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Maybe There Won’t Be a Resolution to Hybrid Work

There’s been a spate of recent articles sounding cautionary notes about remote work: Workers may be less productive; their companies (at least startups) may become less creative; heck, some of them might even be on drugs. And through it all, people keep working remotely and employers keep failing to entice—or force—them back to the office. “A magnet, not a mandate” has become the cliché, but in many organizations, it seems management and employees are still poles apart when it comes to the return to office.  

Maybe uncertainty about hybrid work is the culture now, at least for an interim that’ll end up lasting longer than any of us imagined three years ago. European and Asian workers may be returning in greater numbers, but the U.S. has always been an outlier in its attitudes about work, so this might not be too surprising. 

Such a macro-transition, if it’s what we’re experiencing, may take a long time to play out, as it will intersect with other social trends around the affordability of housing, shifting gender roles in the household and society at large, urban vs. suburban vs. rural locations, and much more. Then there’s the role that AI is likely to play in re-shaping the knowledge worker marketplace, potentially bringing profound change to the size and composition of this workforce.  

So what might this continuous uncertainty look like to an IT organization? A few weeks back, I wrote about the need—even under the most stable hybrid work situations—to track the ongoing changes that will naturally happen to employee role profiles and personas. A key answer from the enterprise exec panel I discussed in that earlier piece can be summed up in one word: Data, meaning a combination of system-generated data and information from surveys and other such instruments. That same data will likely prove useful to IT decision-makers trying to understand how the unstable remote work environment is impacting their infrastructure and its users. 

Another question is how enterprises will decide to invest in office-based video and other technologies if the large-scale return to office (RTO) just doesn’t materialize—particularly if this is playing out against the backdrop of a slowing economy. Can you justify some of the fancy new technologies emerging for video? And how do you think about meeting equity, if the RTO pace continues to underwhelm? It’s those in the office meeting rooms that this concern aims to address. 

Finally, if we do see an economic downturn this year, that will likely accelerate enterprises’ desire to shed unused office space, potentially outweighing enterprise leadership’s concern for culture, control, and productivity, especially given all the uncertainties around RTO. In turn, such a trend could build on an already bleak picture for downtown commercial real estate, as this Vox article explains.  

It’s a recipe for ambiguity for IT, both in where to invest and how best to serve end users. A lot of us have been assuming that things can’t go on like this much longer, this struggle between management and workers. But maybe it can.