So You've Decided to Bungle Your Company's Flexible Work Plan
The Four Most Popular Bungles and Four Very Straightforward Alternatives
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Last month, I was discussing the U.S.’s back-to-work plans with a vice-president of a large U.S.-based company. Like a lot of companies, their grand plans just keep getting delayed. “We tried going back to the office,” he sighed. “And everyone got Covid.”
The under-5 vaccine may just have been approved in the U.S., but that doesn’t change the office’s status as an ongoing vector, particularly given the rapid spread of BA.5, which frankly does not care that you just got Covid two months ago. And as this VP noted, the rise in gas prices has made it even harder to convince people to make the commute to the office, particularly in a city with a ludicrously bad public transit system. At this point, he said, people had been working almost entirely from home for more than two years. They’d figured out their rhythms. Individual teams had decided out how and when to be present together. No number of Taco Tuesdays were going to bring people into the office unless there was an actually good, sensical reason to be there. And if the company forced it, people would either complain and be miserable — or, given the still tight labor market in this particular field, leave for a job that was more flexible.
A lot of organizations have found themselves in a similar situation — and, to be honest, it’s not a horrible place to be. Sure, they need to think about the future of their office space, and start tracking equity and promotions within the org and how it correlates with time in the office. They almost certainly need to make onboarding and mentorship programs more robust. But most people are probably pretty content with the way things are, and are willing to very gradually make changes to make things work even better — for both themselves and the company.
This is no small feat, and it happened largely through iteratively planning, but also delaying (and delaying again, and again) any sort of company-wide mandate. It’s fairly rare for inaction to have this sort of relatively positive outcome, but I also think it just stands in contrast to how so many organizations have bungled their more forceful plans. So here are a few of the Bungle Themes™ I’ve noticed over the last few months — and I’m eager to hear some of your bungles (and successes) in the comments.
1.) The Ghost Office
This is what happens when you tell people to come in once or twice a week — but have little to no communication about why they should come in, or for what purpose, just that they need to be present. In practice, this policy results (even in fairly large organizations!) in employees coming into an office that feels deserted and lonely — and still, in many cases, having meetings on Zoom. If you want to make people resent the office and feel like it’s totally useless, this is the very best way to do so.
The ghost office was a problem nine months ago and it’s still a problem now, usually because a company is scared to formulate any guidelines or doesn’t even know what those guidelines would be. The reason? It likely doesn’t really understand how or when people work, and when and how it would be beneficial for them to work in the presence of each other, so it’s just…..treading water. Paying for the same amount of office space. Bungling shit up.
The alternative: Spend some time actually listening to employees about when it would be valuable for them to be together, and mandate a day in the office that is consistent and easy to plan around (for those who need childcare or have to commute). This will take concerted communication time, and most managers and leaders will need to take something off their plate in the short-term in order to make it happen. But ignoring the problem isn’t working. Snacks will only work in the short term.
The best solution I’ve seen for organizations that actually want to keep the same office presence as before: Monday as a sort of “anchor” day in the office, then teams figure out when and whether they want an additional day in the office later that week. (Or, maybe you actually don’t need an office at all, but stipend for a co-working space! Proceed to #4).
2.) Toxic Inconsistency
Many companies hired new people during the pandemic with the understanding that they could work remotely or in a hybrid fashion — and that expectation was made explicit in their contract. Employees hired before the pandemic, however, don’t have that explicit allowance — and some companies are forcing that set of employees back into the office. This is a recipe for such potent toxicity, I honestly can’t get over it. It’s a swamp for intra-organization resentment.
But not all inconsistencies are that obvious. One worker told me that their organization has what amounts to a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, with managers responsible for each individual’s requests for flexibility. This might *sound* like a way to empower manager, or, I dunno, decide on a case by case basis, but again: resentment swamp. It functions as a massive source of gossip, and is a straight-up inequity machine. What if your manager doesn’t have caregiving responsibilities and you do? What if they love their cubicle and want to marry it and have no understanding of why anyone would not? What if two people with incredibly similar jobs on two different teams are told two wildly different things about in-office expectations? I don’t care if one person has been with a company for fifteen years and the other for only two, this is not deciding whether or not someone is old enough to stay home after school alone and microwave their Bagel Bites. Stop doing this.
The Alternative: Some organizations can function with a one-size-fits-all policy. Others have people doing very different sorts of work that demands variability. If that’s the case, leaders need to very clearly communicate to the entire organization why you need to have different policies for different teams, and also make sure the team-specific policies themselves aren’t arbitrary, like, “Dave likes the office, so that’s what his team is doing” or “engineers are introverts.” Leaders can then continue to iterate as needed — while being transparent about when and why those iterations are happening.
3.) The Half-Ass
One worker told me that her organization is trying to figure out a hybrid scenario: they’ve set up cubes for “hoteling” (which is kind of like longer term hotdesking); they’ve told people they can come in as little or as much as they’d like, so long as they declare their set-up. But no one is following through, and there’s a vague threat that managers can ask underperforming workers to return to the office, and no guidance for managers trying to negotiate the new hybrid system, other than the suggestion to watch a LinkedIn learning course on best practices.
In the meantime, leaders are messaging the company about the importance of creativity and collaboration — without putting forth any policy to actually facilitate it. People keep leaving for positions in more lucrative fields like STEM, and managers feel powerless to prevent it. “We’re not doing awful,” she told me, “but it’s not great, either.”
Just so we’re clear: providing a link to a LinkedIn video is not hybrid management training. Same goes for an optional webinar. Hybrid management is a difficult, complex skill, and company’s refusal to acknowledgment as much is a primary source of current office dysfunction and dissatisfaction. The half-assed approach to hybrid work is similar, in many ways, to the overarching failure of organizational DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) efforts: someone decided it would be a good thing for the organization to pursue, but then put no resources or organizational energy towards actually making it happen. The organization has a policy but no actual practice.
The Alternative: Companies in this position are probably grappling a bit with #1 (Ghost Offices) and need to think about #4 (What is the Office For). If they want to keep with a hybrid, they need to put the other half of their ass into the equation and actually figure out what structure will work. That, AGAIN, probably means soliciting employee feedback and actually listening to it — and also taking real time and effort to listen to how managers are struggling. Organizations ultimately need to acknowledge (and financially and organizationally support) the labor to figure out how to make it work for their particular needs (and stop pretending a webinar helps anyone).
4.) No One Knows What the Office Is For
When a worker is told to come into the office just because and they end up doing the same tasks they would have done at home — only with more expensive lunch options and added commute — they begin to doubt their organization’s value system. Do the company leaders actually care about productivity? Do they know how you do your job on a day to day basis? Do they have any understanding of what actually makes people work better?
More than two years into this paradigm shift, the vast majority of organizations still have not done the labor of figuring out what work demands presence. Is the office for meetings? For creative collaboration? To meet one-on-one with your manager? For other people to note your presence and quietly surveil you? For the “magic” of passing each other in the halls? The first two are good reasons to be in the office. The third one, meh. The fourth one can jump off a cliff into an abyss of bad management books. The fifth just makes workers feel like their leaders are treating them like children. Again: you can’t get people on board with being in the office if they don’t know what the office is even for.
The Alternative: Actually, finally, figure out what the office is for. If it’s just for collaboration, then re-engineer it for collaboration, and use the money you save in downsizing to give each employee a stipend for their home office and internet. One worker told me that her organization has clarified that the office is for “four Cs” (Connect, Collaborate, Create, Celebrate); otherwise, you’re free to work from home. (You’d have to be careful not to have every meeting be “connect,” but you can see how this could work).
If the office is legitimately for nothing, make the difficult decision to get rid of it, and start figuring out how you’re going to do to make your remote culture more transparent, robust, and conducive to work.
It’s hard work — truly, much harder work than many realized then or even realize now — to radically change the way a large percentage of population organizes their day and labor. But it’s also a pretty ridiculous and exciting opportunity to actually look closely at the work that we do, the when and how and why of it, and work better. More mindfully, more intentionally, more efficiently, and with more control over how and when we do it. I still think that’s possible, and I think a handful of organizations are on the path to creating the sort of culture that both attracts and retains workers. Not because the work is so highly paid or so desirable or because the snacks are so good, but because the when and how and why of it make sense.
Compensation is the number one way to honor an employee’s labor. Benefits underline the worker’s value as a person in the world, outside of work. And taking the time to make a company’s policies make sense, to align with the character of the work itself and the backdrop against which it is done — that’s how an organization shows its respect. And that — that’s magnetic.
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I think this all makes sense and agree completely that companies need to figure out what is the office for.
I feel like an oddity in this time we are in as I know many people (who have the privilege to work from home) are absolutely thriving in it, and I don’t feel like I am thriving. I miss seeing people in real life. I had a baby and moved and got a new job during the pandemic, and without going into work, I don’t know how to make new friends and connections in my new city. I feel isolated and honestly I mourn the fun and friendships I used to have in the office.
I think I am probably an anomaly because I don’t see much discussion about the isolation of WFH, and so I just wanted to put it out there in the hopes of feeling a bit less alone.
To be clear, I don’t miss commuting and I’m so grateful for the extra time with my kid. I know there are many benefits to WFH. I’m really glad it’s making life better for so many people. I also know it’s probably kind of effed up that the only way I know how to make connection and establish friendships as an adult is in the workplace.
But I’m pretty introverted and it takes me time to feel comfortable, so I need a lot of time around people to build connections. And I’m a working mom, so I don’t have much free time for time intensive activities outside of work.
Anyways, it’s a strange new world and maybe I just need more time to get used to it all. But I agree if companies could better articulate what the office is for, maybe it would help everyone, no matter where you sit on the WFH preference spectrum.
I feel like most of the excuses for staying in office really boil down to: "We are afraid of losing our work community which was not really a true community to begin with but we sure did like to delude ourselves that it was and we'd really like to continue with that delusion. Thanks!"