The new hybrid work isn’t just about where we work: that is, some combination of home plus office.
It’s also about who we are working with: humans, or AIs?
Thinking about hybrid work as an intersection of location and collaboration gives us a much better handle on how work has changed, and how to make the most of the opportunities that come from combining AI adoption with at least part-time remote work.
How remote and AI work together
My latest Unfolding AI column for JSTOR Daily digs into the new hybrid work by drawing on business research that can help us anticipate its impact. As I argue in JSTOR:
It’s absurd to talk about the automation of work or the impact of artificial intelligence on employment without reckoning with the way our assumptions about work and employment have already been transformed, recently and massively, by the embrace of remote work—as well as the backlash against it. And it’s equally pointless to talk about how to get workers to return the office, or how to build culture and collaboration among distributed teams, without considering how AI is already reshaping our daily working lives and employees’ fears for the future.
There are five main ways remote work and AI adoption intersect:
1. Remote work makes us less people-focused
Yes, remote work can be isolating—but is the office really the cure? More and more of us are learning to satisfy our social cravings by co-working with nearby colleagues, taking social breaks midday or embracing the flexibility to knock off work in time to host dinner with friends.
“By diminishing the social function of work,” I argue, “ The shift to hybrid and remote work has readied us for working with virtual AIs, rather than physical humans.”
2. AI gives us remote-friendly brainstorming options
Yes, remote work can make it awfully hard to brainstorm—if we assume that brainstorming has to involve other humans! But more and more of my own brainstorming is happening within the virtual walls of ChatGPT, and I find that an hour or two of solo riffing and exploration often yields better results than I might expect from a day-long meeting with a roomful of humans.
As I write in JSTOR Daily: “For employees who miss the spontaneity, knowledge-sharing and freewheeling riffs of the old-world office—but not the hassle of a commute, or a calendar packed with meetings—AI provides a welcome alternative.” Here’s an example of what that looks like.
3. AI tackles the digital overload of remote work
No, you probably won’t get to all your email and messages within business hours—but that’s no reason to let your remote job overtake your evenings and weekend. Instead, use AI tools to triage and address your overwhelming volume of incoming communications.
“Hybrid work has intensified an enormous pain point that AI offers to cure,” I wrote last week. “In offering us some tools for managing overload, AI may make remote work more attractive and sustainable.
4. Remote work enables big wins from working with AI
No, a copywriting AI won’t change your life—but that’s just the beginning of how AIs can transform our work. So far this year I’ve used AIs to develop a new kind of data visualization…to rethink a book project…and to write software to clean up my financial records. None of these were five-minute projects, but they moved my work forward dramatically, and in ways I could never have accomplished without AI assistance.
I was able to tackle these tasks because I’m lucky to have the kind of remote-work arrangement that provides me with big periods of uninterrupted work time—the kind of time managers can create by coordinating office schedules so that meetings mostly happen on office days, and remote days can be reserved for focused work.
As I wrote: “These focused work periods are where we can expect the biggest gains from AI, because that’s when workers will have the chance to dive deep into complex challenges where they push past their limits by learning to work with AI support.”
5. AI refactors the divide between remote and office
No, remote work isn’t available to everyone—and yes, AI is coming for at least some of our jobs. But those challenges may play out in tandem. Here’s my prediction:
“AI gets to the heart of the biggest challenge hybrid organizations now face: how to bridge the gap between on-site and remote workers…As AI makes its way deeper into organizations, changing hiring patterns and reallocating work, the division between AI-replaceable and AI-irreplaceable employees will soon look just as significant as the divide between on-site workers and those with remote-work opportunities. By opening a whole new front in the battle for employee trust and cohesion, the new hybrid work will force organizations to reckon with remote work and AI as they truly are: inextricably linked determinants of our working future.”
Making the most of the new hybrid
Once you recognize all the ways remote work and AI are likely to intersect, you can start thinking about how to make them work better together. There are some forms of human-to-human collaboration that work a lot better in-person at the office, and there are some forms of human-AI collaboration that are uniquely suited to the relative quiet of home.
Here’s the kind of collaborative work I suggest tackling in each context.
Has AI changed the way you use your time at home—or at the office?
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.