In the current barrage of workplace ideas, one idea gaining momentum describes the future workplace as a “hybrid.” While on the surface this label makes sense, it comes with a bit of baggage worth considering.

A hybrid is a combination of once divergent parts. A commonly heard hybrid is a car that combines gasoline and electrical energy usage. Nice. Another standard reference to a hybrid is dogs and flowers, when different species are crossbred to create a new set of characteristics. The third point of view comes from science-fiction, when hybrids go wrong and become monsters.

The idea of a workplace hybrid is as straightforward as a place that joins virtual work with actual work. Even though this reality of work was true before, the pandemic has shined a bright light on the value of successfully joining virtual people with actual people in a workplace.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]While I hope the design ideas coming forward are as efficient as a hybrid car and as effectively awesome as a new dog species, I see mostly monsters in the future workplace as a hybrid.[/perfectpullquote]

Here’s why: A car is a utilitarian tool that comes with enough comfort to get you from here to there. After the use is complete, you park it until the next time of need — the opposite of the value of a workplace. While I happen to think Labradoodles are kind of cute, there are times in history when crossbreeding went wrong, and the resulting animal was unsustainable. And no one desires the future workplace to be Frankenstein’s monster. Workplaces do not warrant the cost of these levels of experimentation.

The future workplace is not likely best as a hybrid for utility alone, nor is it best as a hybrid limited to only two work forms. Virtual work has added complexity to the workplace, but work has been migrating in behaviors and values over the past three decades. The accounting for collaboration, focus and innovation has shifted work from individual contributors to high-performing teamwork. The future of work looks even more collaborative, more focused, and much more innovative. These demands for creating workplace experience will far exceed the limits of hybrid thinking.

I like an alternate designation for the future workplace: an “ecosystem.” This workplace strategy embraces the values of a community interacting dynamically with its environment. A woodland with a grassy knoll creates a vision for such a place. The trees provide for a set of inhabitants who actively operate on a complex set of behaviors to drive results. The knoll offers a unique set of attributes to support diverse species. The interaction between various settings becomes an ecosystem with balance, collaboration, and occasional significant innovations that naturally emerge from change.

The good news is we knew a lot about ecosystem design prior to the pandemic. Ecosystem workplace strategy was starting as “activity setting design.” The previous challenge was the limited business practice beliefs that work could not efficiently and effectively be performed from such complexity as people moving and teams meeting ad hoc. The good management practices born half a century ago hold that diverse, agile, and ad hoc working teams would create inefficiency in productivity. Has this myth been blown up in the results of the pandemic?

While workplaces remain frozen, now is the time to answer the ecosystem’s question about idle office settings. It is certain that when we return to consistent use of the workplace, if the environment remains like plowed fields ready for planting, the value of the place to the people will be diminished if farming is no longer the goal. Literally, where can ecosystem elements be designed now that can evolve as your work matures into higher forms of innovation-centric productivity?

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