Co-authored with Michael Göthe.
As we emerge from the exceptional conditions of the pandemic, the topic of distributed work (WFH or work from anywhere) vs on-site at the office has been the hot topic during client meetings and lunch discussions at training events.
There are always many differing, even divergent perspectives. One client complained, “People refuse to come back to the office; what can we do?” Another proclaimed: “There is no way I am going to spend 2 hours commuting to the office just to have coffee with my colleagues. There must be a real reason”. Another was sure that the real reason their company mandated a return to the office was to justify a flashy office building they invested in just prior to the pandemic. A running joke is about the things we used to apologise for at the start of the pandemic: bad lightning, lousy sound, and bad wifi at home; we now have to apologise for again when doing virtual meetings in the office.
Big companies like Apple, H&M, & Tesla as well as small ones are all grappling with so-called hybrid work and facing criticism for mandating their staff to return to the office. There seems to be a growing disconnect between workers who want to keep the freedom and ways of life that flexible work practices allow and companies who seem set on returning to pre-pandemic ways of working. Adding to the complexity is the emergence of phenomena like quiet quitting (disengagement), the great resignation, and, more recently, large numbers of layoffs, especially in the tech industry. It is clear that workforce dynamics are in flux, and we hope companies don’t waste this opportunity to bring about significant change.
Hybrid work is complex.
The shift to remote or distributed work went extremely fast during the pandemic, as companies had no choice. Under crisis conditions, people tend to pull together and trust in leadership. Also, thanks to the crisis, it was possible to question and circumvent long-held policies that previously prevented distributed work.
Efforts to return are proving to be a different story. Now people and companies have options. Workers have experienced a new way of life (not only work) and are questioning the motives of leaders and organisations trying to force them back to modes of living and working they no longer want.
Finding new ways forward is, therefore, much more complex than the pandemic crisis response. Now, every company or team has to find their own, fit-for-context ways of working, and there is no obvious or one-size fits all solution.
Attempting to transition to so-called hybrid work is a complex process filled with competing values, priorities, and emotions. Company decisions severely impact people’s life decisions, e.g. where they choose to live, e.g. rural or urban, quality time spent with family or on self-care, and balance. Yet few companies seem to recognise this complexity and process with overly simplistic, formulaic policies with little nuance. Proposed solutions often go to extremes. For example, leaving it up to every individual when and whether they come to the office with no organising principles or mandating everyone to be in the office on particular days without a clear purpose for having to do so. Both of these options create unintended consequences and undermine potential benefits.
Some of the challenges we see in client organisations include the following:
- When all the relevant people aren’t in the office simultaneously, people spend their time in virtual meetings they could have done from home (often, several people dial into the same session from different desks!). When this happens, the rationale for being in the office, like enhanced collaboration, creativity, and culture building, falls flat.
- Offices are not set up for hybrid work. When people need to work remotely in the office, they struggle with adequate bandwidth, finding private space for conversations, good lighting, sound quality, and other practicalities.
- Resentment builds and undermines culture and trust in leadership … people rightfully wonder why they must needlessly commute and give up precious time with family for no real reason. Often people become cynical, questioning companies’ motives and whether the need to come to the office has more to do with justifying infrastructure spend (e.g. flashy office buildings) or managers’ need for control and the visible trappings of status like corner offices.
- Leaving it up to individual teams to decide how they want to work inevitably leads to a sense of inequality as those managers who are uncomfortable with managing remote workers may insist on people working in the office. In contrast, others may allow fully remote work.
The stakes are high:
- Talented knowledge workers can work from anywhere and for any company anywhere in the world.
- It becomes harder to recruit talented workers. One of the first questions potential employees ask is what the company’s remote work policies are.
- Unhappy employees who are unable to leave increasingly become resentful and disengaged. Large numbers of actively disengaged employees have significant implications for productivity and morale.
- Well-being suffers as people waste time on needless commutes or spend too much time behind a screen with little or no real human interaction.
- Ineffective onboarding and mentoring processes negatively impact new (especially young and inexperienced) workers.
For hybrid (or any way of working) approaches to be effective, they must be purposeful and fit-for-context. Context-free or one-size-fits-all policies or approaches that seem devoid of purpose almost always fail. Rigid mandates from the top don’t work, and neither does laissez-faire, “leaving it up to self-organisation” approaches, as self-organisation needs constraints to be effective.
Managing constraints, therefore, becomes critical. Some situations may require more rigid governing constraints, while others require flexible enabling constraints. The task of senior management and HR therefore shifts from control, to managing constraints to create the conditions for experimentation, co-creation, and emergence.
A complex approach … the Waysfinder:
In the next section, we will explore some of the practical constraints to consider through the lens of Sonja’s framework called Waysfinder. This accessible constraints-based framework can help companies create coherent exploration spaces to experiment and co-create new ways of working with their staff.
It is a process of collective wayfinding that starts with orientation.
Most of us tend to move to action or solutions too quickly. However, in complexity, we have to start with an understanding of the current situation to find the evolutionary potential in the present … i.e. where can we go from where we are now? So begin by assessing (honestly) where you are now. You can ask questions like:
Are people near burnout? Are they already resentful towards the company? Can they handle significant changes now? Are our reasons for returning to the office valid, or are they based on outdated assumptions or a fear of losing control? What is the nature of the work we do? Are there parts of the workforce that cannot work remotely? What are our competitors doing? Are our offices set up to accommodate virtual work?
2. Set direction.
It may not immediately be obvious, but setting a direction is setting a constraint. Choosing one direction means excluding others. It is essential to note the difference between direction or intent and a narrow goal. Three days per week in the office is a goal, not a direction. Direction often links to a purpose or WHY. What is the real reason behind the chosen way of work? Simply saying it’s “to preserve culture” or “to promote collaboration” is not good enough. What is the real reason? E.g. “People need people, AND people need freedom. We want to explore ways of working where we can have both.” The key here is that this needs to be broad enough to set direction that can serve as a way to test the coherence of experiments but not so narrow that it becomes a fixed goal.
3. Define boundaries.
When we have an idea of where we are and the direction we want to evolve into, we need to create boundaries for the explore space (some view these as guardrails).
There are two kinds of boundaries to consider here:
a. Firm, hard, non-negotiable limits.
- These are constraints we can do nothing about. We have to comply and work within them. Some are imposed. For example, we must comply with labour laws in the countries where we operate; we cannot treat staff in ways deemed unfair or unsafe labour practices. Others are internal non-negotiables. E.g., we cannot exceed a particular budget; or whatever we do cannot compromise on the service we provide to customers or staff well-being.
b. Flexible boundaries.
- These are more flexible constraints we choose. Often they are linked to values. E.g., the in-office time has to be purposeful; our approach is to “try and learn”, be experimental and have fun while doing it; we will practice being COOL — Courageous to try new things, Open to trying and failing; Observing patterns, and context; doing something with Lightness and a playful spirit. They can also be more practical. E.g., every team needs to have in-person time once every two months to ensure connection (note we don’t specify when, where, or how). Or certain kinds of events need to happen in person, e.g., staff induction sessions or planning meetings. Workers can choose to relocate, but they must carry the cost of mandatory meetings.
Direction and boundaries create a cone of possibility or option space. Within this space, we can explore adjacent possibilities and affordances, i.e. we can start evolving from the present. It is vital to note that every constraint we remove, adapt or create changes the landscape of possibilities or affordances that are available to us.
4. Create enabling conditions.
Once the option space is defined, our focus shifts to the resources, skills, and support structures needed to adequately explore the options available to us and create adaptive capacity.
Design attractive workspaces or activities that attract people to the office.
- Ensure sufficient bandwidth in office buildings and support those working from home.
- Privacy — cubicles or booths vs open offices
- Proper lighting, cameras, and other equipment
- Open spaces for connection, collaboration & socialising
- Good coffee!
- For example, an insurance client completely changed the layout of their office building to afford social interactions, team workshops and quality virtual interactions. They minimised individual desks and created spaces for social interaction, designated virtual working studios with green screens, cameras and high-speed internet. They didn’t mandate that people come to the office a certain number of days. Instead, they supply infrastructure at the office that is not readily available elsewhere.
- Another client example is a policy that any team or individual who committed to being in the office minimum of three days a week got a designated work space they could design to their liking. Others have to make do with whatever “hot desk” was available.
Create scaffolds for cultural coherence — monthly company-wide conversation themes. A South African bank created an online system where people could indicate when they were planning to be in the office so that others could plan to be in the office simultaneously in order to connect or work together. This prevented needlessly going to the office only to find that no-one that you wanted to meet with, or “run into” was there.
Foster a sense of belonging and psychological safety regardless of in-office or virtual. Find ways to ensure human connection and quality relationships irrespective of whether interactions are remote or in-person. A Swedish client explained how team members take turns facilitating a fun social 30-minute team event every Wednesday. It could be playing a game or treating the team to a “fika” (Swedish coffee break).
5. Ensure adequate feedback for fast adaptation.
Finally, we need to put in place effective and fast feedback mechanisms.
- Short-term evaluation criteria and fast cycles to speed up learning and enable quick adjustments.
- Longer term monitoring to ensure that we are heading in the desired direction, and that our boundaries remain relevant.
- Obtain customer feedback to ensure changes aren’t hurting customer service.
- Regular check-ins and accessible mechanisms for real-time experiential feedback, i.e., make it easy for people to share stories of their actual experiences. Similarly, enrol everyone in contributing ideas for improvement and change … that is the essence of co-creation.
This collective wayfinding approach enables different parts of the organisation to find the emergent ways of working that fit their context while remaining coherent to the whole. It helps managers to move away from top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates and encourages flexibility. A by-product of this approach is increased complexity fitness, i.e. greater comfort with uncertainty, ambiguity and emergence, which in today’s world is no longer a nice-to-have.
Find out more about the Waysfinder here.