Over the past six months, one of the more interesting tensions to play out has been watching companies of all sizes try to figure out the best way to bring their employees back to the office. On the one hand, the pandemic has taught many of us that there are a lot of jobs that simply don't require being in an office. At the same time, there are real benefits to having everyone together--even if not all the time.
For example, teams develop relationships differently when they're together in person, compared to only connecting online. There are plenty of situations where that difference matters enough to a company that they want to get people together.
Google has invested a lot of work and resources into figuring out how to balance those needs, and how to create environments that facilitate both. I've paid close attention as the company has shared its plans--including when it announced dates for bringing everyone back to the office, only to push them back as different waves of the pandemic surged through different communities.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai, shared some of his thinking on returning to work, and how the office environment plays a role. His answer--one sentence, in particular--was the best I've heard yet:
The thing I'm most excited about is I think the future of work will be flexible... Specifically, we do think it's important to get people in a few days a week, but we are embracing all options. A set of our workforce will be fully remote, but most of our workforce will be coming in three days a week. But I think we can be more purposeful about the time they're in, making sure group meetings or collaboration, creative collaborative brainstorming or community building, happens then. I'm excited. I think people and teams are going to figure this out, but overall I feel energized that we get to rethink for the next 10 years.
The emphasis in that paragraph is mine because I want to highlight what I think is the best sentiment about bringing people back to the office that I've heard yet. The reason I think this is so important is that it articulates something that I think many people working remotely care about.
If you're going to have people come into the office, it should be for a reason. That reason shouldn't be only that you've spent a lot of money on a fancy workspace and you have to justify the expense. Having your team come in just so you can see them all sitting at tables with their laptops open isn't purposeful. It might make you feel better that they're all working in the same office, but it doesn't actually contribute anything to their individual work, or to your collaborative efforts.
If you're going to ask your team to come to the office a few days a week, you should be intentional about using that time for things you can't otherwise do virtually. If having an all-hands meeting is important, do it then. If working through hard problems would benefit from face-to-face conversations, do it while the stakeholders are together.
There's a flip side to this, which is that the rest of the time, you should let people focus on getting their work done. Don't fill their schedule with video meetings on days they aren't in the office. If you feel the need to constantly be meeting with your team to talk about what they're working on, you're doing it wrong. That's just basic people management, and it makes sense--if you make your team members spend all their time in meetings, they won't have any time to actually work.
Finally, I'll just call out one other thing from that part of the interview. "I think people and teams are going to figure this out," Pichai said. Google's CEO has faith that the best people to figure out how to get work done are the teams actually trying to get the work done. That's more important than you might think, and it isn't just Google that seems to be taking this approach.
Last fall, I wrote about an email from Amazon's new CEO, Andy Jassy, in which he told employees that "instead of specifying that people work a baseline of three days a week in the office, we're going to leave this decision up to individual teams." The people who are in the best position to figure out how to get work done are the people you trusted enough to hire for that purpose.
It's encouraging to see this mentality, even at giant tech companies. The good news is, it's something every manager, CEO, team leader, and entrepreneur can copy. Let your team figure out the best way to work, and whether they're in the office or not, be intentional and purposeful with their time.