The last few years have presented a massive opportunity to make work better for both workers and employers—but the words we use to describe this shift aren’t exactly helping us move things forward.
More specifically: I’ve learned to hate the terms “remote,” “hybrid,” and “productive.” “Remote” and “hybrid” are leading us into fights we don’t need to have. “Productive” is a misguided way to measure office work and destructive to employee morale. All three keep us from focusing on real opportunities to make work better for people and organizations.
There’s a better vocabulary—one that not only more accurately reflects the way we work now, but sets up managers and leaders to prioritize the things that help workers thrive.
Flexible, not remote
The word “remote” means too many things now. It gets used to describe the working arrangements of people who live as digital nomads, those who work from home, and those who work from anywhere. Muddling things even further, it’s also used to describe a movement around flexibility and choice—and inaccurately so. Time and again, research has demonstrated that what most people want isn’t necessarily full-time work outside an office, but the freedom to work where, and when, they’re at their best. They want a blend of regular time together with their team, and autonomy at the team level to figure out what’s right for them.
And even more, they want schedule flexibility. The ability to break away from assumptions that the nine-to-five window is always open for meetings or interruptions is more desired by employees—and has a much bigger impact on their engagement and outcomes—than location flexibility. For every executive worried about productivity and thinking about office policies, let’s take a step back and look at the bigger problem: You have too many hours wasted, and too little focus time for people to do good work.
Let’s call this desire what it really is: to be not a remote workforce, but a flexible one, where workers come together for purpose-driven moments and otherwise work where and when they’re at their best.
Distributed, not hybrid
“Hybrid” is most often used to describe a setup requiring a minimum number of days in the office for the entire organization—a one-size-fits-all that we’d never apply to customers, but do to our most important asset, our people.
The first issue with such policies is that the needs and rhythms of teams are highly variable. Take one example my co-authors and I described in our book How the Future Works: At the biotech company Genentech, the R&D lab workers have different needs than the finance team or the operations team. Sales teams have different rhythms than engineering teams. In any organization, a schedule that serves one team will inevitably hinder another.
The bigger problem, though, is that hybrid-work setups too often stop at a simple solution (for example, “three days a week in the office to be with your team”) when in reality almost any medium or large organization is distributed. The more you grow, the greater the likelihood that employees aren’t all showing up to work in the same city, let alone the same office. Leading a workforce that’s spread out across cities and time zones creates a need for more active coordination, higher dependence on digital tools, and proactive training of managers.
And despite the return-to-office demands that have dominated headlines in recent months, many large companies are now more distributed than ever. I know of several large technology companies, for example, that have gone from 60-70% of teams being co-located to 30-40%. There’s no unscrambling the eggs: The rise of remote workers is only one part of the broader growth of teams that are distributed across buildings, cities, and time zones.
Leading distributed teams is a challenge that requires training, the right tools, and support. But one of the great discoveries of the pandemic was that every worker who didn’t work from “headquarters” could find themselves on a level playing field with those who did. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone, when companies announce that four days a week in the office is essential for team-building, that employees don’t buy it.
We need to give managers the skills and support they need to lead distributed teams, and we need to fund regular time together for teams—whether they’re collocated or spread out—to more fully unlock their potential.
Outcomes, not productivity
Productivity measures are blunt instruments that make little sense in a world where the most important aspects of work are complex, creative, and interdisciplinary. But we keep trying to use them, often in the worst ways. Recent Slack research found that 60% of executives rely on “visual activities” (hours logged in, emails sent) as the main way to measure productivity. Metrics like revenue per employee aren’t much better: If it’s declining, is that because employees are less productive, or is it the economy, your competition, their training, your overhiring, or any of a raft of other reasons?
One thing is certain: If all managers are trained to do is manage employees based on hours worked, you’re clearly not getting the best out of your teams. We need to shift to the hard work of building outcomes-driven organizations, a process that requires creating clear, prioritized objectives and ways to measure progress.
Outcomes-driven management also creates the potential for more inclusive organizations. For too long, hustle culture—rewarding those who show early and stay late—has provided a favorable advantage to those without caregiving responsibilities, as well as those who can afford to live closer to the office. By prioritizing actual output over the visible trappings of work, organizations can improve business results and create a more level playing field.
We need to redesign how we work in a world that’s flexible, distributed, and outcomes-driven. That starts with giving ourselves the right language to describe the workplaces we want to see, and ditching the terms that have long outlived their usefulness.
Let’s shift the lexicon. Let’s move past debates that misuse the term “remote,” simplistic hybrid policies, and useless productivity metrics, and instead focus on how we can enable workers to perform at their best. We can do that by:
- Designing for the needs of distributed teams, not top-down mandates or individual free-for-alls.
- Giving people more focus time to do great work by investing in more asynchronous ways of working.
- Building leaders of teams focused on outcomes, not managers who are hall monitors.
- Investing in the digital tools and training people need to be successful, and reimagining our workspaces to be hubs of connection and collaboration.
These are the changes that will enable managers to lead flexible, distributed teams that help organizations reach the outcomes they want—without getting hung up on the metrics that don’t matter and misused terminology that holds back progress for people and organizations alike.
Brian Elliott, a Charter advisor, is the co-author of How the Future Works and the co-founder of Future Forum.