Our Hybrid Future Has Arrived

From classrooms to offices, the way we handle new combinations may define our era.

Matt Herlihy
Mar 18 · 5 min read

Ever since a horse and donkey were nudged into producing the first mule, the hybrid has been one of humanity’s most radical acts of design. And for five thousand years since, hybrids have remained a tempting target for ingenuity. Designers of all stripes have pondered: How can we bend the natural order to achieve a combination greater than the sum of its parts?

Some results have proven undeniably outstanding. Picture an ear of sweet corn on a hot July afternoon, for instance, washed down with a key lime gimlet. Other experiments, like that humble mule, have produced something unremarkable but still useful, even if we no longer use them in combat. And a handful of hybrids are just gratuitous and wrong. Looking at you, purple broccolini.

A year ago, most of us viewed the hybrid as something of a cultural trifle. The term probably brought to mind the well-intentioned Prius, essentially a mule on wheels. We might have recalled a battery-powered bicycle for those fed up with the rigor of pedaling, or a new strain of cannabis peddled by an earnest Belushi-caliber entrepreneur. Design accomplishments, to be sure, but hardly the stuff of societal revolution.

Yet the last twelve months have cast the hybrid into a prominent place in American life, thrusting new combinations into the multi-purpose home, the classroom, and soon, the office. So as we tiptoe into our next phase, however gingerly, it’s time to ask what role hybridization might play in the years ahead.

Will the coming era be remembered for its succulent summertime treats? Or bitter off-color monstrosities?

As schools scrambled to operate safely last spring, hybrid learning was born out of necessity. The status quo seemed too risky, yet a fully remote approach felt equally problematic. So many administrators tried improvising a middle path — but schools diverged wildly on how to execute this blending of worlds.

Some hybridized by splitting students into two cadres, alternating their time in classroom and screen with deep-cleaning in between. Others forced parents to choose an all-physical or all-digital track, constituting a devil’s bargain of safety and socialization. Many combined both techniques simultaneously, assigning teachers the unenviable task of instructing both humans and computers at once.

Reviews on all fronts were mixed at best, but mostly scathing. Still, our hats were off to education officials who showed a gritty willingness to experiment under impossible pressure. And we certainly couldn’t blame the teachers, whose job is difficult and underappreciated enough under normal circumstances.

I reserve the highest level of empathy for those instructing across physical and digital modes simultaneously. It’s challenging enough corralling professional adults that way, let alone toddlers and teens. (This is a peculiar skill that no one was born with, yet it may prove invaluable in the years ahead.)

Thus far, most accounts rate hybrid learning as the least successful type of combination, delivering the worst of both worlds. Yet for the near future, until vaccination efforts make their way to children, it will likely remain a necessary reality. Sorry kids, but you’ll have to choke down your purple broccolini for now.

The hybrid office, on the other hand, had an important advantage over its educational counterpart: a full year of planning time. Companies have plotted the next generation of work while armed with substantial data — about health risk, human behavior, and the delicate dance of how the two intersect.

Last March, the corporation faced a similar challenge as the school, forced to improvise a safe scenario immediately and without much warning. Sure, working from home wasn’t entirely novel, but unleashing it on a massive scale remained uncharted territory.

The transition wasn’t seamless. Despite predictions, remote work caused a majority of employees to put in more hours, including nights and weekends. Collaboration and socialization both suffered, but professionals learned new behaviors over time. For fortunate organizations, even with the office empty, their proverbial lights stayed on. Some even grew to enjoy the all-digital life, and many will continue to insist on it in some measure.

With this in mind, forward-thinking organizations have spent the year designing the next frontier: the hybrid office. Like telecommuting, this isn’t an entirely new concept, but it’s predominantly served as an experiment rather than the norm. The goal is a physical workspace where employees can come a few days a week, grab whatever seat is available, and use their in-person time for work where real-life human interaction is most essential.

If all goes well, this hybrid scenario will offer workers the best of both worlds: real-life culture and camaraderie for part of the week, autonomy and flexibility for the rest. Both managers and interior designers are optimistic that such a model will prove even more satisfying and productive than the 9-to-5 office grind of old.

They envision an evolved working model that’s forged by necessity but tempered with intention. And if corporations are good at one thing, it’s finding new ways of extracting value from human beings. With summer as a target date for this transition, you can almost taste the sweet corn and key lime already.

In a moment like this, with the early struggles of hybrid learning behind us and the promise of hybrid work ahead, it’s easy to view one as a failure and the other a success. But we shouldn’t make assumptions so quickly. The past year has demonstrated our collective ability to grow accustomed to the unfamiliar with surprising resilience.

Yes, companies had a year’s worth of planning before releasing their next-generation prototype. But from another perspective, students and teachers have gotten a headstart in actually living their new model. Education leaders now have a year of real data to work with, and the wisest among them will use it like designers—continuing to tweak, experiment, measure and evolve.

Professionals like me can stand to learn from the experience of teachers. With our ranks destined to live across digital and physical planes, we’ll need to improve at conducting our business over both. It’s our job to refine new ways of working that offer both elegant experiences and inclusive spaces.

I know I’ll be paying attention to how good educators make it work. Their passion and commitment were instrumental in preparing me to do this job. Now those qualities from a different generation will help me perform it better.

For sometimes a hybrid is a bridge, and sometimes it’s a destination. It’s too soon to tell where we’ll end up in our next phase. But even if our era ends up resembling a mule, that’s not the worst outcome. They may lack majesty, but they work their tails off — and they’ve made it work for five thousand years and counting.

Maybe that horse and donkey were onto something after all.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is…

Matt Herlihy

Written by

Brand philosopher. Executive Director, Strategy, The Office of Experience. Author, speaker, and instructor.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us is made better by design.

Matt Herlihy

Written by

Brand philosopher. Executive Director, Strategy, The Office of Experience. Author, speaker, and instructor.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us is made better by design.

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