This is the hybrid work paradox: People want the flexibility of remote work, and they also want the inspiration and ease of in-person. For so many organizations just trying to keep up with the careening changes of re-opening workplaces, the hybrid paradox can feel like an unsolvable contradiction. How can workers expect to have it both ways?

Perhaps what they’re asking for isn’t really a contradiction after all. This binary way of seeing work as either “in-person” or “remote” is understandable. But it’s also limiting. Getting beyond the binary to develop a new operating model of work for the hybrid era requires us to reimagine what “workplace” really means—one where new categories of technology empower people to move beyond the binary themselves, integrating work into their lives in fresh and dynamic ways.

A true hybrid workplace won’t be defined by where people gather but by how they feel included in the collective effort and the shared mission. Inclusion turns employees into stakeholders, and stakeholders turn blank screens and empty offices into places rich in meaning.

As any team that collaborates using online tools knows, the physical locations where we perform our work aren’t really the same as the place where the work gets done, which so often is in a purely digital space. The idea that work is an activity tied to a specific location is a deeply ingrained cultural norm. You’re either in the office, or you’re not. But the months that so many organizations around the world have spent in all-remote mode have uprooted the notion that work must necessarily be tied to a single address.

The physical spaces where we perform our work aren’t the same as the place where the work really gets done.

From the earliest days of the web, scholars in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI) have grappled with the idea of the internet as a “place.” In a seminal 1996 paper, HCI researchers Steve Harrison and Paul Dourish drew a distinction between “place” and “space” that has become critical for understanding how a sense of place can extend into the digital realm.

A space, they argue, is just where we’re located. A place is where we act. It’s like the difference between a house and a home, they write: “A house might keep out the wind and the rain, but a home is where we live.… A space is always what it is, but a place is how it’s used.”

Instead of being anchored to a physical space, work starting in early 2020 became massively distributed. The internet became the new “place” where millions worked together. With varying success, companies sought to replicate online not just the processes of in-person work but the higher-order needs, such as team cohesion and creative collaboration, that they used to count on offices to enable.

But that dependency itself reflected a binary mindset toward the workplace that conflated purpose with location. Purpose reflects a shared understanding of mission, a sense of meaning that permeates the activities of work, wherever they’re happening in the world. It’s that common cause that creates the “place-ness” of work, not breathing the same literal air.

Sharing the experience

One way of thinking about place is through a common frame of reference. It’s where people share the same experiences, understandings, and interactions. As such, consistency is critical to establishing a sense of place. Consistency makes inclusion possible, because consistency puts people on equal ground.

To be sure, enabling a shared experience can benefit from investing in tools purpose-built for hybrid work. Technologies designed for beyond-binary work are creating entirely new categories. Employee experience platforms can create a digital fabric that connects teams through shared knowledge and culture, wherever they are in physical space. The new Cloud PC category puts the entire operating system into the cloud, liberating workers from any single device, freeing them to work wherever they most need to be. And collaborative applications, accessed in the flow of work, break down silos between collaboration, communications, and business processes. Hybrid meetings feel more inclusive when remote participants are at eye level with people in the room and smart cameras segment in-person participants so they can be seen individually on remote screens. Some organizations may even experiment with mixed reality “metaverses” that simulate 3-D workspaces.

It’s a common cause that creates the “place-ness” of work, not breathing the same literal air.

But tech upgrades alone aren’t enough. The key to bridging the inconsistencies between physical and digital lies in the approach to process and participation. Enabling everyone to invest in a shared environment is how authentic hybrid places emerge. Done right, people won’t feel constrained by their identities as “in person” or “remote” because they’re participating equally regardless of physical location—and likely more effectively than ever before. When people feel included, are engaged, and have the liberty to work anywhere—rather than feeling tied to a single space, either at home or at the office—the potential for innovation, shared culture, and wellbeing increases exponentially.

Consider a feature as seemingly simple as parallel chat. When meetings became all-remote in 2020, use of chat during video meetings surged. In the process, chat helped define new parameters of place, whether it was more introverted employees feeling like they had a safer way to speak up or work friends sealing their camaraderie with the artful deployment of the right emoji. People felt more included. Putting a beyond-the-binary mindset into practice means creating fields of opportunity for ownership, whether through chat or collaborative cloud apps or asynchronous meeting experiences that bring people together in new ways.

Solving the hybrid paradox means letting go of the deeply instilled urge to equate work space and work place. In the hybrid era, the spaces where we work will encompass everything from corporate campuses to satellite hubs to home offices to coffee shops. What’s more, who is where at any given time will be in a state of constant flux. Dividing workers into “in the office” and “at home” camps will become meaningless. In the hybrid era, “either/or” distinctions will always break down. The answer is to say “yes, and ...” to a sense of place defined not by “where” but by “how” and “who.”