There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t see an article about returning to the office. It’s become such an extensive discussion that we’ve even assigned the acronym “RTO.”
Most articles I read explain how executives claim innovation, collaboration, and productivity will improve due to returning to the office.
For example, I read a New York Times article titled “Return to the office enters desperation phase.”
If you don’t want to read it, the NY Times article is full of how big companies are forcing people back into the office for at least a portion of the week.
I, of course, read the article as the title did an excellent job in the click-bait category (IMO). Truthfully, the debate of fully remote, hybrid or return to the office is in my wheelhouse. So, why wouldn’t I read it?
Like so many I’ve read, this article falls flat in one significant way.
The article lacks any data or evidence to back the many claims about returning to the office made throughout the piece.
“But now some business leaders say that their remote work experiment results are in. They feel emphatically that they need some in-person time.”
I truly hope they’ve disclosed the results of the experiments. Is there data to back claims that the experiments fell short of expectations?
Mark Ein, chairman of Kastle, is quoted as saying, “Now that things are tougher, they want to hunker down and have their people in the office.”
Mr. Ein is referring to the fact there’s been a lot of layoffs and economic uncertainty in the tech industry. It’s hard for me not to translate “hunker down” to a desire to have tighter control of my people by having them in the office.
I do want to give a shoutout to one CEO in particular. Manny Medina, CEO of the company Outreach, is quoted as saying:
“You can interrupt each other without being rude when you’re in person. In a Zoom conversation, you have to let somebody finish their thought.”
Based on this reasoning, Outreach has cultural issues that have little to do with whether they work remotely.
So, the question is, what do we do with this debate?
Let me turn to Edward W. Demming for guidance on this issue:
“In God we Trust. All others must bring data.” — Edward W. Demming.
Demming is trying to tell us that decisions made based on facts are far better than decisions made on beliefs and ideas.
People are also more likely to follow you when decisions are based on facts.
Now, I will concede that teams might collaborate, innovate, and deliver more while in the office. However, I am still waiting to see someone back such claims up with any meaningful data.
If anything, the pandemic forced us into a position where we proved that remote work can be effective. We just need to change how we think, communicate, and manage the work.
Without evidence, though, it feels like these decisions are being made based on thoughts such as:
“If we can’t see them, how can we trust they’re doing the right thing?”
“Innovation and collaboration can only be effective if we work face-to-face.”
“We need them here to better control what they’re doing.”
I used to advocate for in-person teamwork as being the most effective way for teams to collaborate.
Shortly before the pandemic, when most people were in the office, a team I was coaching was asking to work from home one day per week.
At first, the manager denied their request as she believed the team wouldn’t be as productive.
However, the team kept pursuing this idea and proposed an experiment.
Together with their manager, the team devised an experiment, including how they would know working from home wasn’t detrimental to the team’s output.
They would look at indicators such as features delivered, defect counts, and customer satisfaction scores to indicate whether the experiment had a detrimental effect. (note: these were long-term measures rather than measures of only work-from-home days)
The team’s experiment was deemed a success, and this team continued to work from home one day per week up until the start of the pandemic.
There were a couple of factors which made the difference for them:
The manager gave the team the responsibility to define, measure, and run their experiment. They were given the autonomy to make it work in their own way, and their manager gave them any support they needed.
Their measures included qualified and quantified indicators defined before the experiment started. This meant that everyone was clear on what would constitute a successful experiment.
So, rather than rushing to return to the office, why not ask your teams to devise an experiment to find their best way to work?
At best, the experiment is highly successful, and they find a more productive way to work.
At worst, the experiment falls flat, and they return to the office.
Oh, wait, that’s not the worst, as either way, the team will be more bought into the direction you take.
Maybe there isn’t a worse side to this approach.
So, what are you doing about this important topic?
Are you in the race towards how things used to be?
Or are you looking to build upon what we’ve learned about work these past few years?
I know companies that build on what they’ve learned will be far more successful than those that are rushing to return to how things used to be.
People will always find ways to collaborate more effectively, whether in-person, fully remote, or something in between.
What are you doing to help them find their best answer?
You’ve got this.