The return to the office has been settled in most companies. It will often be hybrid, combining office and remote work, or more flexible as to location than in the past. That turns out to be a neat compromise since some employees prefer the office while others love remote work from home. We can collectively breathe a sigh of relief and move on.

Except maybe we goofed. Maybe we have failed to grasp the future.

“Hybrid is a cop out and a failure of management,” insists Ed Zitron, the founder of media relations firm EZ-PR, in his acerbic newsletter. “Hybrid work is a desperate attempt to keep us from moving forward.”

Behind it, he feels, is the urge for executives to keep control. It’s being sold as a way of bringing people together – helping them to feel connected and have friends, but the purpose of work is not to make friends, he stresses. Developed as a compromise, hybrid means being only half proficient at either approach: office or remote. “Hybrid work is a failure of imagination – it means that whoever runs the company cannot be bothered to think about how to run a company remotely, and doesn’t understand how work is actually done,” he says.

Entrepreneur Seth Godin reminds us that the office is a relatively modern phenomenon. We got by for millennia without them. They started as adjuncts to the factory or the store, a small room for clerks and managers. Over time, most office workers were removed from the factory location – they became remote from production, working in a separate office environment with its own culture. All that happened before e-mail and Zoom, which offers new possibilities that were really only sampled in the past 17 months.

People have complained about the isolation they felt since the pandemic began. But he argues what has been missed is how much faster and more efficient so many systems became. “Now, it’s not the communications system that’s holding us back, it’s our unwillingness to make change happen in concert with our peers,” he writes on his blog.

Managers talk a lot about embracing disruption and speed. But he argues we are resisting disruption and thus missing the speed technology offers us for work. It’s a speed he contends the office retards us from attaining – speed of connection to peers, suppliers and customers as well as the speed of decision-making. “As social creatures, many people very much need a place to go, a community to be part of, a sense of belonging and meaning. But it’s not at all clear that the 1957 office building is the best way to solve those problems,” he concludes.

Laszlo Bock, the chief executive officer of Humu, which focuses on workplace behavioural change, and former senior vice-president of people operations at Google, differs. He argues the physical, psychological and emotional exhaustion people are feeling has led them to want a change, and since they can’t easily alter where they live or their family, they will want to change work. They may seek another job. But moving away from fully remote might also satisfy that hunger.

His company’s data suggests that 1½ to two days a week from home is optimal for productivity and happiness. “And that’s sustainable over time, like over years. When you vary from that, you end up in bad states where either people get burnt out or they get forgotten or they stop being productive,” he said in an interview with CharterWorks, which works with organizations on developing a new approach to the workplace.

But he expects us to move toward 1957 rather than 2037, with the vast majority of large companies choosing hybrid, snapping back to full office within two years. That will come because of a failure to be intentional in using the time when people are physically together. Avoiding that snapback will require coaching for managers so they can manage the more fluid situation hybrid installs.

Wrapped up in all this, I’d suggest, is confusion about productivity and creativity. The weight of the worry has been that collaboration was lost or, at least, inferior, in a remote world. It’s better when we are face-to-face, stumbling into one another as we walk to the cafeteria or washroom. Indeed, office design in the past two decades tried to spur such connections.

But that seems to stem from a belief managers can manage everything – even serendipity. They can’t, something to consider as we develop hybrid formulae to organize, or even mandate, better collaboration. It also ignores that while there are many examples of collaboration leading to creativity – the chance encounter on the way to the cafeteria leading to a discussion that prompts new insights – there are also many examples of creativity that came from solitude. Isaac Newton wasn’t on his way to the cafeteria to get an apple when he first understood gravity; he was lying under a tree, his remote office.

Collaboration, creativity, solitude, asynchronous work, synchronous work – that’s a complicated mix to orchestrate even before you add in the unpredictable magic of serendipity. There can be moments of solitude in the office and moments of collaboration in remote work. Between visits to the cafeteria and washroom, e-mail often is the main communication link in the office. It’s worth understanding those phenomena and how they intermingle but I’d urge some humility about your ability to deftly manage them.

The return feels like a finish line but McKinsey & Co. correctly warns that’s a mirage. There’s much difficult work ahead.

The Globe and Mail, August 14, 2021