7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend

One silver lining from the pandemic may be the mainstreaming of remote and hybrid work. There are just a few problems.

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Remote work was forced on many employers last year by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a simple, mid-pandemic consensus that “remote work is here to stay.” But as the crisis fades, organizations will get to choose where employees do their work — now with a new set of tools, expectations, and experiences.

As Marc Andreessen said recently, we are undergoing "a permanent civilizational shift” where we can divorce "physical location from economic opportunity.” He’s probably right in the long term, but we still have many questions to answer before that utopian dream is realized.

Here are the seven inconvenient truths and unresolved issues around the new hybrid and remote work trend.

Many digital nomads now are full-time employees.

Emergent Research and MBO Partners found in a recent study that the number of Americans self-identifying as digital nomads rose from 7.3 million in 2019 to 10.9 million in 2020 — an increase of 49%. That's a huge number, when you consider that (as of 2018) the United States employed 64.2 million white-collar workers, a number that includes those (like most healthcare workers and others) who cannot work as digital nomads.

Before COVID-19, the overwhelming majority of digital nomads (people who move around as they work via the internet) were freelancers, entrepreneurs, and contractors, mainly in software development, marketing and journalism. The most important shift during the pandemic was that full-time employees joined them at scale in the digital nomad lifestyle.

And this is a problem, because...

We now have hybrid work, but don’t yet have hybrid work culture or management.

The sudden need for remote work as the pandemic worsened in early 2020 took many organizations by surprise. They had to scramble to cobble together the tools and practices needed to get through the crisis and keep business moving forward.

Most organizations remain culturally unprepared for what's emerging now: hybrid workplaces where some employees are remote, some are in the office all week, and others bounce back and forth depending on which day of the week it is. 

These new work practices call for new ways to manage people, new ways to evaluate job performance, and new practices around meetings, objectives, team organization, hiring, onboarding, promotion, and leadership. Most often, these elements are left to chance, or to individual managers and leaders to figure out on their own. But this ad-hoc default won’t often result in success. One glaring omission:

Full-time digital nomad employees are generally not governed by policy.

The informal acceptance of digital nomad employees, and the conflict and disagreement over allowing remote staff, remind me of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend back when that movement was in its infancy.

In those days, business and IT leaders tended to strongly oppose BYOD, while many employees were strongly in favor. The stalemate resulted in a mishmash of smuggled devices and don’t-ask-don’t-tell non-enforcement of the usually unwritten rules. That was risky and unsustainable.

Eventually, the BYOD idea became the norm, and was mitigated with new tools, practices and policies. And that’s what’s called for with remote work and digital nomad employees. The first and most urgent is to establish a clear and consistently enforced remote work policy that, among other things, describes allowable practices for digital nomad employees. There are many legal and other issues relating to far-flung employees, and these issues should be addressed formally and openly and codified in policy.

Not all our tools are hybrid-friendly.

The solution to hybrid work is not to have remote employees using different tools, but to get the whole company using the same tools that enable work anywhere using workflows that are consistent across the organization. This calls for a new commitment to digitization, cloud services and applications, digital communication systems, and mobile devices and services. Special attention is needed for remote-work and digital nomad cyber security.

The idea that labor laws are determined by the location of the employee is obsolete.

Labor laws are set in the jurisdiction where the employee lives, not where the company is headquartered. This idea is antiquated and obsolete. Even full-time employees who don't work remotely do some or sometimes even most of their work while on the road during business travel, rather than at work or home. Some people have two homes in two states, or choose to live in temporary housing or Airbnbs.

The new reality is that people can live anywhere. But the laws assume that everyone is stuck at a single permanent residence.

The rise of hybrid work, including some days in the office, other days working from home, full-time remote work, digital nomadism, and even the rising trend of the “workation,” where employees go somewhere (usually out of state or out of the country) for weeks or months to work in another location, raises questions about using the employee’s location to determine applicable labor laws.

Hardcore digital nomads have no address. That’s not a big deal for freelancers and consultants. But it’s a huge issue for the now-majority of digital nomads who are full-time employees.

What would resolve all these issues is for the laws to change, and for tax and labor laws to be based on the location of the company, not the employee.

It’s also ethically preferable. Current laws allow jurisdictions and countries with weak or exploitative labor laws to be rewarded by companies based in locations with stronger protections for workers.

Silicon Valley companies that make the products enabling remote work are not demonstrating faith in their own products.

Most of the largest technology companies are hesitant to let employees work remotely full time. As just one example, Google announced that 20% of its 135,000 employees will be required to work in the office, another 20% will be allowed to be fully remote, and a whopping 60% will be allowed to work remotely for a maximum of two days per week. (Apple is eyeing something similar.)

This is ironic because companies like Google actually create and sell the tools and services that make hybrid and remote work possible.

While many leaders at these tech companies strongly advocate full-time remote work, others aren’t so sure. So they’re hedging their bets and keeping their options open by allowing some remote days, while also requiring other days in the office. The big reason for this policy is most likely that…

Companies are embracing part-time remote work to prevent employees from moving away.

There’s one big difference between full-time remote and part-time remote: The part-time version keeps employees tethered to location. They have to remain within commuting distance from the office.

Full time remote workers, on the other hand, can move to the wilderness, to Croatia or Barbados — or they can go full nomad and never stop moving. By limiting full-time remote work, companies keep open the option to change their mind without major disruption.

Yes, a new world of remote and hybrid work is finally here, but don’t pop the champagne corks yet. There are still many issues unresolved.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
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