Facebook, which gave employees $2,000 stipends to kit out their home offices earlier this year, has also fashioned itself into a hybrid company. It expects that half of its employees will work remotely in the next five to 10 years—but office space is still critical for the other half. The company has even expanded its footprint: This fall, Facebook bid on REI’s brand-new, 400,000-square-foot corporate campus in Bellevue, near Seattle. REI, which laid off hundreds of corporate employees in the spring, decided it would sell the headquarters to go “remote-first.”
In the hybrid model, companies seem to be selling a corporate vision of having it all. You can have the office, with the fancy ergonomic chairs, or you can have a stipend to buy one for your house. You can come here for your meetings and see teams in person, or you can take them at home with Zoom. You can even take a little from column A, a little from column B. Based on Gartner’s research, Penn says there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between satisfaction among people who are always remote and sometimes remote, but the option to choose where to work does seem to have an impact. Things like productivity and work-life balance generally improve when employees have the option to decide.
Still, the promise of flexibility comes with some fine print. Consider workplace surveillance. “Back in April, less than half of organizations were tracking productivity,” says Penn. “As of August, that has jumped up to over 70 percent.” Before, managers may have kept an eye on when people came and went from the office—not exactly a scientific measure. Remote work isn’t necessarily better. Mostly, Penn says, companies are tracking metrics like virtual clocking in and out, Outlook and Calendar usage, or time spent online. Now, with the pressure to always appear online, some employees are working much longer hours or wasting time on performative productivity: things like excessively chatting on Slack or setting up useless meetings, just to show that they’re there.
The model could also disadvantage employees on teams that are mostly in the office, or mostly remote, or people who want to keep different hours from the rest of their team. “Hybrid remote work perpetuates two very different employee experiences, and that can affect things like equity, inclusion, and belonging, or even career trajectory,” says Melanie Collins, the VP of people at Dropbox. Earlier this year, Dropbox found that its European employees—who had previously been the outliers on the Zoom screen—finally felt on equal footing with the Californians, because everyone was on the screen. That was a surprising upside of everyone working remotely. “Our teams in Europe have expressed how Zoom has been a great equalizer for them,” says Collins. “No one’s left out of the conversation.”
Last month, Dropbox announced that it would become a “virtual-first” company. The company plans to turn its offices into a series of meeting spaces, where teams can occasionally come together in person. Otherwise, and for the majority of the time, employees will work remotely. (It will also provide a stipend for coworking spaces, like WeWork, for employees who prefer to leave the house.) The change is significant: Before the pandemic, only 3 percent of Dropbox’s 2,300 employees worked remotely.
Collins believes that the future of work has less to do with where it’s done, and more to do with when it’s done. “Many things that were broken before feel even more broken now,” she says. “We’re working longer hours, we have back-to-back meetings, and they’re all on Zoom, and that’s exhausting.” To fix that, Dropbox is also moving toward a model where employees come together for meetings and the like during “core collaboration hours”—a four-hour window of time each day—and otherwise control their own time. “That doesn’t mean our workdays are shortening,” says Collins. “We just want this to result in a nonlinear workday.”