How do we return to work?
27 May 2021
In Nick Bloom’s HBR article “Don’t let employees pick their WFH days”, he writes that he’s changed his mind about recommending who gets to decide on what days an employee will be in or out of the office. In a previous post, he recommended that employees choose, but based on analysis, he recommends having managers orchestrate the team schedule and decide WFH days for their team.
He mades some good points: for instance, at-home workers can be excluded, the pressure to be at home disproportionally affects working mothers, and single, urban dwellers can easily get to the office, while those doing the interstate shuffle may be less inclined to go in. These patterns would create inequity rather quickly. People who work together need face-to-face time, and remote workers have less personal contact in the corridor or after the meeting.
In his words, letting individual employees decide independently “could contribute to a diversity crisis.”
And he’s quite right, it could – eager, single and geographically close employees could create a lot of influence by being there virtually every day, compared to whoever is on the Zoom screen. That is real.
But I think that is only part of the story of the pitfalls and opportunities in “new” office work, including how we decide WFH.
The pandemic – like any other large change to a system – has exposed places of resilience (or lack of it) in our society, and business organization is really just a part of that. And as with any change, we have a massive opportunity and challenge ahead of us, whether we like it or not.
On top of the pandemic, the last few years (in America especially) have been filled with social and political strife, and that has further exposed parts of our systems and culture that at the very least need to be improved in order to create the best possible environment for everyone. So the stress and challenge people feel is not just due to the the virus.
I agree with Nick Bloom’s attention on inclusivity and that the way teams or offices are put together should have both the individual and the business in mind. However, each manager or leader’s decision about WFH is part of a complex decision that must take into account people’s needs and business goals. Some solutions may work in certain companies, while other solutions would be better in other situations, and one prescription for decision making make not necessarily create group interactions that are best for everyone in the long run.
I also agree with Nick Bloom’s argument for team unity and cohesion, and consistent face-to-face time is necessary for that.
So I don’t see the question of post-pandemic office work as a binary choice of who gets to pick WFH – I don’t think that one solution would work in all businesses. I see it as a sometimes-messy process of discovering what situation1WFH is an important part of the post-pandemic office, but the physical separation can also affect inclusivity, reporting, and the economics of office-based businesses too. 1. WFH is an important part of the post-pandemic office, but the physical separation affects inclusivity, reporting, and the economics of office-based businesses too. would be best for each business, team or department, and I think it requires a few things:
- Communication: Like friends after a life-changing argument, we need to speak openly, clearly and (to the best of our ability) without malice or agenda. No good solution comes from anything else.
- Honesty & Integrity: These are not the same thing, and normally I would not think of them together like this. But in order to reach the best possible solution for everyone, we need both. Mean what you say and say what you mean.
- Shared Goals: while personal goals between employees might differ (paying college tuition vs. trying to impress on the first job out of school), a good solution requires leaders and managers to be clear about the team’s shared goals and “commander’s intent” for the department or project.
We all long for the “before times.” But putting together post-pandemic office is an incredible opportunity for us to create a new working order that also addresses and possibly corrects some of the shortcomings in efficiency, inclusivity and engagement.
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