An article making the rounds of my higher ed network is “Hybrid Work Is Doomed,” published this month in The Atlantic. Perhaps this article is getting some academic traction, as its author, Ian Bogost, is a professor and administrator at Washington University in St. Louis.
Bogost thinks a future of hybrid work could be “a win for everyone.” Done right, hybrid work could help both workers and employers. However, Bogost is skeptical that companies (and universities) will embrace hybrid work as the new normal. He writes,
A rational assessment of your time and productivity was never quite at issue, and I think it never will be. Companies have been pulling employees back to work in person irrespective of anyone’s well-being or efficiency.
According to Bogost, companies (and universities) will resist transitioning completely to hybrid work because norms around in-person face-to-face work were never about productivity or worker well-being.
Instead, the office (or the campus) is the institution that structures modern work. For most companies and schools, the office and the campus are inseparable from “reward, certainty, privilege, and prestige” that are intimately tied up with professional employment.
The office gives identity to office workers and firms alike, by imposing its practices across the workforce. That makes calls for flexibility much harder for the Office to adopt than workers may have thought.
It is not that Bogost does not think that hybrid work—and hybrid academic work—can never become the new normal. He argues that for that to happen, workers will need to organize and fight for that change. Absent those efforts, companies and universities will gradually revert to working norms and expectations that will begin to mirror pre-pandemic times.
Is Bogost right?
Relatedly, will universities lead, follow or match the practices of other knowledge work employers?
From the vantage point of July, I’d argue that we currently have very little understanding of what academic employment will look like this fall.
Summers have always been flexible. Many faculty are away. Staff traditionally work on campus during the summer but with perhaps greater flexibility for some academic professionals about where and when the work happens.
Late August and early September are traditionally the time when all of us are back on campus full-time. Classes are starting, and things are gearing up.
What will happen this fall? How many academic faculty and staff whose jobs can be done effectively on Zoom, email and Slack will come to campus all day?
Sure, professors will come to campus to teach. But will they move office hours to Zoom? Will the time previously spent in faculty offices prepping for class, grading, writing and researching now shift to home?
For academic professional staff, will the new norm be to mix a few in-person on-campus meetings with at-home Zooms, email and other work that can be done on a computer?
Bogost suggests that the pull of coming to campus will be stronger than we realize. He might be right. It is difficult on Zoom to build coalitions, push new ideas, gain tacit knowledge and build networks.
Work might be able to get done online, but leadership might require a physical presence. We don’t know.
This summer, I’m missing the information sharing done most efficiently through unstructured encounters. With fewer colleagues reliably in their offices and walking around campus, the density of informal conversations is suboptimal.
While I’m 100 percent certain that academic work flexibility is excellent for me, I’m deeply uncertain if it is good for my institution.
We will have to see how fall plays out.
Do you think Bogost is right and hybrid academic work is likely doomed? Or do you think that professional academic hybrid work is the new normal?
How do you think the post-pandemic academic work culture will be different?