We’re Botching the Return to Office Conversation

 
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The most common theme in the return-to-office debate is whether remote work is productive.

I’m worried about how we’re managing the return-to-office transition. We’re pretending the issue is productivity while actually fighting over control. And with our attention on those debates, we’re missing the damage being done to our work communities. We need a reset.

The pandemic upended the power balance in the employment relationship.

It’s Not About Productivity

On one side, happy remote workers argue that they’re more productive because they don’t spend time on primping, commuting, or escaping from Andrea, the office gossip, after ill-timed trips to the coffee machine. On the other side, managers aren’t buying it. In a recent Microsoft study, 85% of managers report being “paranoid” that their remote employees aren’t effective.

This is, as they say, an empirical question. Fortunately, we now have evidence that, for the most part, productivity is slightly higher for remote or hybrid employees, primarily because they work longer hours. So, we’re arguing about productivity when data suggests that remote productivity isn’t a problem. So, leaders, let’s move on, shall we?

The Current Fight is About Control

What we’re really fighting over is control. Managers want to wrest their power back. They’re clashing with employees relishing their newfound control and determined not to revert to how it was.

It’s no surprise that leaders want to observe people in their chairs. Most have no other way of gauging productivity because they’ve never figured out what performing looks like. They’ve never defined outcomes. Instead, they contented themselves that people were “busy” or “working hard” by gauging how fast they typed, how frantically they ran between meetings, and how stressed they looked. Now they can’t see any of that; they’re left with a sinking feeling of being cheated.

They face motivated adversaries—employees who want to maintain control of how they integrate work and personal responsibilities, control over whom they have to look at, talk to, and smell, control of the thermostat, coffee strength, and the number of plies in the toilet paper. I get it. If you’re an employee who’s created an environment ideally suited to you, why would you want to give that up?

Dig one level deeper, and the concerns become even more legitimate. For example, remote work means that when you have a sick parent or child, it no longer necessitates a vacation day for a one-hour doctor’s appointment. If you have ADHD, you finally have a set-up that helps you be successful. If you’re a visible minority, you endure fewer micro-aggressions.

Leaders, we need more empathy around the magnitude of the sacrifice we’re asking people to make. I’m not saying employees shouldn’t be back a few days a week; I’m asking you to acknowledge how big of a request that is for some people.

Community is Worth Fighting For

Once you empathize with the toll office work takes, you can make a case for why it’s worth it. And the reason is all about community.

In honing their remote work routines, employees have created tighter and tighter cocoons around themselves. Managers have allowed it. They’ve worked so hard on creating SMART goals and driving individual accountability that they’ve forgotten to articulate their expectations for what it means to be a good team player or upstanding organizational citizen. If we measure people’s performance based on how many lines of code they write or how many reports they produce, we have no leg to stand on in encouraging them back to the office. They will write more code if we leave them be.

Only once we define people’s roles as contributors to healthy, productive teams with clearly articulated expectations for responsibilities beyond their individual tasks (such as supporting people who are developing, contributing to others’ ideas, and identifying risks and assumptions in plans) will we be able to justify returning to the office. Managers need your direction and your help on that.

Tame the Meeting Monster

While we’re at it, leaders need to make one more critical change if we expect employees back in the office three or more days per week. We need to take ownership of the mess that is our current work week. According to research by Microsoft, employees are sitting through 250% more hours in meetings now than before the pandemic, averaging 21 hours per week. If we add the average email burden of 12 hours, that’s 33 hours, leaving only 7 hours to think, read, research, coach, ponder, reflect, write, analyze, prepare, and pee.

Those who work remotely then reinvest 40% of those savings into work. That adds up to half an hour more every day for your employees to respond to emails or do tasks that didn’t get done during the workday because they were in meetings from dawn to dusk.

As a leader, where does the overflow go if you stick with the current meeting and email burden and now require employees to return to the office? The only place to get individual work done is earlier in the morning (before the commute), later in the evening (after the commute), or on the weekend.

For many knowledge workers, asking them to return to the office is asking them to divert more and more personal time to work. That’s a bad deal. I don’t blame them for rejecting it.

Remote workers save an average of 72 minutes daily by not having to go to the office.

Workload has become unmanageable. Many employees are keeping their heads above water by repurposing the time they used to spend commuting to squeeze in some of the work that was squeezed out by a steep increase in meetings. If you want people back in the office more often, you must address the meeting bloat and the email monster.

This fight is about more than our empty offices; this fight is about the future of work.

You have an opportunity to reset in a way that’s better for business and better for humans. Stop talking about productivity; start talking about community. Define what’s non-negotiable and throw everything else open. Deal with the bloat in your meetings and email.

Lead the way.

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