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There are a lot of conversations right now about the hybrid workplace, remote work, and the dread of returning to the office. There are also plenty of stories about how employees are quitting and how employers need to embrace the future of modern work.
Working as a software engineer, then consultant, and now a co-founder of my own company, I went through several workplace shifts, each with its pros and cons.
I believe the issue we’re facing today has less to do with where we work and more to do with workplace culture. If you’re an entrepreneur or a manager, understanding the nuances of culture can help you build one that is void of standard clichés that employees dread. And if you’re an employee, you might be interested in options beyond working exclusively from the office or home.
Work from the conventional office
My career began at a company where every employee worked from the office. It wasn’t that we couldn’t work remotely. Most of us were software engineers, and, of course, we could do almost everything from home, but most employees chose to be at the office.
I mainly worked at the office, because I was learning the ropes and needed peer support. Some of my coworkers had a job that involved visiting customers at their place of work, but, eventually, everyone would come back to the office at some point in the day. Occasionally, some people chose to work from home, and it was generally known that they were just not in the mood to come to the office that day, and that was okay.
Looking back at this early point in my career, I don’t think I could have succeeded from home. Most of my work was assigned to me on an ad-hoc basis by others. For example, when I finished a task, I’d show it to someone senior, and they would tell me what needed to change or give me something else to work on. It was quicker and easier to get help from colleagues who were just down the hall. And if I needed a break, there was always someone to grab a coffee with. At some point, I was so used to this work style that I felt a FOMO when I spent too many days away at a client site.
I didn’t leave this company because of the office environment, rather I was ready for more challenging work so I could advance in my career. Many of the young people I talk to, who are in the early days of their careers, agree that working from the office is a way to stay connected with the community and avoid isolation.
Work from the office with employee perks
At some point in my career, I worked at a company heavily focused on work culture: the kind of culture you write with capital letters.
For example, every week in our Monday group meetings, our boss asked the group if we felt like we had a best friend at work. I remember feeling like I needed to make a best friend, and fast, to fit in better. Spoiler alert and fun fact: I never made a best friend at this company.
The office was hands-down one of the most modern-looking offices I’ve ever seen, fully stocked with snacks and weekly company-paid lunch. Our group of software engineers rarely had to leave the office for a client meeting. Despite all this bonding culture, looking back, I can’t say that this organization felt any different than working at any other office.
At the time, I was still focused on growing my career, gaining more responsibility on projects and being noticed enough to be part of bigger projects. While all of the team bonding activities were great, they ultimately didn’t manage to keep me at this company for very long. I hear almost every tech company these days offers free snacks and sometimes lunches, but what some colleagues tell me they appreciate most is being able to work on pet projects and present them to their team. This gives many employees I talk to a sense of responsibility and ownership.
Work from the airport lounge
If you’ve seen the movie Up in the Air, this is as close as my software engineering career came to the supposedly glamorous lifestyle of traveling for work. Several times, I was on a project where the customer would fly my team and I on a charter jet to their office. This is where my career started to pivot from pure engineering to consulting.
You could work at the office, you could work at home, but most of the time for me, it turned out to be work at the customer site far away from the office. In my case, I packed my bag at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday to go to the airport, then spent about five hours flying across the country to check-in at some remote hotel late on Sunday evening. The next morning, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, I was ready to work at the customer’s office. The work continued the entire week, and then I’d take a flight back home to arrive at about 10:00 p.m. on Friday — assuming there were no delays or canceled flights (flight delays were frequent in winter). I had Saturday and half of Sunday to relax, and then it started all over again.
This lifestyle might seem glamorous from the outside, but I struggled to pace myself and needed a break from constant traveling. I keep in touch with several people who travel for work like this, and hear that sometimes it’s hard to sustain this lifestyle. The only thing that helps is seeing your peers living the same life, which normalizes this, otherwise, pretty hectic life.
Work remotely with strings attached
After traveling for years, what could be better than working from home? The flexibility of working hours and zero time to commute sounded very attractive, so I took a long-term gig as a senior engineer.
At this company, our entire team was distributed across the country. Everyone had their work assigned at the beginning of the day and met daily via Zoom to report progress and ensure we were on track. As long as things were getting done, we were left to our own devices.
One day, I got a call from my boss asking me why I was not at my desk. I learned that my boss used my IM presence indicator (which automatically switched to “away” after five minutes of keyboard inactivity) to determine that I was slacking off. I explained that I preferred to take a long afternoon workout break and finish up my work in the evening. However, that wasn’t how he expected things done — there were definitely strings attached.
I learned that working remotely is a perk only if you are trusted. Otherwise, you’re chained to the desk in your home, regardless of whether you deliver work on time or not.
Perhaps my boss had a bad experience with someone in the past. Perhaps he wasn’t used to managing people without seeing them. Even though I worked remotely, I felt like I needed to go the extra mile to “show” that I was doing work, and that canceled out the perk of the remote work for me.
Hybrid work with no strings attached
The final pivot in my career is working remotely with no travel and no manager. I make my own schedule and have eliminated all of the unnecessary distractions. My team also works fully remotely, and we jump on a call on an as-needed basis. We are proud to be a fully remote team.
Before the pandemic, we all felt like we had a choice to work remotely. During the pandemic, we started realizing that we had no choice but to work remotely.
Most of the work I do with the team requires a heavy degree of brainstorming, and random interactions are the necessary input — the kind of interactions you have when you tap your coworker on a shoulder and say, “Hey can you take a look at this? Does this look good to you?”
These interactions are spontaneous and can’t be scheduled. To successfully facilitate this work, we set up a hybrid office experiment. Some of our staff still work remotely, and that’s the nature of tech startup operating on different continents. Others have an option of working hybrid.
What I learned through this experience is that you have to experiment and be open to solutions you hadn’t thought of or hadn’t believed in before. And you can’t force your employees to like your workplace, just like you can’t force them to find a best friend at work.
You can, however, set up conditions for success and let things unfold. We just launched this pilot office environment, and I look forward to seeing how our team reacts to hybrid work with no strings attached. If you’re considering a hybrid work environment for your team, remember to also adjust the culture and expectations to the hybrid setup.