Hybrid work comes at a price
It's far from "the best of both worlds."
I love the podcast Planet Money from NPR. I began listening years ago, though admittedly took a long hiatus. In fairness to me, there was a pandemic going on and then it (along with many other podcasts) fell off my radar. But a friend shared an episode with me recently and it reminded me how much I enjoy the show. I've been devouring episodes.
An episode entitled "How to be better at hybrid work, according to research" caught my attention. In it, assistant professor of finance at ITAM University in Mexico City Jose Maria Barrero argues in favor of hybrid work. At the end of the episode, he said that he thinks it works very well and is "the best of both worlds."
One of the biggest "costs" seems to be in communication friction, according to Barrero. Research shows that when people connect via video calls versus in-person, it limits cognitive processes that can impact idea generation and creativity.
But this stance fails to acknowledge a significant cost associated with location-based work: a more narrow range of people and, therefore, ideas.
Hybrid work can't recruit the best talent
Barrero says that companies that demand fully in-office jobs aren't competitive against those that offer work-from-home arrangements, at least a few days per week. They can't attract talent.
While it may be true that they'll attract better talent with hybrid work arrangements, they can't attract the best talent. I'm not talking about people who apply for a hybrid job versus an in-office job. I'm talking about people who don't live anywhere near the office.
I worked for a long time for a software company located in Topeka, Kansas. Population: 126,000. When I first joined, the company only hired employees local to Topeka. I had to move to take the job. Six months later, I began working remotely from Wisconsin, but subsequent employees were still based in Topeka.
The company's clients were all over the U.S. Competitors were often really large tech companies. Whenever the company tried to hire, the options were really limited — especially for technical roles. The company could try to attract people from Kansas City, but that would have been a 2-hour commute per day.
To remain competitive, the company had to hire the best, not simply the best Topeka had to offer. In 2010, the company went fully remote. A software engineer was hired from Chicago. Analysts were hired from Arizona and Virginia. Customer support reps were dotted across several states.
To say that companies can hire better talent with remote work assumes the company is located in a large city with a lot of options. It ignores small-but-mighty businesses in smaller towns. Should those companies cease to exist simply because they're not located near better talent?
Hybrid work is less diverse
When work is tied to an office, you only get the ideas of people located near the office... which is a far cry from the full range of ideas.
In 2019, I was thinking about quitting my job and attended a job fair event for women in tech in Chicago. I connected with a company and was really excited about a potential role. Because I'd been fully remote for a long time, I asked about working from home. The recruiter told me the company was flexible.
Two interviews later, I learned that employees were only able to work from home one to two days per month, at most. A commute into Chicago from the suburbs would have been long and I had young kids, including a 15-month-old baby. I immediately withdrew myself from the process. Was I the best candidate for the job? The company will never know.
Office-based work immediately removes people from the candidate pool. People located too far from the office. People unwilling to commute (or can't afford the associated costs). Working parents, who decide the "cost" of lost time in the day is too high a price to pay. Disabled folks, for whom working from home drastically improves their quality of life.
Topeka is a mid-sized city, located in the central part of the U.S. It comes with political and cultural ideologies, the way any city would. It's naïve to think those don't impact creativity in some way — the very thing cited as being hindered in the Planet Money episode. For many companies, hiring within the radius of the office means the demographic makeup of the employees will be more limited. There might be less racial or income diversity. People from a small town may approach a problem differently than someone from a big city.
Communication friction — caused by videoconferencing or sending an email versus tapping a colleague on the shoulder — is hard to measure. A lack of diversity's impact on creativity might be similarly hard to measure. But I take issue with the fact that diversity isn't even discussed. Everyone cheering for hybrid work touts, "Collaboration! Ideas!" and ignores the limitations of those ideas.
If we're comparing the effort it takes to videoconference effectively and a lack of workplace diversity, I'd argue the latter causes greater societal harm.
If you love this newsletter and look forward to reading it every week, please consider forwarding it to a friend. You can also subscribe and access extra articles every month.