I am often asked my take on the future of work. I think a lot about what the pandemic taught us but I wonder if everyone got the same lesson and what trends are here to stay.
Pre-pandemic, there was a feeling that collaboration couldn't happen unless people were in close proximity. Large open space offices were the norm and working from home was the exception, not the rule. Now that paradigm has shifted, many people work from home, particularly knowledge workers. We've essentially all been part of a big social experiment that effectively demonstrated that work can be done, successfully, from anywhere.
When considering what to do, leaders should evaluate whether the decision to recall staff back to the office is a business based decision or behavior based determination.
One Size Does Not Fit All
There are the camp of folks who wax poetic about the good old days of being in the office, water cooler conversations, and the shared energy the office can bring -- these folks enjoy the solace of the office, like myself. I also won't deny that many people require connection but I would argue the frequency of connection widely varies by person and demographic. The way we used to work is gone. We need to be focused on the next normal and establishing new customs as well as expectations for what the workplace has become.
It's counterintuitive to demand that everyone return to the office five days a week. And the thing about human behavior is once you offer something, like remote work, it's fairly difficult to go back to the old way of working, if not impossible.
Avoiding Sunk Costs
In business, there is a term 'sunk costs' which is defined as cost that have already been incurred and therefore are unrecoverable. In a business setting, sunk costs relative to the pandemic would be multi-year leases on real estate, equipment, and other assets that have been paid for. Many leaders may view those investments as a waste if there are no employees there to utilize the corporate accouterments.
As more staff demand to stay home, those sunk costs become glaring and that could be driving the impetus for office place recalls.
The solution is balance -- meeting the needs of both business and staff as well as communicating the 'real why' behind the decision to staff. The reality is that some roles must be in office and some don't. Make sure the rationale suits the situation and clearly explain to manage expectations as to why.
There are some leaders who are insecure and untrusting -- they believe that if you can't physically see the team, that the team will under-perform. Others thrive off the interpersonal connection. Whatever the reason, most employees know what they need to do and get the job done regardless of location. You don't have to peer over your employees shoulder or conduct roll calls to see if they're contributing. The output from the established, shared goals tell you if things are on track.
As a managerial trait, leaders need to look within and examine whether the push for going back to the office is driven by business needs or managerial prerogative. When you have a team of mixed needs, the managerial preference may take a backseat to team needs and overall performance that leads to business growth and an improved bottom line. And when hiring, organizations should adjust hiring with trust in mind and ensure those hired can work successfully while remote.
There are ample tools to collaborate and more and more are created each day to facilitate the fruitful exchange of ideas - remotely and virtually. Leaders need consistently create more cross functional work and curate digital forums that promote visibility and partnership.
If we are going to be honest, employees who work from home may have greater output vs. the office -- commutes to the office are eliminated, the time in between meetings are decreased. This flexibility affords greater output and it allows employees to change gears when the workday ends and engage in their personal life.
When I think about commuting and the thousands of hours wasted in the car, bus or train-- it's mind boggling. Now I can close my laptop and be more present with my family. Remote work simply allows greater flexibility in how I manage my day and I get more time back as a result. Going back to the old normal, some employees will lose out on that flexibility while others gain. It's important to note, in this next normal, leaders need to watch out for proximity bias and workplace popularity contests where certain folks are more visible and therefore may have greater opportunities.