5 Ways Companies Get Return-to-Workplace Policies Wrong
Even Zoom is asking its employees to return to the office twice a week for those living near an office (see, Even Zoom is making its staff return to the office on CNN). Just asking people to return to work doesn’t make sense. The employees know it isn’t about being productive because we are still productive, perhaps even overcommitted when working at home—going to the office adds little, save the commute time and the frustration of finding, and perhaps even paying for, parking.
Sure, there are reasons to get people together in a physical location, but “just because we want you in the office” isn’t a good reason. Employees, rightfully so, are in their 4-year-old phase, answering every demand with, “But why?” and finding there isn’t much reasoning behind their organization’s demands.
Most of the surveys on the topic deliver bias-confirming data points, like the Microsoft survey that found 85% of leaders who find it hard to have confidence in remote employee productivity. The issue is not employee productivity, it is manager confidence, but that’s not how most managers read this. They likely see themselves reflected in the numbers and quietly say in their internal voice, “See, I’m right; almost every other manager feels the same way.”
We also have the issue of an overreliance on productivity, up and down the economic measures, from individual performance to the performance of the economy. The world doesn’t revolve around doing everything faster and cheaper, though our current economy actually does because we have decided on that model.
An overt productivity model also comes with employee depression, anxiety, burnout, and stress that detract from the improved income and revenue. If people don’t have the time to enjoy the benefit of a productivity-first model, then the model probably has a flaw.
The perceived lack of creativity also stems from an emphasis on productivity. Those who want innovation can’t simply apply productivity and tell people just to invent faster. Invention requires reflection and failure, both of which take time. Sure, everybody wants to “fail fast” these days, but that is just the productivity model forcing its way into an area where it doesn’t belong.
Return-to-workplace policies proceed from false assumptions. Here are five ways companies get return-to-workplace policies wrong.
1.) Holding on to old assumptions about management. I saw this in Microsoft Netherlands when they presciently decided to adopt flexible work models over a decade before Covid. The biggest issue was not worker productivity; it was manager trust. Some managers couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt to managing a distributed workforce. Consultants were brought in, but it was a nascent science. Some managers got it, and some left.
Unfortunately, most management programs do not explicitly teach distributed team management; though it isn’t new, it isn’t as well-researched as, say, leadership. Remote work situations usually expose “butts in seats” managers pretty quickly. While some of the negative attitudes toward remote work and worker trust may fall on the managers, their lack of experience and education on how to manage distributed teams doesn’t.
Organizations need to let go of the past, the assumption of co-located work, and develop new models and practices that fit the new situation. And they need to conduct professional development that brings their management teams along.
Distributed work requires reinvention, which will include everything from management structure to security, from compensation to motivation. The Covid pandemic changed work and work relationships forever. We are still working through that discontinuity. The winners will embrace it and find opportunities, and failures will cling to the past until they, like their models, prove irrelevant.
2.) Not making the return to the office purposeful. I just proposed an innovation lab to a company. That lab makes no sense as a virtual venue. It’s meant to be tactile. It’s intended to be collaborative, to drive conversation as people interact with the artifacts that will drive the digital experience. Going to that room to explore use cases is a purposeful reason to be in the office. It will provide context; it will help define who, or which roles, would best be in the room together.
The purposeful use of the room would drive meeting agendas. Such a room would create purpose. But only when it’s being used. Saying that, for instance, “We built this room, and it’s available if you come to the office,” works, maybe, once. After that, if no one uses it, then it becomes a reminder about why coming to the office isn’t that important.
On the other hand, if the teams using that room schedule shared time together using it as an anchor, the room and the return to the office will offer purpose while it is being used.
A creative space is only one example of purpose. Teams can define purposeful reasons for getting together. If they can’t, and they are happy with their work, then they probably don’t need to get together. But there are plenty of reasons to get together, like designing products, working on proposals, and creating new experiences. Those activities, however, don’t require two random days in the office; they require coming to the office with the purpose of doing that work, ideally within a framework of shared commitments. Work should not be a physical destination but a communal and intellectual one.
3.) Failing to manage to commitments. I have been a long-time proponent of commitment-based work. I still don’t see it referenced often, but I think it is crucial to this discussion. The idea is simple. Employees agree on work to do, when that work will be completed, concurrence on processes like how to report progress, and what high-quality outcomes look like. And then they do it.
Commitment-based work isn’t just an idea for individuals but for teams. It also applies to communities such as communities of task (teams) and communities of practice (knowledge sharing among those with similar roles). Teams would share commitments and work toward shared goals. One way to eliminate concerns from middle managers is to make the middle managers create again as members of self-organizing teams. Rather than holding a goal that their team needs to show up at the office a few times a week, they would be charged with creating products, crafting campaigns, and engaging with customers, just like those in their community.
Of course, this pushes managing community performance up the management chain, but the higher up the management chain, the less the leaders tend to worry about details. If the communities produce the results they want, then they aren’t going to worry too much about how those results were achieved. Managing by commitments makes it easy for everyone to know what everyone else is doing, to identify intersection points, and understand what good looks like.
4.) Holding meetings that don’t add value. Mark Cuban says, “I try to only do meetings if I have come to a conclusion or there’s no other way—same with phone calls.” (See ‘Office Meetings Are The Biggest Time Killer,’ Says Billionaire & Shark Tank Judge Mark Cuban, Indiantimes.com). As with when to show up at the office, meetings need to be purposeful. Meetings also need to be designed (see How to Design a Meeting Infographic).
When a meeting does happen, it needs to have a purpose, the right people, and a clear agenda (with consensus on topics ahead of the meeting) that states expected outcomes. If people don’t need to be in the meeting, don’t invite them, and if they discover during the meeting design they aren’t really needed, let them disinvite themselves.
5.) Monitoring people to increase productivity or loyalty. According to the Work rebalanced report from Citrix, nearly half of organizations have installed monitoring software for remote workers.
Organizations, those fueled by both the industrial age and the information age, see control of the means of production as a primary tool in their success, but firms from both traditions (to be clear, information age businesses are not fundamentally different from industrial age ones, organizationally speaking) seeded much of the disdain for these models as they outsourced jobs to save costs and increase efficiencies.
Organizations focused on core competencies, discounting skills, and the employees with those skills. Those not outsourced could see the writing on the wall, even if they were just hallucinating it. Regardless, it created anxiety, even for those least likely to be outsourced.
The rise of generative AI does nothing to qualm those fears. Introducing monitoring to determine how many lines of code people write or if they sit in front of their screen does nothing but continue to erode any respect left in the employer-employee relationship.
Bringing it home (or just staying at home)
In a recent Business Insider post, former Microsoft Human Resources VP Chris Williams warns that employees should never expect loyalty from the company, and the company should never expect loyalty to it. That advice suggests that employment is simply a contract of mutual convenience and not a deeper relationship. The idea of commitment-based performance, then, is no different from the work conducted by contractors from a statement of work. The two parties agree to work together. The contractor performs some work for an agreed-upon price and level of quality, set to be delivered at a particular time. If they deliver on time and meet quality expectations, they get paid.
At moments in a work career, people may feel more positive about their employer, particularly as manifested through a team or manager. They may feel like they work in a family, that the employer cares for them, offering support, for instance, during a moment of crisis. But as the radium girls found all too late, employers often act only in service to their own interests. If you feel valued, it is because, at that moment, you do offer perceived value. A change in the employee or the circumstances of the business may quickly change that equation, as the millions who have been paid off know all too well.
A return-to-work order does not originate from empirical data that clearly shows a causal relationship between business performance and where employees work. For the most part, it reflects an ill-conceived attempt to return to a normal that no longer exists, and both parties know that which is what makes it so uncomfortable.
Working from home offers benefits to employees that they are reluctant to give up, benefits that the company never wanted to bestow, like more family time, no commute, and work-when-I-work-best hours. The pandemic forced employers’ hands. Implementing bad return-to-work policies isn’t going to get employers what they want. Organizations need to reimagine work relationships and be honest about them to themselves and their employees. Except for customer-facing roles such as in retail, hospitality, and transportation, work is no longer defined by a place or a time where it occurs but by outcomes delivered at an agreed-upon time.
As long as some employers struggle with the new reality, the frustrations of return-to-workplace policies will remain topics of discussion. What we should be talking about is new value creation, innovation, and new economic models—and that’s hard to do if the primary discussion revolves around sitting in a cubicle or at the kitchen table.
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