The Zoomed-Out Workforce

The home-office hybrid: why does it work so well? A combination of work from home and traditional office can boost our professional creativity, and keep humans relevant in an increasingly automated workspace. Reflections by Rosa Riera

by Rosa Riera | 21 Apr, 2021
The Screenshot by Rosa Riera: The Zoomed-Out Workforce

Work is rapidly shifting out of the office. The Economist reported this month that the proportion of hours employees spent working at home exploded last year: it was on average 5 percent pre-pandemic in the United States; 60 percent post-pandemic.

Sure, not all work can be performed anywhere. We Covid homeworkers are extremely privileged. Still, thanks to digital technology, a significant portion of the working population doesn’t need to convene at a specific location to be productive anymore.

And this new normal is likely to become permanent. We are, in effect, currently participating in a dry run, albeit a forced one, for the massive relocation of work from business districts to neighborhoods and suburbs. The pandemic will come to an end, inshallah. But the change that it has triggered in terms of where work is performed was in the pipeline anyway. 

For a start, despite the stress related to childcare and living and working in the same space under less-than-ideal circumstances, most of us kind of like it. We took to Zoom with the confidence of teenagers. Just about all the tools required for remote working are ones with which we were already somewhat familiar. And none of us miss the commute.

Many companies kind of like it, too, even if they are rather quiet about it. After all, if employers don’t have to provide square meters to all their staff and can hire from just about anywhere, then this has positive implications not just for the costs of running their business but also for their access to talent.

It's not that workers will never want to visit their employer's premises: it can get lonely at home, even with Sarah Cooper and the Duke of Hastings for company. And it's not that employers will never want their workers to come in: face-to-face interaction makes it easier, among other things, to create a strong culture. Still, hybrid models are now here to stay, with the past rules (a few days a month of home office, perhaps some Fridays) gradually becoming inverted (a few days a month in the actual office, preferably not Fridays).

Like most things in business, it will require trust: trust that employees, no longer under constant supervision, will still do the work required of them; trust that employers won't value workers less on account of their not being present in an office. Yet an absence of this trust won't mean that the company can simply buck the trend of increasing hybridization; it will mean that the company will soon be running into problems. After all, the main reason why the future of work is a desk at home is not primarily that employees and employers desire it; it is that the digitalizing economy requires it.

Offices are perfect for tasks that are often perceived as repetitive and dull: clerical, administrative, analytical tasks. The kinds of task that have a hard time competing with the distractions of home. These are also the tasks that are under increasing threat from a new wave of automation driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

At the same time, it turns out that the tasks at which computers are not quite so good are the tasks at which people perform worse in the office than at home: the problem-focused, context-switching, conceptual-blending, imaginative stuff that is influenced as much by our personal, social selves as by our business selves. This is the cognitive higher ground to which we can escape from the latest, digital wave of automation. 

The type of creativity that business requires rarely is born out of routine. To a certain degree, it requires freedom from structure. A hybrid working model offers just that: the ability to convene with colleagues in a set location but the flexibility and freedom to get the work done wherever it, well, works best. The workforce is diverse. It’s only natural that the workspace diversifies.



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