Hybrid work is not the future, says Meta’s former director of remote work: It’s an ‘illusion of choice’

 According to Annie Dean, VP of Team Anywhere at Atlassian, the concept of a hybrid work plan, where employees split their time between the office and remote work, is not as beneficial or balanced as it may seem. Dean believes that these plans ultimately favor employers and leave many employees in a difficult position. Despite companies promoting hybrid work as a significant step forward, it often leans more towards office-centric work.

Dean, who previously worked at Meta (formerly Facebook) as the "Director of Remote Work," has been leading Atlassian's distributed work policy for a year. She disagrees with the notion that office attendance is crucial for efficiency, connection, and innovation, which many tech giants like Amazon, Alphabet, and Salesforce argue. At Atlassian, there is no mandate for in-office work.

Dean argues that hybrid work plans create an illusion of choice while simultaneously removing multiple potential benefits for employees and companies alike. She believes that mandating any amount of office time takes away from the advantages of remote work. While some bosses argue that certain workers, such as new hires or younger employees, perform better in an office environment, Dean points out the challenges faced by fully remote teams, including communication difficulties, motivation issues, and slower collaborative processes.

Dean acknowledges the concerns of companies seeking office attendance, particularly due to expensive office leases. However, she emphasizes that remote work provides employees with more choice and autonomy. Moreover, working remotely can lead to increased productivity and even higher salaries, as workers save time and expenses associated with commuting, office meals, and professional attire. Dean believes that remote work offers greater lifestyle benefits, such as the ability to live in affordable areas or close to family.

Additionally, Dean highlights that remote work options are particularly beneficial for women, as it alleviates some of the disproportionate household and childcare responsibilities placed on them. Overall, Dean supports fully flexible work arrangements, like Atlassian's Team Anywhere approach, as she believes they contribute to a healthier and happier way of living. 

According to Annie Dean, even mandating just one day of in-person work per week requires significant adjustments and costs for both employees and companies. Organizing one's life around the office and maintaining physical office space prevents the efficiencies that come with embracing the new remote work model. Dean challenges the misconception that office attendance drives creativity, suggesting that unless colleagues are in close proximity, their physical presence in the office becomes insignificant. It is crucial for companies to let go of traditional thinking and accept that they haven't figured out all the answers yet. Dean urges leaders not to view challenges like remote work as unsolvable, emphasizing that if they cannot address simple issues like onboarding employees, how can they expect to solve more complex problems like climate change?

Furthermore, Dean believes that the office is not the solution to productivity, innovation, or creativity challenges. These issues are linked to how work is approached, not where it takes place. Dean asserts that new methods of working are needed to address these problems and that we are witnessing a moment of innovative transformation in how work is conducted. In her opinion, it is time to move beyond discussing mundane aspects of office life, such as the water cooler, and focus on the broader opportunities for reimagining work. 

In recent years, group video calls have become increasingly commonplace, with the ubiquitous "Zoom wave" becoming a familiar gesture for bidding farewell in the virtual realm. This phenomenon, wherein individuals bend their elbows sharply within the frame of their webcams to wave goodbye, has piqued curiosity about why American office workers collectively engage in this endearing, albeit corny, act.

Experts suggest that while some people may have waved on video calls before the pandemic, the gesture gained significant traction during the COVID-19 lockdown era. As the number of daily meeting participants on platforms like Zoom grew exponentially, many individuals found themselves thrust into unfamiliar territory. Dealing with frozen screens, unmuting, and side conversations, people felt disembodied, dislocated, and isolated. The Zoom wave may have emerged as an attempt to preserve a sense of normalcy amid the newfound reliance on remote work. As Spencer Kelly, a psychologist, neuroscientist, and gesture researcher, explains, the wave swiftly became ingrained as part of the ritual when signing off from virtual meetings.

Today, the wave endures even as the pandemic continues to necessitate video calls. According to a recent survey, approximately 40 percent of American workers are either fully remote or follow hybrid schedules. In April alone, over 800 million unique individuals across the globe used Zoom. The endurance of the Zoom wave may not lie in its elegance, but rather in its awkwardness.

Group video calls present significant challenges to human communication. In face-to-face interactions, we rely on more than just words; we convey and receive information through subtle body language, which often gets lost within the confines of a tiny Zoom square. Even the slightest arch of an eyebrow or a fleeting finger lift coupled with brief eye contact can convey meaning—an affirmation, a farewell. These momentary, mostly subconscious exchanges of physical signals make people feel seen and validated. As nonverbal-behavior expert Joe Navarro explains, such gestures serve as "rewards" in our social interactions.

Movements also play a role in establishing trust. A motionless face, for example, generates discomfort. Even babies negatively react to their caregiver's immobile face. Gestures and expressions provide valuable information, while their absence may trigger feelings of danger or rejection. Unlike words, body language reveals genuine emotions and intentions. Furthermore, gestures demonstrate goodwill and effort, as they require physical exertion. The act of defying gravity and expending energy signals care and significantly shapes the way individuals are perceived.

On Zoom, where subtle motions are harder to discern, individuals compensate by making larger, more stylized gestures that may seem somewhat gauche. Some find themselves nodding vigorously throughout meetings to convey attentiveness, even at the expense of a sore neck. Others have adopted exaggerated gestures that they would rarely use in face-to-face interactions, such as big grins to indicate mild amusement, thumbs-ups, or heart-shaped hand gestures to express appreciation. Additionally, Zoom's feature allowing users to display emojis on screen—like clapping hands or confetti—serves a similar purpose. Both emojis and extravagant physical gestures serve as crystal-clear symbols, conveying straightforward sentiments in a setting where nuances easily get lost. When engaging in the Zoom wave, participants effectively transform into sentient emojis themselves. 

Actions with clear meaning, such as waving or giving a thumbs-up, are known as "emblem gestures." Unlike the subconscious hand movements that accompany speech, emblem gestures are deliberate and conscious. These gestures, like words, can evolve over time and eventually fade from use. While the reasons why some emblem gestures endure while others fade away are not fully understood, researchers have put forth some theories.

According to Susan Wagner Cook, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, a gesture is more likely to persist if it serves a particularly useful purpose. The Zoom wave, for instance, goes beyond expressing warmth; it offers a way to conclude an interaction and acknowledge others' presence before departing. Diana R. Sanchez, who heads the Workplace Technology Research Lab at San Francisco State University, highlights the versatility of the Zoom wave. It is an appropriate gesture for people with varying levels of closeness, making it well-suited for workplace settings. It strikes a balance between sweetness and neutrality, avoiding both excessive intimacy and playfulness.

The Zoom wave's staying power may be attributed to its functionality and adaptability in different contexts, making it appealing for individuals seeking a universally understood way to wrap up virtual meetings. 

The Zoom wave is a modified version of the traditional wave, which has long been used as a way to attract attention from a distance. While it may seem odd to wave at someone in close proximity, waving becomes a common gesture when trying to get someone's attention across a room. In this sense, the Zoom wave is fitting for the online platform. Despite being able to see each other's faces, Zoom users may still feel emotionally distant from one another, given the physical separation.

When people wave, it often elicits a reciprocal response. According to Wagner Cook, this response is natural as others tend to have an innate inclination to wave back. This could be due, in part, to the activation of "mirror neurons" that fire when individuals observe or perform communicative hand gestures. Research also suggests that when people move in synchrony, they experience a heightened sense of connection.

Ideally, participants should wave simultaneously during a Zoom call, although perfect coordination is rarely achieved due to lagging connections and unintentional interruptions inherent to the platform. However, as Kelly explains, if someone mimics your gestures too obviously or precisely, it can transition from being satisfying to feeling somewhat eerie. Therefore, the slightly messy nature of the Zoom wave may actually strike a psychological sweet spot, creating a sense of connection without crossing into uncomfortable territory. 

The imperfections inherent in the Zoom wave may explain why it has become so prevalent. While it must be exaggerated to be visible on screen, this very quality makes it particularly suitable for the current moment. Similar to a video call itself, the Zoom wave can feel strange and awkward, yet people willingly engage in it together. In a time marked by social disconnection, there is something endearing and even vital about this unapologetic sincerity. Despite our isolation and reliance on ever-evolving technologies, we continue to seek ways to reconnect with our humanity and physical presence.

Personally, I am grateful for this seemingly silly gesture and will continue to participate in it. It serves as a powerful reminder of how profoundly the world has changed, while also highlighting the enduring nature of our essential human qualities. 

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