Returning to the Office?

By Restoring the Soul of Business Archives
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As companies and individuals navigate a return to the office, here are some considerations one should keep in mind.

The Future of Work will be increasingly distributed and unbundled.

There is no going back to December 2019 -- only a move ahead into 2022 and beyond. The COVID-19 lockdowns underlined that the way many of us were working two years ago was not significantly different than the way we operated in 1980, despite a plethora of changes from advanced computing to new communication technologies to a huge increase of women in the workplace.

After two years of working differently with little if any decline in productivity the scales have fallen off our eyes and every individual is re-thinking work in several ways:

  1. The Role of Work in Our Lives. The past two years have underlined the fragility of life and given people the opportunity to interrogate the meaning of work in their lives and the nature of how they do it. Inertia had led us to continue to do things that made very little sense but the shock of displacement from COVID has made many re-consider and re-think.
  1. Where We Work. Significant portions of a company's employee base live in a location different than they did two years ago. Many have found their new habitat more conducive to their lifestyles, whether it is for economic or family or other reasons.
  1. When We Work. The 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. need for presence under the watchful eye of management has been replaced by many different ways of getting work done where a person has integrated work and non-work agendas in a way that suits them.
  1. Who We Work For. Up to a quarter of "full-time" employees have in the past two years developed a side gig for reasons of interest, passion and economic need. They have unbundled their income stream from a single employer.
  1. Web 3.0 and New Technologies.A plethora of new technologies are increasingly going to enable a much more decentralized, open and composable future. Already companies like Meta are asking their employees to "live in the future" expecting half of the work force to be distributed across the world.

Our thoughts about work today are like champagne corks. They have swelled with the new possibilities and will no longer fit into 2019 vintage.

There are many benefits to in-person interaction, but most of them do not require sitting in an office all day or for five days a week.

The three key benefits that in-person interaction bring are learning, relationship building and problem solving/creative idea generation.

Learning. There is a belief that some flavors of learning uniquely come from watching others in action or being mentored by bosses in an apprentice/guild like model. This is probably true for many industries and particularly for people early in their career or new to a company.

Relationship/Network Building. While relationships can be built online (for example dating apps), the reality is that some in-person meetings can help deepen and strengthen relationships. The best relationships combine the physical and the virtual, so some in-person interaction makes sense for many.

Problem Solving/Creative Idea Generation. If innovation is about fresh insightful connections, then the give and take between people can be a real asset. Whether it be the unexpected interaction between two colleagues or the in person back and forth of a brainstorming, these are benefits that result from being together.

But we should recognize that for creative brainstorming many people would leave the office to go off-site, building relationships and networks often took place at restaurants, bars, coffee shops and events and learning occurred at conferences and specialized training programs. The key is that many of these occur out of the office, take up less than a third to half of a working week and need to be scheduled and programmed versus just happening by chance.

Unbundled and Distributed work enable significant competitive advantages to companies that embrace them.

Imagine if you were a company starting today and were asked to choose between Door A and Door B.

Door A. You are limited to accessing talent who can afford to live near your headquarters or must work full time. This talent only works for you and is reliant on their entire income on you which could make them loyal but also potentially less likely to challenge the status quo since they may have limited optionality.

This door gives you great control over your people and a return to a simpler way to manage and organize.

Door B. You can access talent from anywhere in the world and they can work for you half, three quarters or full time giving them and you the ability for variability in employee cost and giving them the flexibility to fit their work into their life versus fitting their life into their work.

This door gives you the ability to hire diverse talent and attract people from everywhere in the world while giving you flexibility on cost management but increases complexity and requires enhanced management styles.

For businesses needing to attract white-collar and knowledge workers, asking people to return to the office for three or four or five days a week (versus coming together for specific training, creative or relationship building events) is in effect choosing Door A and will likely leave these firms at significant competitive disadvantage to companies that choose Door B and find a way through its initial messiness and complexity.

In-person interaction should be the focus versus returning to the office.

Six simple steps for every company to consider:

  1. Future Forward. Recognize that the future does not fit in the containers of the past and a four- or five-day week in the office is a container of the past. Communicate that your plans are about moving ahead to build on what has been learned in the past two years and not to return to some nostalgic halcyon days of yore.
  1. Celebrate benefits of the past two years. Call out the significant benefits from flexibility and diversity to more that the world of unbundled and distributed work has enabled.
  1. Re-enforce the importance of in-person. Explain why in-person interaction (supplementing just virtual connections) are important to your ability to compete, build talent, enhance relationships, and culture and generate creative solutions and solve problems.
  1. Focus on the synergy. Emphasize that the company is trying to integrate the power of in-person with the flexibility of virtual work to build a solution better than either one separately and it will a) require some flexibility per individual and b) some iteration and constant learning.
  1. Schedule events versus just days in the office. Program events from training to brainstorming to team get togethers both in the office and outside the office. Do not ask people to return to the office but re-turn to specific programs. An individual is not being asked to come back to the office which many do not find productive for "heads down" work of reading, creating documents or presentations but for "heads together" or some "heads up" work of training, relationship building and problem solving. If you have folks returning two days a week, make sure there is something programmed around these events those two days versus just having people sit around.
  1. Freedom within a framework. Allow for some freedom within the framework in how many days someone returns to working together. Some folks may want to be together more than the prescribed two days or require more time together if they are going through orientation and training while others may need the flexibility initially of one or two days a month.

These steps communicate that you are looking forward, trying to balance the best of both worlds, and reflecting that talent looks for freedom, to fit their work into their life story and want growth (skills, personal development, career opportunities, income).

This approach is likely to attract and retain talent while ensuring a company's culture and competitiveness.

It will not, however, work for everyone … and a company at some stage may have to part with talented individuals who refuse to be flexible in their ways by rejecting all in-person work or working to undermine the new model. While losing talent especially stars is not ideal, a company is more than any one or two or three individuals and a certain framework is essential for fairness and cultural cohesiveness.

The real challenge will be on leaders and managers who will now need to truly up their skills in enabling, inspiring and motivating talent.

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