In my last two posts, I shared that returning gently included taking small steps and returning with reflection. Someone shared with me that some large consultancies see similar opportunities to reflect and re-architect the work. I see a bigger impact coming in the post-covid rush to go back to the office: not everyone wants to go back.
In fact, some people I’ve spoken to actually dread going back in the office. If you have a peer or employee in this situation, it’s important to understand why.
TL;DR – This is a longer post, but I’m trying to connect several concepts for you. Hopefully this can help you, your peers, or some of your staff if they are reluctant to come back to the office.
General Shifts in Work During the Pandemic
Earlier, I spoke of navigating change in general and during the pandemic. For many of us who were forced to leave the office, that change curve looked something like the following image.
As I spoke with people all over the world, I would hear this pattern again and again:
- They left the office with little or no preparation for remote work.
- They struggled for weeks or months as they, their colleagues, staff and employers tried to figure things out.
- Productivity dipped low and some felt completely unproductive because they were in a totally different work environment than anything they ever experienced.
- By summer or early fall of 2020, they were starting to get some traction. But not everyone felt they were functioning as well as when they were in the office.
Let us call this Group E (for almost “everyone”). Did any of this sound familiar? If so, you might be in this group.
But not everyone had this experience.
An Alternative Shift in Work During the Pandemic
One of the most interesting variations looked like the following:
This second group (call them Group I) had a different experience:
- They left the office with little or no preparation for remote work (like Group E).
- They struggled for days or weeks (shorter than Group E), but quickly adapted to the new way of working.
- They eventually found themselves being far more productive than when they were in the office. They could focus. They had more control over when they could collaborate. They felt they could truly contribute to the organization better than ever.
This second group, Group I, discovered what long-time remote workers have known for a long time:
- Choice matters and remote work gives many choices in how you control you work.
- If individuals were given choice and the choice was constrained by what the team needed and not what a manager or executive sets as a policy, people can figure out their optimum ways of working. Hours of overlap is just one example to help overcome some of the challenges of time zone differences.
- If you have some people that need to work in an office, it’s important that remote and in-office employees are treated the same. Inclusivity matters here also.
- Individuals and interactions are more important than processes and tools. So focus on how people interact (whether it’s asynchronous or synchronous) and don’t let your tools define how you interact as a remote or remote hybrid team. In fact, tools come last in how a remote team decides to set up their workspace.
How Can Remote Work Be Wrong and Right?
In a past article, I answered the question: How can remote work be wrong and right for you?
The simple answer is choice. Choice is the single biggest secret to working well remotely. Remove choice and you have problems in any work environment.
Why did group E struggled with remote work?
E is for Extrovert
You may have figured out that group E represents those who tend to be more extroverted. They need to interact with others. The interaction with people gives them energy and drives their creativity. I recall one colleague that literally had to talk through ideas before she could write an article or create a presentation. Once she did though, her points were crystal clear. She knew how to get her ideas across once she wrestled with them verbally and with someone else.
So those in Group E continued to struggle throughout the pandemic because many of them didn’t know how to find that energy source working remotely. They suffered without frequent interaction.
I is for Introvert
You may have guessed that Group I represents those people more toward the introvert side of the scale.
Reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, helped me understand my introvert tendencies better and and allow me to help others who worked with introverts. Based on Susan’s work, introverts are not necessarily shy or withdrawn, but they do operate differently:
- Introverts don’t engage in small talk for socializing much, but they will engage in deep conversations on complex topics.
- Introverts may not speak much in a meeting unless they have been given time in advance to think deeply about new ideas. Once they do, you will see (1) occur. One executive client recognized this in me when I would go quiet in his meetings. He would wait a while to give me time to process my thoughts, and then ask me for my input. He knew I would think through many options and usually come up with a good metaphor to explain the situation.
- Introverts regain their energy by seeking solitude. This allows them to process the ideas and interactions of the day. Talking about it more doesn’t help. They need an inner dialog to recharge.
I highly recommend Susan’s book to dive deeper into the introvert-extrovert spectrum. However, knowing the introvert tendencies helps us think deeply about the implications of returning to the office.
What Happens When the Office Re-Opens?
How an employer re-opens an office will impact how Group I will respond. The image below shows three options:
- No remote work or work from home (WFH) options are provided.
- Policies are set where employees can work remote for a few days a week and be in the office on other days.
- Policies are set where employees can choose to work remotely (hybrid remote) or the entire organization decides it will go remote (remote first).
Choice A – No Remote for You
Choice A will likely be made by large or more traditional organizations. Regardless of what employees have experienced, they believe they need everyone in the office.
An interesting side note, Australia seems roughly six months ahead in their return to the office due to their aggressive stance on controlling the pandemic. With that, they are finding it difficult to bring some workers back to the office who have grown accustomed to working remote. Some have even engaged psychologists to coax people back into the office. I wonder what western countries will learn from the experience of the Australians.
It would not be surprising that many of those people are from Group I (see the purple curve in the image). Their choice of how to work is being taken away by being forced back into an office. They lose their ability to think deeply and process complex ideas. They may struggle if they do go into the office full-time. They may even struggle with getting to the office as daily commutes remind them of heavy traffic, rushed drivers and road rage they avoided during the pandemic. Some may just quit to look for fully remote jobs.
Choice B – Hybrid Remote (Limited Choice)
Then there is Choice B (blue line) where an employer sets a policy allowing working remotely for a few days and in the office for a few days. Some employers, like Google, have said they will establish such policies. But unless it’s clear that employees have choice, you may still have frustration and some employees may still leave. This employee exodus even looks likely at Google.
However, if employees are given a choice to work remotely part time, our Group I employees will still need to adjust to a hybrid work environment. I’m not sure I agree with Harvard saying that hybrid remote work will be the future. Hybrid remote work has it’s own challenges as I’ve outlined before.
Choice C – Hybrid Remote at Will or Remote First
Simon Wardley (inventor of Wardley Maps) recently referred to this as “… a time of the great division, between the haves and the have nots, between varying rates of speed in the corporate world” (see The Great Division). Peter Block (author of Flawless Consulting, Community: The Structure of Belonging, and other business books) said in a recent webinar “Only those who were comfortable before the pandemic want to return to the way things were.”
So Choice C shifts that dynamic. It looks at providing the most choice possible to help individuals and teams deliver the most value. Companies like Twitter (May 2020), Microsoft (Oct 2020 for 150k employees), Dropbox (Oct 2020), and many more companies have declared they will go full remote or provide fully remote options for employees. They learned that providing choice to their employees matter.
With Choice C, our Group I will have very little disruption post-pandemic and may even improve their productivity further as they learn aspects of remote work (as shown in the green curve in the diagram).
What About the Extroverts Returning to the Office?
A common assumption is returning to the office means returning to normal. However, as we described above, Group I may not want to return to the office at all or may just go seek jobs that are remote only.
The figure below shows what Group E will most likely encounter when they return to the office:
It will continue to be challenging for them. Some of their colleagues will have moved to other jobs. Some will be working at home and if an “inclusive” environment is not established to treat location-dependent and location-independent workers the same, you may see another wave of departures. Work then gets shifted around further, expertise goes out of the office entirely, and new staff are ramped up.
It could be a much longer and slower recovery for those wanting to return to the office.
Are there Other Groups to Consider?
Yes, It would be simplistic to think we have just Group E and Group I. I’ll dive into this question in another post.