Why the Hybrid Model will fail

Software developers love distributed teams. Poll after poll shows this and while you will find the odd exception, the trend seems clear.

It’s not that the pandemic has shown developers the wonderful world of WFH. It’s not that they have just seen the light. Developers have known the benefits for ages. It’s just that managers have been actively pumping the brakes on what is an inevitable evolution: remote work will become the norm in software development. The pandemic has cut those brakes.

One of the most popular tech terms of 2021 is the “Hybrid model”. It’s that scenario where developers won’t be in the office all the time, but won’t be 100% remote either.

Coders can focus and be productive at home. They can come to the office to be creative and social. It’s the great compromise that gets the best out of the situation for all. A lot of LinkedIn pundits seem to feel that the hybrid model is the best way forward.

They are mistaken.

When we start to think about the practical implications of such a hybrid approach, it’s easy to see how it will fall apart.

How often should we go to the office? It’s the wrong question to ask.

The real divide in remote work is not where employees work, but who gets to decide where they work. Is there a company policy that requires on-site presence? Or can devs pick for themselves? That leads us to not one, but two hybrid models: HR policy and free choice.

When a company claims to have a hybrid approach, it usually comes in the form of 3 days per week in the office. Company policy commands you to be on-site on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s a nice trade-off, right? Just like IT managers love to slap the word Agile on traditional Gantt-chart-driven projects, Hybrid is just an empty buzzword here. If we think back to the pre-pandemic days, a lot of companies already had a work-from-home-day. Adding an extra one is hardly a new “model”. It’s a concession in the hope of keeping the old one going.

Those companies will still be office-centric. All team members will still live within a 50km radius from the HQ. Working from home is regarded as a perk, not a vital attribute of knowledge work. There won’t be a real difference between the butts-in-seat approach of yore. It’s a step back from what developers have gotten used to.

The result will be the same as for the traditional office-driven companies: a massive exodus of software talent.

How about that other scenario? What if people would just go to the office for face-to-face meetings and workshops? This scenario looks great on paper but has a major flaw. It assumes the gusto to meet in person will be evenly spread across the workforce. Poll after poll show this isn’t true: middle managers love the buzz of the office, devs prefer remote. When they can choose, a large majority of developers will prefer to never commute. Every meeting will be a video call. The company will attract talent that lives outside the office radius and all-hands-on-site will no longer be practical. The very thing that makes the office attractive for those middle managers will be gone. At a certain point, even the most ardent office-lover will no longer travel to HQ to spend their days in back-to-back Zoom calls.

The result will be a de facto remote company with an expensive empty HQ. The logical next step is to go office-less.

Proponents of the office have all kinds of arguments as to why the office isn’t dead yet. And for a lot of professions, they might be right. But the trend for software development is clear. They might get together for the occasional team-building and workshop, but developers will no longer commute.

And other knowledge workers will follow.

The future is already here and this time, it is distributed.