Rajiv is the co-founder and CEO of Tandem, a virtual office for hybrid and remote teams.
Originally published in Future, June 2021.
In response to the pandemic, tech companies have announced a wide range of policies concerning remote work. Apple, Facebook, Google, and Salesforce have embraced hybrid models, allowing for some remote work but requiring that all employees work from the office on certain days (or that certain employees work from the office every day). On the other hand, Coinbase, Shopify, and Twitter have declared that they’re now “remote first” or “digital by default,” even allowing employees to work from home “forever.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum are companies like Netflix, which has commented on how not being able to get together in person is a “pure negative”, and Amazon, which has said that an “office-centric culture” is their baseline. In any case, though, remote work is here to stay. I’d argue it was always here for companies at scale (those with multiple offices, traveling employees, work-from-home days, and regular offsites), but the pandemic has made it clear that, in the future, every company will be remote (at least sometimes).
As we start to go “back to the office,” it has become increasingly clear that the offices in question have changed irreversibly. Companies have shared in surveys, or stated outright, that the dominant model for the near future is hybrid work. Some fear it will be “the worst of both worlds”, but the term “hybrid work” is still poorly defined. Hybrid work isn’t a straightforward, linear combination of remote and in-person work — it is a significant evolution of the modern enterprise that asks (as former Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky has observed): What is the structure of getting things done?
We will inevitably blend distributed work with in-person, but the details are much harder than they appear. From asymmetry of access to the challenges of establishing digital “presence” in the workplace — there are many issues, questions, and yes, anxiety around hybrid work, for both employees and company leaders. Instead of debating whether any one form of hybrid work is superior, it’s more useful to begin by tracing the evolution of remote work itself, paying particular attention to how the nature of work — with an emphasis on presence and collaboration — has been changing. These changes present greater challenges in hybrid models than in fully remote ones; overcoming them will open up a future of work that connects us seamlessly, no matter where we are.
The evolution of remote work
A year ago, remote work was for many an unfamiliar and dubious concept, but over the course of the pandemic we’ve moved from managers asking how to verify their employees are working to more productive questions (“how do we prevent burnout?”). Underpinning all this is an ongoing evolution in technologies. A brief look at the recent past helps frame where we’re going.
Remote 1.0. The first wave of modern “remote-first” companies (including Automattic, Gitlab, and Zapier) leaned heavily on asynchronous communication via tools like Google Docs and Slack. This involved a fundamental culture shift that most enterprises could not — and didn’t want to — undertake. It didn’t help that video conferencing technology was clumsy and unreliable, making frictionless real-time communication unfeasible. When collaboration happened, it was primarily through screen sharing: low-fidelity, non-interactive, ineffective. Rather than paving the way, technology was in the way.
Remote 2.0, the phase we’re in, more closely approximates in-person work by relying on video conferencing that allows real-time collaboration (albeit still with friction); video calls are much better now, thanks to more consumer-friendly tools like Zoom and Google Meet. Millennials and Gen-Z-ers, who are more comfortable with multimedia (video and audio as well as multi-player gaming), are increasingly joining the workforce. But while this phase has been more functional from a technical standpoint, it has not been pleasant: “not being able to unplug” has become the top complaint among remote workers. (Especially since many teams have tried to replicate a sense of in-person presence by scheduling more video calls, leading to “Zoom fatigue”). As context diminishes, building trust has become harder — particularly for new employees.
Remote 3.0 is the phase ahead of us: hybrid work. The same challenges of Remote 2.0 are magnified here by asymmetry. The pandemic leveled the playing field at first by pushing everyone to remote work; now that it’s feasible to work in-person, though, hybrid work will create a “second-class citizen” problem. Remote employees may find it much harder to participate in core company functions, to be included in casual conversations, and to form relationships with their colleagues.
I’ll focus primarily on technology here, and to better understand how it is entwined with these problems and shifts, let’s trace two broad tech trends: the rise of “multiplayer” mode in workplace tools and the development of a visceral sense of presence in hybrid work, and explore their impact on connection, collaboration, and trust.
The future is multiplayer
“Multiplayer” enterprise software enables real-time collaboration. In contrast to “single-player” tools like Microsoft Word and Excel, Google Docs and Google Sheets introduced workers to the power of multiplayer editing. And the ability to work on the same artifact, simultaneously, was game-changing. In “The Arc of Collaboration,” Kevin Kwok uses the example of Figma to show how this mode of collaboration isn’t merely a feature; it opens up entirely new possibilities: “Unlike Sketch or Photoshop, Figma …shows what collaboration means when you understand that collaboration is intimately part of productivity. …The feedback loops of collaboration get so short that they become part of the productivity loop.”
A consequence of this, Kwok observes, is that both work and collaboration can happen speedily and losslessly within apps, and “going to Slack is increasingly a channel of last resort.” This is the power of multiplayer: it merges collaboration and productivity by allowing us to work together within the same tools that we rely on for solo work. Such tools, however, are technologically difficult to execute, and as a result, the shift to multiplayer has occurred gradually.
The concept of multiplayer collaboration, however, has been around for a long time. See, for instance, this video from Xerox PARC in 1991 of two people drawing on the same surface from different locations. While such prototypes were arresting, practical multiplayer tools were prohibitively costly and challenging to build at scale. Fast-forward to 2006, when Google Docs innovated on operational transform algorithms (which enabled concurrent editing); it took Microsoft nearly a decade to catch up. Later, Figma spent years in stealth making multiplayer design happen in-browser through specialized data structures used in distributed systems.
Even when real-time collaboration itself is solved, multiplayer apps need to build parity with their single-player predecessors before users will consider switching (no easy feat). Despite the difficulty and the costs, though, multiplayer has arrived. Screen share is quickly becoming obsolete, replaced by multiplayer applications for documents (Google Docs, Notion), design (Figma, FigJam), and code (starting with Replit and VS Live Share). Note that there are different levels of abstraction for multiplayer mode, which can exist:
- at the computer desktop layer (e.g. Zoom’s remote control function), which tends to hog bandwidth and feels clunky;
- at the native application layer (e.g. Google Docs, Figma), where the application itself implements collaborative editing;
- at a virtualized layer, which remains largely hypothetical, but if users are willing to switch to using a virtual computer like Parsec (or new virtual browsers like Mighty), these could enable smooth multi-user control.
For now, it’s difficult to achieve the requisite speed and fluidity without integrating multiplayer at the application layer. To do multiplayer well, certain processes must be fast (e.g. drawing curves together), while others can be slower (e.g., commenting); those tradeoffs are currently best made by the application itself. The takeaway here is that multiplayer is not simple or easy, but it’s worth the effort, and there’s a lot of very impressive innovation happening right now. It will only get better.
So if every app becomes multiplayer, what does that mean for the future of work? The adoption of multiplayer apps has two very significant consequences:
First, multiplayer apps contribute considerably to a team’s sense of presence and personal connection: you’re less likely to feel isolated when you can see everyone else’s cursor, for instance. (I also think of cursors like digital index fingers, not just pointing at things but also offering a sense of where my gaze is; my collaborators are personified for me through their own cursors, and the result feels remarkably alive. Such user interfaces help you “think” with your hands). Through modern interfaces like these, the feeling of working together in real time can approach that of an online game; in fact, consumer gaming mechanics now permeate many enterprise multiplayer apps.
Second, multiplayer apps can make hybrid collaboration practically frictionless. Teams use tools like Figma and Google Docs to collaborate digitally, even when they’re in the same physical space. So when remote team members are added, the lines separating them from their in-office coworkers become blurred. In a hybrid world, this is invaluable.
Making presence work
Multiplayer apps can provide a sense of presence, which is an intuitive awareness of your teammates’ activity and availability in real time. Presence, however, is not limited to multiplayer mode. Social Presence Theory, which emerged as a field of research in the 1970s, studies the depth of awareness people have of one another during communication in different media; in this context, “presence” has largely focused on the differences between face-to-face and telephone communication. In virtual reality, presence has long been discussed as a term of art — the holy grail, where the user’s awareness of the technology fades away to produce a seemingly real, complete immersion in a virtual world.
In the context of the workplace, presence isn’t about equating to reality; it’s what gives you that familiar sense of your team’s natural choreography, rhythm, and pulse. This isn’t just about explicit alerts or signals; it’s about tacit stories: when I see two colleagues chatting in front of a whiteboard, I know they’re brainstorming (and that I can drop in). When I see that Vivy and Ram are still talking in a meeting room, I understand why Vivy’s late to our one-on-one. When I turn around and see Vera wearing headphones and writing code, workplace presence lets me know that I need to wait to ask her my question.
Presence is essential to hybrid work. It still has a long way to go: For several years running, “loneliness” and “communication” — two problems that presence directly addresses — have been the top two concerns for remote workers in Buffer’s annual survey. In Remote 1.0, we relied on chat, and while chat tools like Slack offer an approximation of presence (a custom status, a green dot), in practice, people are always online and reachable for the purposes of asynchronous messaging. I’m still going to Slack you if your status is marked grey (“away”), because I know that you’ll get it eventually. Presence is effectively meaningless in this model, since workers are both always online and never really fully available; as a result, it’s very difficult to feel connected with your team, and it’s harder to disconnect from work.
In Remote 2.0, a new wave of tools are incorporating signals that nuance presence beyond simply “in the office”, “at work”, “online”, “disconnected”, and so on. We’ve seen the rise of “proximity chat” apps and virtual offices that are richer in presence than their conference-call predecessors.
There are some key technological considerations and upcoming shifts to keep in mind when it comes to building digital presence:
Sense of place. Presence in the workplace requires constructing a virtual, “third” place — a sense of proximity to your teammates, and of belonging. Discord does this well; it has evolved to be more than an app or a communication tool, and is now effectively a place where users hang out with their friends.
Always-on as an enabling condition for interaction. While tools in Remote 2.0 have tended to gravitate either toward onerous “always-on” efforts (extended Zoom calls) or the now-meaningless status signals described earlier, Remote 3.0 offers more lightweight ways to engage. Discord, again, can be instructive: Kwok observes that active users of the platform tend to have it on all the time — even when they’re not playing games — because “it’s a passive way to have presence with your friends.” Yet it’s not onerous (like an extended conference call), and it allows more people to easily join in, amplifying the social aspect of multiplayer mode (something else that the workplace can learn from the gaming world).
AI video compression. Driven by an increasingly global workforce and need for ever-larger group video calls, there’s massive pressure to improve video compression codecs to be more efficient in low-bandwidth networks. The search for efficiency will soon reach its natural encoding limit: encoding not images of our faces, but instead our facial expressions themselves (like a Memoji FaceTime or deepfake, but of your own face). While there’s still an uncanny valley to cross here, several efforts (Nvidia’s Maxine, and others among them) are getting close. This opens up some strange new possibilities: We’ll be able to easily alter our appearances; we’ll have crisp video chat even in the worst network conditions (AI compression can reduce bandwidth by orders of magnitude); and without requiring a video camera, AI could construct a facial expression based on just your tone of voice. Our conception of presence will change in unexpected ways as these technologies advance.
For hybrid presence to be seamless, though, a number of questions remain. Who’s at home, but available? If you’re in a remote conversation, how can you include people in the physical office? Conversely, if you start a water cooler chat in the office, how can you include remote teammates? Crucially, how do we create presence while still respecting privacy? As our conception and technologies of the workplace evolve, it will unlock a rich repertoire of natural, real-time interactions — which will in turn dramatically increase real-time collaboration and productivity within hybrid offices. The future is synchronous.
The future is not asynchronous
For some tech insiders, strictly asynchronous work — adopting processes and documentation practices to minimize or eliminate real-time communication altogether — is, apparently, appealing. As mentioned earlier, though, going fully asynchronous was a cultural shift that hardly any enterprises successfully pulled off. I don’t believe it was ever going to work: We’re social creatures who build trust through talking (more on this later), and, frankly, the preference for asynchronous work was likely an effect of the clunky and unreliable Remote 1.0 tools we had, rather than the intent.
COVID-19 seems to have settled this debate: When the pandemic hit, remote work was already starting to incorporate more synchronous communication, in part due to improvements in audio-video technology and the rise of multiplayer apps. The trend in the past year has been not to abandon synchronous communication, but to rely on it far more.
And hybrid work, of course, depends on synchronicity; in making the transition, though, we will need to incorporate some useful elements from asynchronous-first models.
One argument in favor of asynchronous work is that it facilitates the kinds of concentrated, independent work essential for developers and other information workers. See, for example, the classic Maker vs. Manager-dilemma, which argues for a clear separation between the two schedules and modes, and the need for big chunks of time without context-switching.
The reality is that most high-performing teams need to compromise between the Maker’s and the Manager’s schedules, blending synchronous and asynchronous modes in the service of speed, alignment, and creativity. In a 2016 study, Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley characterized the optimal communication cadence for creativity and execution as “bursty” (a mixture of rapid communication and uninterrupted, independent work). In a randomized, controlled trial of 52 software teams, they found that bursty communication was used by the most productive teams and tended to “lead to better outcomes”. Riedl and Woolley observed: “People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams.”
A useful analogy here: if we think about the enterprise as a living organism, good asynchronous practices (e.g. documentation, project management, Slack etiquette) are like long-term memory — necessary for order and consistency; synchronous practices (e.g. voice and video calls, real-time collaboration) are like the central nervous system — vital for speed and creativity. Both are essential.
Trust is everything
Synchronous communication builds trust, and trust is speed. This is the best lens through which to understand organizational dynamics in a hybrid model.
In “Being there versus seeing there: Trust via video” (2001), researchers at the University of Michigan showed how group trust builds over time, as measured by mean payoff in a social dilemma game. Note that audio and video reached in-person (face-to-face) levels of trust, whereas chat never did:
Psychological safety, loosely understood as “group trust”, is the best-studied social dynamic of effective teams. Coined by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, this phenomenon has been extensively studied by Google, which found it to be the key factor in team productivity, as it creates an environment in which teammates can speak their minds without fear of backlash.
High-trust environments are essential to the success of the hybrid office; the hybrid office, however, presents unique challenges to building trust. While there’s every indication that trust can successfully be built remotely, those in the physical office are likely to build trust faster than their remote counterparts. Again, this asymmetry — and the anxiety it will create for those working remotely — is one of the many hurdles hybrid work will need to clear as it moves forward.
Hybrid work in the future
To take a quick pulse check on where we are, in terms of technology readiness, on hybrid work: Some challenges, like mechanical issues such as how to have hybrid calls, will be worked out quickly. The problems posed by planning workforce capacity, building a hybrid team presence, unlocking hybrid water cooler conversations, and avoiding the “second-class citizen” problem have solutions underway, but will take a little longer to be broadly resolved.
And there are plenty of new technologies on the horizon, but we aren’t sure how they’ll play out. Consider VR, for instance: will it take virtual collaboration to the next level? While initial efforts, such as Spatial, are promising, in general we don’t like to collaborate on platforms that we don’t also use for single-player work. Similar to how Figma’s success hinged on designers living in Figma, regardless of whether they were collaborating or not, VR’s success depends on whether we’ll do work in VR by default. This remains to be seen.
Leaving aside collaboration to focus on interpersonal connection, is there a ceiling on how much we’re willing to connect in a virtual setting? If there is, technology may already be pushing it: the Japanese company Tonari is creating a virtual wall across which you can wave, make eye contact, and have a natural conversation; Google’s Project Starline is a “magic window” that uses computer graphics to create eye contact for greater presence. Will we see these efforts as enriching our interpersonal bandwidth, or will they go down as skeuomorphic archaisms, replaced by new and better forms of connecting?
To date, much of what companies have focused on when it comes to technology for interpersonal connection is what we could term “collaborative bandwidth”: the speed, quality, and effectiveness of doing work together. Along the way, however, we’ve gained more “interpersonal bandwidth”, which enables us to feel connected and forge stronger relationships. We might measure interpersonal bandwidth by how quickly we build trust — getting back to the idea of “being there” vs. “seeing there” — and this, again, is where the richness of the communication channel matters. Factors like eye contact, latency, audio, and perhaps even touch will be essential.
While the fine details may still be fuzzy, we can sketch in broad strokes what a successful hybrid office will look like: Those workers who are remote will have access to the flow of in-person collaboration; you’ll look back on your last meeting, collaboration session, or spontaneous conversation, and not be able to recall which teammates were in the office and which were not.
Of course, the office itself — an artifact formed in a very different, factory-focused era — will change: It will become more of a gathering place or creative studio than a 9-to-5 obligation. The office of the future will be re-imagined around what in-person work is best for. There will certainly be many misguided and costly experiments that build unnecessary “remote-friendly” office features in this hybrid adjustment phase, but ultimately, we’ll end up in a better place.
As virtual and physical offices merge, one thing is for sure: freedom and flexibility for knowledge workers will improve, even as we overcome other cultural challenges along the way. We’ll get closer to the vision of being able to work from anywhere, in the fullest sense of the word “work” — not just contributing individually, but also collaborating, leading, creating, connecting, including, and being included