Hybrid WFH is Dangerous

May 24, 2020

Hybrid WFH is Dangerous

To set context, what I'm referring to is a path that seems to be popular these days - should a company have both office and WFH running in parallel. So some people may work from home and some people may come to office. In general, part-time WFH is not what I'm talking about because it is impossible to budget office space for it - you dont know if people will come to office today or not. So how many seats, how much bandwidth, etc etc. So the situation that most companies seem to be finding in, is that a team member could be permanently WFH or in-office. This is what I call a hybrid structure.

Hybrid structures are hard to get right because, baseline working methodology will be entirely different. And I don't mean pair programming, which can still be done using VS Code Share or what have you. I mean the decision making structures. How an organisation makes decisions sets the culture, defines your hiring and creates the career path for leadership.

Innovation is decision making with insufficient data.

The decision making structures for WFH and in-office differ massively. We can joke all we want about Steve Jobs and his "collision corridors", but that is a decision making structure that created the most valuable company on earth.

There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” Steve Jobs

At both Pixar and Apple Steve Jobs put a great deal of effort in designing office environments that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations”.

If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.” Steve Jobs

David Radcliffe, who designs Google's work environments says

Casual collisions are what we try and create in the work environment. You can’t schedule innovation, you can’t schedule idea generation and so when we think about our facilities around the world we’re really looking for little opportunities for engineers or for creative people to come together.”

So let's be clear what's happening here. The office was the place of "unplanned decisions". The decision making process involved physical serendipity.. running into each other at the cafeteria.

Can physical and virtual serendipity coexist

I don't think they can. Because ultimately decision making is an outcome of a series of disagreements rather than consensus. How do you build the culture around that .. Is it all in-office ? Then you create the physical structures that Google and Apple did.

Is it virtual? Then you have to make the barrier for in-office the same as virtual.

When you create a hybrid team - there is a shorter decision loop in one of the two structures. Think of it this way - while your WFH team is creating a memo about some new feature...your in-office team will just get everyone together in a room, talk it out and get a sign off.

Our learnings at RedCarpet

For a very long time, we have supported and created an environment that allows us to create a team that can operate anywhere out of India. We were still in-office first, more due to lack of confidence at taking this step - it was the organisational equivalent of a superstitious breaking of coconuts before buying a car. Why risk it ?

But we put in innovation and decision making structures that were remote first. For example, we eschew meetings in favor of written memos (SMEAC style). Very interstingly we did our daily code reviews over a video call, even if you were in office. Yes, it sounds insane by everyone who I told it to.. including the team.

Correction - it doesn't sound so insane anymore now ;)

But this was very hard - bordering on impossible to do consistently. Not because people hated it, but being in office, gave a natural inclination to get into a room and talk it out. Skip the whole writing process. The balance between red tape and equanimity was hard. I leaned towards equanimity and went towards forcing decision making by memos, which is still a quirk of culture that takes getting used to.

Suddenly, in a WFH environment, our written decision making culture took over seamlessly - which is one of the reason we are working at a similar performance as before.

What about Shopify and Facebook...or Gitlab

My bet is that in large companies - there will be a natural evolution into teams which do full WFH or full office. However not hybrid. These companies are large enough for teams to exist in this way. Most startups are not.

Secondly, cross team innovation and decisions will most likely require an office visit.

Do note, that in definitely not talking about whether in-office is better than wfh. I firmly believe (and have illustrated above) that you can build innovative companies with either.

Remember that the successful remote companies (like Gitlab), are all remote. I personally do not know of companies which have worked successfully in hybrid mode.

Another way to think of hybrid work structures is outsourcing - in a hybrid structure, the decision making happens in office and the wfh teams are outsourced work.

This isn't a bad structure as long as your team recognise and accept it. Because the career progression will undoubtedly differ. A lot of people prefer working in individual contributor mode, and choose freedom of lifestyle over everything else. As long as the team recognises this (which includes every team member), this could work very well and open up latent talent pools from across the country.

My recommendation is this - unless you have radical transparency and recognition of the challenges, do not attempt hybrid structures. Choose in-office or WFH ...but not both. It's ok to be made fun of on Twitter for being Neanderthal startups that have not bought in to WFH. Because remember, you will be risking irreversible damage to your culture and choose the wrong products to build.