to boost creativity is to disrupt our routine (now, I learnt over the weekend, an Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed strategy). A meet-up oriented approach leans into that in spades.
Second, it gives employees agency and control over their time. A significant and detrimental shift over the past two decades has involved the transformation of company offices into entities resembling college campuses. This high-autonomy approach is the antithesis of that.
Finally, it genuinely allows the promise of remote work: divorcing geography from economic opportunity. A routine where you're only directed where to work once every month, say, gives even greater choice about where you’re able to live.
More prosaically - it also means companies can avoid spending loads of money on a half empty office in the middle of a city.
Indeed, with the troubles of WeWork, other office providers used by startups, and the commercial real estate market more generally, I wonder if in the coming months more companies are forced to transition to Hybrid 2.0 as Venture-subsidised office-space dries up.
I think that not only will many make the transition, but will double down on it - not just making the space for teams to get together, but for individual execs, managers and employees to do so themselves.
A world in which day-to-day work is supplemented by time each year spent together with your team, and also with yourself and your family: breaking up the monotony of a life sat in front of a computer, and meaning that you can fully max out your productivity and creativity.
Freeing yourself from what came before is a powerful thing.
As the CPO of Smuckers put it: “we didn’t start with how many days [are required in-person], or with rules and requirements, we started with what we want to accomplish.”
It’s time to stop tipping the hat.