Hopefully no one is so naïve that they think running a hybrid workplace is going to be easy.
Splitting time between the office and working remotely looks like it's here to stay, whether the traditionalists already back in the office want it or not.
There's a risk that a hybrid workplace could be "the worst of both worlds," St. Paul entrepreneur Scott Burns wrote in a recent blog post. What does the worst look like?
It might mean that employees — under the promise of some face time with the boss — go through the hassle of coming into an office only to wind up sitting there doing things they could have done on a laptop at home because the boss got tied up.
Then, on days when they don't come into the office, their connection to work might be nothing more than a handful of electronic messages with the boss. Maybe they jumped onto a video meeting where half the participants didn't bother turning on cameras, leaving the impression they could have been scrolling through their Instagram feeds.
We wouldn't be having this conversation without having gone through a pandemic, of course.
Last spring when the pandemic arrived and office workers were sent home to work, nobody really knew how things were going to go. It might have worked better than managers had once feared, Burns said.
By some measures, productivity among them, it worked almost as well as face-to-face in the office.
And that, of course, is one of the big problems.
In 2019 Gallup reported that only about one-third of Americans are deeply engaged in their workplace, in a poll that encompassed all those office workers back then still going in every day. That doesn't sound great, yet as Burns pointed out in his blog post, that number had never been higher in the two decades Gallup had asked the question.
And with most people disengaged already, can anyone really think engagement scores will increase when people come in only a couple of days a week?
Talking to Burns last week about what's needed to effectively run a hybrid workplace might seem like asking a barber for tips on how to manage the long-hair problem, as the investor Warren Buffett might've put it.
Burns' software company — Structural, launched in 2017 — was formed with the expectation that work would decentralize and that workers needed far better electronic tools to make them all part of one organization.
Its platform is a sort of an internal LinkedIn system, and might be used to find out who to go to inside when looking for some information or a little history.
"And you can be at your house, you can be at a coffee shop, you could be in Zimbabwe, it doesn't matter," Burns said.
You should also know that, in addition to his day job at Structural, Burns serves on the board of Star Tribune Media Co. and is part of a group of investors that includes my wife in a St. Paul office building.
In his blog post, Burns offered advice that might seem familiar to managers who understand the challenge of managing hybrid work. One tip is to be thoughtful about when to bring staff into the office.
It's a bad idea to have one team working on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the other team working on Mondays and Wednesdays. They won't ever see each other.
Another tip is remembering that "productivity" can be a limiting idea for some jobs. Managers might measure some things only because they are easy to track, like lines of software code written. The real value provided by some workers, and that might include software engineers, could be their informal coaching of other staff or their ability to turn an impractical idea into one that just might work.
But the big takeaway from talking with Burns is that the best workplaces will have people connecting all the time with each other across the organization chart, more or less peers but doing different jobs and in different departments.
In the work-from-home style we've had in the last year, that's not easy. The boss can check in on you and you can check on the people who work for you. But it's not nearly as common to be in regular contact with people not on your team.
It's all but impossible to connect with people who work in different parts of the organization. And with apologies to the founders of Zoom, a video meeting is a poor substitute for the kind of conversations that once took place in the breakroom, in the lobby or at the office building's gym.
"In the absence of it being face-to-face, you have to have the tools to move horizontally in the organization," Burns said. "It is OK to have colleagues in India if you can discover and connect with them. It's not OK if they are cranking out the code, you are designing the product and somebody else is doing the marketing. Our best work never happens in our own functional silo."
And while workers say they value "flexibility," formal schedules and expectations for in-person work can be good things if the managers have also succeeded in creating an engaging place to be all day.
Staff should look forward to coming in for a chance to learn something, contribute at least a little to some project bigger than their own daily work and maybe get the chance to try something new.
Shooting for an inspiring workplace might seem like an impossibly high standard, yet managers had better give it a try. That's because Burns is pretty sure they won't like what will happen if they just leave people alone, working on their own from wherever they want to be.
That's only going to turn everybody into a gig worker.
The boss can keep track of output, but these staffers are no longer part of anything larger than their own desk. They're just knocking out lines of software code or answering customer service questions all day in exchange for their pay.
They could do that work from anywhere. And they could do it for anybody.
All it would take is just a few more bucks per year in pay, and they will happily move on.