The Future Is Minimum Office, Not Zero Office

Having the best of both worlds means a lot of WFH and a little WFO

Stowe Boyd
Jul 12, 2020 · 3 min read
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

In Hybrid Remote Work Offers the Worst of Both Worlds, Sid Sijbrandij, the CEO of GitLab, makes the argument that companies will either go back to the office or adopt an all-remote work model once the pandemic is over:

In the time since offices shut down, some companies have already canceled their leases with the intent to go all-remote. On the other hand, many companies are intent on reducing their in-office presence, rather than eliminating it, and plan to go hybrid-remote. Those who do hybrid, if not intentional about making systemic changes and treating every employee as if they are remote (whether in-office or not), will see their most effective remote people leave. The hybrid companies will then blame the lack of productivity on remote instead of the actual cause: managing two distinct employee experiences is a very arduous task. These companies will write off remote work as a novel experiment, blame it for operational difficulties, and pull remaining remote workers back into the office.

I don’t buy it. He offers no evidence or research about his claims about the difficulties involved in ‘hybrid remote work’. However, there is a great deal of research to the contrary from the pre-coronavirus era. For example, in the Gallup State of the American Workplace 2017, the research firm found this (as I reported in Paradoxes of Engagement: Remote Isn’t):

Gallup had been tracking the engagement of remote workers starting in 2012, and discovered that those who worked remotely reported higher levels of engagement than those who never work remotely, but only up to a point. There seemed to be some limiting factor, so that those working remotely less than 20% of the time gained this higher level of engagement, but if that percentage went up, the results regressed to the mean.

That seemed reasonable. I imagined a worker who regularly worked a day a week at home, with predictable positive results. Less commuting. A day with fewer meetings, perhaps, with a less crowded calendar to dedicate time to important work. Perhaps more time with the kids and the significant other.

But that homey view was upended in 2018 when I read the 2017 Gallup report, when the authors reported,

“all employees who spend at least some (but not all) of their time working remotely have higher engagement than those who don’t ever work remotely.

And those that work remotely 60%-80% of the time say they are more likely to strongly agree that working remotely makes them more productive.”

Let’s call the model that leads to higher engagement and productivity ‘minimum office’, and allow each person to define what that minimum is for them and their team.

So, it appears that those who visit the office two to four days out of ten report the highest self-assessment of being productive, and higher engagement than those that never work remotely. So Sijbrandij is perhaps half right. But the best results come from working in the office with team members a day a week or so… or maybe getting out of the house at least a day a week or so.

I’d like to suggest we turn the thinking and terminology around and drop both the ‘hybrid’ and ‘remote’ terms. Let’s call the model that leads to higher engagement and productivity ‘minimum office’, and allow each person to define what that minimum is for them and their team.

I’m betting that minimum office will become dominant. Yes, many companies will opt for zero office with annual team meetings on a mountain top. But most companies will simply turn the dial up from the company’s pre-pandemic baseline, and allow people to avoid the office significantly more than in the past. For some, that could be nearly 100%, but for most — at least those that don’t move to a ski area, a sheep ranch in New Zealand, or a Caribbean island — I expect we’ll see people coordinating schedules to overlap with coworkers a day or so a week. So long as their companies let them.

Also, note that cash-hungry companies are going to be turning down the dial on leasing real estate now that they have learned that maximum office is a luxury at the best, and a useless extravagance at the worst.

Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

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