Back to the office – or rather more?
Over the last year, we had the opportunity to accompany several leadership teams on their journey of seeking the answer to the question that echoes in every board room around the globe: How should our post-pandemic hybrid work look like? What is going to be the “new normal”?
Numerous studies have concluded that many office employees have fallen in love with their new freedom and flexibility. Instead of the tiring and time-consuming everyday commute and the stress of navigating office politics, working in the home office has finally afforded them time to exercise, listen to music, work in the garden, play with the kids or complete household chores, all while fulfilling their duties to their job. This new-found flexibility in working life has left a lot of employees unwilling to return to the nine-to-five treadmill of the office for work that can be done from home. In fact many employees even claim that they are more productive at home than in the office, where time is often lost to disruptions from colleagues or gossiping at the coffee machine.
On the other hand, many managers would prefer to bring people back to the office, believing that physical presence allows them better control over their team. So how can we break this deadlock?
Some companies may find themselves in a lose-lose situation: After numerous heated conference calls, they cook a soup out of the ingredients that tastes bitter to everyone:
- Announce the new “4 days in the office and 1 day at home” rule (or any other split)
- File the issue as successfully solved
The 4-1, 3-2 or 2-3 home office rules are usually an unsatisfactory compromise between employee and employer ambitions, and totally ignore the potential for win-win synergies.
The most important consideration is actually the value add for both managers and employees of coming to the office. For some employees there are natural benefits of coming to the office, such as the opportunity to meet people, or to enjoy better working conditions, less noise, air conditioning or a proper desk and technical setup.
While in the past presence in the office was simply a given (and mandatory), it has become a new challenge today to fill time in the office with meaning so that people willingly choose to go there.
Lets’ consider this from another perspective: By design, human beings have always been social creatures. The likelihood of survival was higher for those cavemen who co-operated than for lonely hunters. Working as a tribe we were even able to hunt creatures such as mammoths. This dynamic holds true in the modern world, too. Very few people prefer to be simply confined within four walls. But do your people see the mammoth that you want to hunt? Do they believe that WE hunt TOGETHER?
If you run an honest self-assessment to see if the company’s goals & missions are inspiring, known and accepted, it might help to set the focus on the right actions. The same is true for each team within the organization. If goals are crystal clear – and people know which mammoth they are after – then the manager’s role is to keep the tribe together under the changing circumstances, independent from the preferred working location. When you have office time, use it wisely, to strengthen the bonds and the feeling of togetherness. Organizing interactive meetings and workshops that help build relationships and enable idea sharing can lead to your workforce inspiring each other and developing new solutions together.
When people go back to their homes, they should still feel they are not hunting alone but shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues. However, if your people do not have a clear understanding of the team’s and company’s goals and ambitions, there is another issue to solve first: You cannot hunt well in a fog. In other words, directions and goals should be clear and engaging for the whole team, so that it becomes irrelevant whether people are working from their homes or in the office. What important is that they know what they are striving for, and the team is aligned towards the same goals.
Additionally, it is important that managers and employees can measure progress and results by more robust metrics than “time spent in the office”. Show your employees how they are performing in relation to the targets, so that they can sleep well knowing that their performance is on track, even despite (or perhaps because of) much of the team working remotely.
Luckily, managers are also not alone in their struggles. Models like Sinek’s Golden Circle are useful in helping identify an inspiring purpose combined with moonshot goals. The concept of OKRs is also excellent for drawing a mammoth on the horizon and creating a plan for hunting it together.
We believe that this is the discussion that should be taking place in every leadership team. Instead of debating about the number of days employees spend in the office, think about the real value-adds for each employee, and the overall benefit to the team as a whole.
About the Authors
Friedemann Lutz is a Director at OXYGY. He has supported numerous Management Teams to run demanding change initiatives, engaging their teams to make the most out of new technologies and data driven innovation.
Ferenc Décsi is a Senior Consultant at OXYGY. His experience combines digital and data driven innovation with breakthrough process improvement and radical simplicity. In both large global corporations and startups, he has worked with very international and culturally diverse teams on developing tailored and practical solutions for many complex issues.