10 Stage Guide to Planning Your Return

ALSO: burnout as a business model / Zoom-free-Friday

Make Work Better is a weekly newsletter about work & workplace culture. This week’s is a summary of what has come in the twelve months’ worth of newsletters until now. It’s a cut-out-and-keep guide to helping you decide what to do next - it’s designed as the perfect resource to share with your team.

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With the prospect of the return to offices now just weeks away many firms are going through identical processes of trying to work out what they should do when it comes to using their workplaces.

Should they return to offices full-time? Should they try to adapt to the changing expectations of workers? Beneath a lot of the thinking is a sense of fear, what happens if things go wrong, can we put the toothpaste back in the tube?

Having been writing about these things for the last 12 months I thought I’d pull together all of the best thinking that I’ve witnessed to help you and your team to reach a decision at your workplace. Consider this a ten step guide to how to make the right decision for your firm.

For most firms they aren’t considering going fully remote, but rather a hybrid of office work and homeworking. (To avoid getting lost in semantics I’ve referred to this as remote working here).

Here are your ten steps to shaping your firm’s approach. There’s more detail on each of them down the page. Even if you plan to be back in the office full-time there are elements that you can consider here.

  1. This is a time for experiments not decisions

  2. Evaluate the components of work in your teams

  3. Ok then, what was the office for?

  4. Now, reflect on what your workers want

  5. Take a look at what other firms are doing

  6. How do you address the needs of your business?

  7. Consider the Network Effect of the office

  8. Propose an experiment

  9. Explain how you will measure it

  10. Other things to consider…

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1. This is a time for experiments not decisions

A lot of firms right now sense they have some of the answers… but who can be really sure?

They are worried that the productivity they’ve seen during lockdown might be lost when we return to a normal world.

They fear never being able to get hold of colleagues on Fridays, as they start treating life as a 3 day weekend.

That’s why the most important thing that any firm should do right now is let their teams know that they’re about to embark on a series of experiments that will help the company evolve towards finding the best way to get work done. No one knows the answers - prepare them for this. U turns are embarrassing. Experiments are fun.

Interested in this? you might find this discussion with David D’Souza from the CIPD helpful

2.Evaluate the components of work in your teams

As commercial real estate thinker Antony Slumbers tells us ‘no firm had an office because they wanted to own an office, they had an office to create a productive workforce’. If you want your team into the office every day because that’s what you were raised with, that is perfectly understandable, in times of uncertainty it’s instinctive that we become anxious and seek to exercise more control. This is another reason why experiments are the next stage for the moment we’re in.

Let’s look at other industries and it will help us reflect on our own professions. Consider a visit to the doctors for example, it gives us a glimpse of how this moment of re-evaluation has been helpful for that sector.

For me, a discussion with a health professional last week helped give me a powerful perspective, ‘we’ll never go back to needing everyone in the waiting room of the surgery again’, one doctor told me. ‘We had people queueing for 7 minute appointments, having to take time off work, and then spend time waiting. We’ll never go back, it’s woken us up to how much we can do on phones now. It’s forced us to use the technology that’s been here for years’. 

Metaphorically, a lot of us might be trying to get patients back to the waiting room in our own jobs. This is an important time to reappraise what job we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it. If we don’t there may be competitor companies who use this moment to revolutionise their offering.

Consider a sales team for example, your business might have been based on sending sales people to visit customers five to ten times a week. In the future, even if you want your sales people back in the office 5 days a week, will their customers be in their offices on those days?

Maybe then your team will be selling via screens irrespective of your decision.

The research firm Leesman tell us that the number one frustration with offices was noise.

Will your sales people resent the fact that they can’t make their video sales calls feel special when they’re struggling to be heard in your noisy office? Maybe even the model of sales calls is going to have less cut through than creating experiences for customers?

Are you asking yourself tough questions about how the world is changing or are you trying to offer horses to a world that wants cars?

Interested in this? you might find this discussion with Antony Slumbers to be helpful

3. Ok then, what was the office for?

The office had 5 main functions: 

a) It was a place to meet people by appointment

b) It was a place to meet people by accident

c) It was a workshop to do our best work

d) It was a place of congregation - we could foster team cohesion there

e) It was a place of learning

It’s helpful for any of us, no matter how instinctively we might want the office to come back in the way it was to reflect on which of these we will want to accomplish with our return because workers have had their eyes opened to trying things differently. 

If you’ll indulge me let’s think about these for a second…

a) It was a place to meet people by appointment - we’ve made a lot of progress here. Video meetings are the same but different ,we know that. If we’ve learned anything over the last year is that when we’re away from each other the number of video calls seems to increase - Microsoft say they’ve more than doubled.

It might be fair to ask ourselves, ‘what have more meetings displaced?’ One thing you might want to consider is the modality of meetings - down the page on point 6.

b) It was a place to meet people by accident - There’s lot of evidence for this (here’s some by iconic researcher Sandy Pentland) but beware of rose-tinting the office. How much of your day was spent head down doing emails or in meetings. Can you get the accident by focusing it on a small amount of time together in the office?

c) It was a workshop to do our best work - if you had team members with big screens or who met customers face-to-face the office really was a workshop to achieve elite results

d) It was a place of congregation - we could foster team cohesion there - don’t underestimate the importance of being together with your team. We love being around other human beings.

e) It was a place of learning - when we look into the Leesman data about satisfaction with remote working, younger employees report feel sadder about them losing opportunities to learn from more experienced colleagues. If you’re not rethinking your learning strategy you’re possibly failing your employees.

4. Now, reflect on what your workers want

This is really critical, it’s easy for us to think that firms can make unilateral decisions about what will do but there’s reason to believe that workers have valued some elements of remote working and will change employers to preserve some of it. There is a critical market effect that we need to consider, we employ workers because we make our firms appealing to them. If you want to remain attractive to employees then you may need to ask ‘shall we make this change now or be forced to do it when colleagues quit and we can’t replace them?’ Here’s a summary of the data about remote working:

5. Take a look at what other firms are doing

If there is a Market Effect of working then we probably should consider what firms in our market are doing. Very few of them are going back 5 days a week. If you’re going to ask for the team to back full-time you might need to articulate why, and explain the strategic advantage that the other firms have missed.

Fully remote: Reach, Twitter, Nationwide, Spotify, Dropbox, Coinbase

Three/two or two/three: Rightmove, Lloyds, HSBC, KPMG and many more

Back full-time: Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs.

6. How do you address the needs of your business?

One of the things that we need to ask is how are we servicing those 5 Functions of the Office?

Some firms are saying that they will gather in person for divergent thinking and use Zoom/Teams calls for convergent thinking (more on this here). Assessing your philosophy of this is going to be really critical. Experimenting with which meetings are best, where is going to be a way to harness the upside of hybrid working.

If you’re ready to ask really fundamental questions you might reflect on whether the way you’re working is just… wrong. In the last 12 months we’ve increased our meeting time 2.5x - we’re spending longer than ever on emails and video calls. Is that sensible. Business provocateur Cal Newport wonders whether we might be better ditching email and Zoom for a kanban-based method of working. Hear him talk about it here.

7. Consider the Network Effect of the office

Above I mentioned that one of the benefits of the office was meeting people by accident. In the misty eyed moments of the autumn we found ourselves thinking that the office was like a bustling Marrakech market - colleagues thrusting ideas into each others’ hands as an inundation of innovation overwhelmed us. In reality it wasn’t quite like that. But if we are to tap into the moments of productive serendipity then we need two things: slack capacity and overlap of availability.

Sandy Pentland’s work does support the idea that much innovation comes from the weak ties of connection between teams who aren’t formally meant to work together.

8. Propose an experiment

Don’t make this too complicated. In fact it might be best to invite teams to propose their experiments and how they will measure productivity/satisfaction. Create some rules that allow teams to frame what they are mandated to try.

The spirit of experimentation was very much in evidence last week when the CEOs of Slack and other tech firms discussed what they were proposing to do next - ‘I cannot f*cking do eight hours of zoom calls per day for the rest of my life’ said Stewart Butterfield.

9. Explain how you will measure success

The most critical detail that many firms will miss is that teams will want to know how experiments are being evaluated. For many workers they feel the last 12 months has been the experiment and - despite the chaos of home schooling and never getting out of the house - it’s worked.

Now, they want to know that if trading continues to be strong and customers remain happy that the experiment will have the chance of taking hold. Whether the success metrics are defined by the firm or by the team themselves this stage is critical. It’s instructive that the companies who are rejecting remote working are generally talking about 'the need’ for us to be together or ‘the feeling’ of working as a unit - vague and hard to push back against.

Bear in mind (as from the top stories down the page) that 54% of workers report feeling burned out and overworked. Employees say they are willing to move jobs to find something that is better for them.

10. Other things to consider…

I’ve said before but be in no doubt, remote working is a diversity and inclusion issue - ask yourself what is the profile of the bosses making the decision. Can you canvas a wider perspective to ensure that all voices are being represented?

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Now to this week’s normal newsletter - forgive the length!

Burnout as a business model

Continuing the news from the consultancy sector. An exec at Deloitte was forced to give up her leadership position after being called out for aggressively summoning her colleagues to 7am meetings. (Don’t worry, don’t worry, she’s staying at the firm). Across the whole sector consultancy firms are finding that workers are getting fed up with exhausting conditions (PwC here). One piece in the FT last week said that the firms were already getting frustrated with Gen Z workers wanting to take their laptops and work away from their desks.

A lot of people were baffled by the Goldman Sachs story, why would someone sell their youth and health for money. If you wondered that then former banker Tushar Agarwal’s Twitter thread helps explain things.

In The Joy of Work I spent a lot of time exploring the impact of this, not least covering a wonderful paper by a former banker turned psychologist Alexandra Michel who reported how overwork led to bankers becoming desensitised to life, seeking to jolt their body into feeling things by increasing amounts of spending, drug-taking, drinking and heavy use of pornography.

Tushar’s thread says very similar, ‘We all want money and status to a degree. MORE money and status, FASTER than anyone else, is the true motivation for 100hr weeks in banking’.

Michel’s research paper reported countless examples of what Tushar experienced, ‘Within 2yrs, I put on 15kg, started losing hair, what hair I had left started going grey, developed RSI so bad I lost feeling in 2 fingers for 3 months, my hand would spasm randomly and I would just drop what I’m holding’.

None of this is a surprise to the employers, it’s just all of the senior executives see it as a hazing that they had to experience, so why should they spare the next generation of kids? Goldman introduced ‘the Saturday Rule’ years ago (where workers’ badges wouldn’t get them into the office on Saturday so erm… surely that means they won’t be working). Last week they re-announced the Saturday Rule. It’s a hoax. Like buttering up Adam Grant* and Scott Galloway they are fighting a PR fight that is challenging their business model.

(*Adam Grant did a PR piece for his client Goldman Sachs on the Power Moves audiobook)

Make Work Better is created by Bruce Daisley, workplace culture enthusiast. You can find more about Bruce’s book, podcast and writing at the Eat Sleep Work Repeat website. Get in touch by hitting reply.