A few more thoughts on returning to the office

A few months ago, I outlined some of the main reasons why we were going to return to the office once it’s safe to do so, including more impactful communication, increased empathy, inspiration, better integration of new team members, and ensuring focus on what’s best for the team as a whole. Starting next week, we will be back in the office twice a week. Sure, after 15 months of working from home, it will require some adjustments, and I am certain that not everyone will be completely thrilled. Fair enough. For most people, it is much more convenient to work from home. Many employees report being more productive when they’re not in the office. So when making a decision for your business, try to determine what is best for the team as a whole.

In her recent LinkedIn post, Rachelle Kuebler-Weber does a great job anticipating some of the pushback with regard to going back to the office, and pointing out some of the tangible and intangible benefits of working together in the same space. She mentions different behavior patterns, synergy of proximity, and the separation of work and home, for instance. It got me thinking about misconceptions that some of your team members may have when they’re being asked to come back to the office, even in a limited way, and how to establish clarification.

Of course, remote employees contribute value!

One of the questions that you might receive when discussing the positives of working in the same physical space is “Don’t you think that remote employees contribute value?”. Of course I do! And we have to think of ways in which they don’t just contribute tangible deliverables that are a result of being “heads down”, but also ways in which they help with cross-departmental support, collaboration, and innovation. But is it reasonable to expect that someone who works remotely and in a different time zone will sense that a new team member is having a bad day and take them for a cup of coffee to provide some pointers? Or that a junior BDR will be enabled to learn by osmosis by listening to seasoned reps when they make calls or discuss next steps with each other or with prospects, or when they’re not in the same space? There are some ways to mitigate those challenges, but it’s fair to say that the expectations of someone who works remotely and someone who is in the office at least part of the time differ. That doesn’t mean at all that remote employees don’t contribute value. It’s simply different. And in our case, we need the value, energy and synergy that comes with being in the office, too, which is why we have both local and remote team members.

It’s not all about individual productivity

Productivity is one of the most frequently used arguments for remote work. And yes, I am aware that there are stats that show that a good number of people work longer hours when they work from home (which isn’t always a good thing, though) and also lots of team members who are more productive remotely. I think I fall into this category myself. But individual productivity is not everything. It’s also about building a supportive environment in which people can get help by having in person ad hoc conversations rather than waiting for hours for a response on Slack, taking time to type large paragraphs rather than just talking in person, or having to put a Zoom meeting on the calendar. It’s also about listening to conversations that are going on in the office and with customers, inspiring others to do great work, reducing video call fatigue, listening to someone vent, and making offhanded comments instead of having to type out every single thought. 

Productivity is not necessarily the same thing as success

“But we have so many people who are super productive when they work remotely”. Yes, I am certain that that’s the case. But is productivity the only criteria of success? It really depends on what your business goals are. I’ll take more compassion and communication over a single focus on productivity any day. If maximum productivity in our company automatically means greater customer satisfaction, more thoughtful internal (!) and external communication, better products, better onboarding, more meaningful work, and reaching your growth goals, great. But it may not be the case for other organizations. 

Someone’s “flexibility” is another one’s lack of structure

“Flexibility” is a term that most of us would equate with something positive, right? It means that you have the freedom to do what’s best for… you? The company? While it’s generally a good thing, especially in crazy times like these, to allow people to structure their days in ways that accommodate personal needs (for instance, how about being in the office from 11-3 so you can avoid traffic?), we should also recognize that one person’s flexibility is another one’s lack of structure. Be sure that you’re equipped to help each team member be their best. Sometimes, that involves providing more guidance, shorter deadlines and milestones, and more oversight, even when it’s not the way they prefer it. After all, flexibility should go both ways. 

What’s best for the individual is not always best for the team

As a manager, you want to make sure that every individual is empowered to contribute to their own success and the success of the company. But you can’t just look at individuals. You also have to do what’s best for the team as a whole. You have to consider the desired outcomes for your organization. Here’s an argument that you might encounter: “Why do you punish the A players by having to come into the office just because we have some B players who can’t be productive at home?” Another fair question. First off, identify why coming into the office is considered a “punishment”. Secondly, Michael Jordan probably would have gotten away with skipping practice a few times. However, his drive and his dedication to excellence made his teammates better. (Note that if you do have so-called B players on your team, you have another challenge to overcome, but that’s a topic for another day.) Good work inspires more good work. And putting personal preferences aside every now and then for the good of the team and a sense of community may not be an unreasonable ask. That’s why I have high hopes for the hybrid model of being in the office a couple of times a week. 

Stop silo thinking, and curb it in others

Different roles may be more conducive to “flexibility”, so if you can find a way to provide different set-ups for people in a fair manner, go for it. For instance, someone who is in a customer-facing role might not be able to do most of their work after hours. Be as “fair” as you can, and also make clear that we’re all connected. Just because someone is not in Sales doesn’t mean that they don’t have an impact on the way the Sales team does their job. If customer service is one of your competitive advantages, be sure that the level of dedication to the customer is lived and witnessed every day. Try to avoid  A “not my department, not my problem” mentality.

Think about ways to facilitate more collaboration

If collaboration is important to you, think of ways to facilitate it, whether that’s by rearranging the configuration in the office, implementing ShipIt Days or task forces, or by having cross-functional lunches. Just because you may not have been able to achieve the levels of collaboration in the past, it doesn’t mean you need to stop trying. And, find ways to include your remote workers, both digitally and in person. Consider having them join you in the office at least occasionally. 

If you have your eye on the prize of a popularity contest, it’s probably easier to let everyone choose their own work environment and schedule at all times. But remember, only by doing what’s best for the company are you holding up your end of the bargain, and, at the end of the day, providing meaningful work and professional opportunities for your team members for years to come. And what’s best for one type or size of company may not be best for another. In addition, finding the right balance between individual preferences and team outcomes, and heads-down/remote time and in person collaboration might take a few months, so as always, be prepared to adjust as needed.  

When you do return, exercise compassion. The past 15 months have certainly put our resilience to the test and gotten us into new habits that might be hard to break. It will be a big change to get in the car again, to arrange for pet sitting and child care, and to get used to working around other people again. Let’s cut each other some slack and give each other the benefit of the doubt. 

What about you? What are your thoughts on returning to the office a couple of days a week?

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