Most companies would call a hybrid work plan—in which two or three core days per week are spent in the office—a compromise. But it’s not nearly as freeing or balanced as its name would suggest; it's actually is just another office-centric plan that benefits bosses and leaves many employees in the lurch.
So says Annie Dean, the VP of Team Anywhere at Atlassian, a distributed work policy at the software firm that encourages asynchronous, flexible work wherever possible. Hybrid, Dean tells Fortune in an interview, isn’t actually an even split between remote and in-office work, despite bosses who insist it’s a huge step forward.
Dean, who got her start before the pandemic launching Werk, a startup that helped Fortune 500 companies establish flexible work arrangements, has been leading Team Anywhere at Atlassian for a year. Before that, she was “Director of Remote Work” at Meta, then Facebook. Like its peers, Meta adopted a remote work policy early in the pandemic—and hired Dean to execute on it. Now, like its peers, it’s reversed course by mandating three days per week in the office in support of its “year of efficiency.” Zuckerberg said while Meta is “committed to distributed work,” he hopes employees “find more opportunities to work with your colleagues in person.”
Dean is not tempted by the promises of greater efficiency, connection, and innovation that bosses at other tech giants like Amazon, Alphabet, and Salesforce insist the office will bring. At Atlassian, any kind of in-office mandate is off the table.
“Hybrid is an illusion of choice,” Dean tells Fortune. Mandatory office attendance, which Dean calls “the crux” of hybrid plans, is more sinister than it looks, and most workers don’t acknowledge how central they are. By mandating any amount of time in the office, companies remove many potential benefits for the employee “and much of the benefit for the company.”
Indeed, challenges in communicating remotely and finding motivation can hamstring fully remote workers’ productivity. “Supervising, training, mentoring, and building firm culture is much harder” for them, Jose Maria Barrero, one of the leaders of WFH Research, told Fortune. Explaining or clarifying things over Zoom can take much longer, which in turn crowds out productive work time. And in the case of asynchronous teams working across the globe, forming connections is harder and rarer, which means time-sensitive, collaborative activities can take longer to carry out.
Dean understands why so many companies have insisted on some days of in-person attendance, and she doesn’t cast those aside. “I don’t think the desire to bring people back is just about power and control,” she says. “You have to imagine there are people in boardrooms looking at very expensive office leases. I have empathy for how they approach this. Boards are saying, ‘you’re wasting so much money, you have to bring people in.’ And bosses don’t have a good argument for why they shouldn't.”
Remote is the only option that actually gives workers choice
But remote still wins, at least for most workers, many of whom feel more productive working from home—or at least having the choice to do so. Beyond just the lifestyle benefits (no commute, no sad desk lunch, no fancy office wardrobe) they actually get paid nearly 10% more. To Dean, being able to choose a city to live in—especially these days, when rent and property values are astronomical—is perhaps the primary perk of remote work. “A lot of the advantage of Atlassian’s model is that people can live near their family, in a place with lower cost of living. They can stay nearer to their home, and receive their kids off the bus.”
The shift in quality of life when moving into an office-centric role is “deeply impactful for women in particular,” Dean adds. (Women, on whom much of household and child care responsibilities disproportionately fall, prefer remote work in much greater numbers than men.) But fully flexible arrangements, like Team Anywhere, “just appear to be a healthier, happier way to live."
On the other hand, enforcing even just one day in-person per week “requires people to organize their life around the office, and companies have to pay the highest cost of real estate,” Dean says. “It means you’re carrying all the costs of the old model, and can’t have any efficiencies of the new model.”
Office connectivity is often a misnomer, she adds. “The idea that office attendance will drive creativity is predicated on the idea that the right people are in the office at the right time,” she says. “But if people are more than 30 feet away from you, it’s like they’re not in the same building.”
Companies must let go of this orthodoxy and tolerate that not they haven’t figured everything out yet, she continues. She cautions leaders against thinking issues like the endless remote work war are fundamentally unsolvable. “If we can’t solve a problem of ‘how we can get someone onboarded to a knowledge work company?', how will we ever solve climate change? This is just not that hard.”
Plus, she adds, the office is never going to be a solution to existing problems of productivity, innovation, or creativity. “Those are all how to work problems, not where to work problems,” she says. “The office won’t solve these problems. New ways of working will. This is a watershed moment of innovation of how work gets done, but we’re still talking about the f–king watercooler.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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