Office politics: avoiding the new wave

The curse of hybrid video calls & the facetime battle in the office to come

It’s a strange time to be optimistic and forward looking when thinking about work. The impact of coronavirus has never been more acute, with new case numbers rising almost vertically after the Christmas period. That said it seems even one shot of vaccine is transformational for the health of recipients.

Based on that, and based on the figure of 30m people being regarded as the priority targets in the UK, we are conceivably 15 weeks from some degree of relaxation - a date that puts us into May 2021. (Refreshing this chart each afternoon has become my daily obsession). Even with inevitable slippage, it’s not impossible for us to start thinking that the second half of this year will see some degree of stabilisation - and the opportunity to think about a new equilibrium for work. (I recognise a moment watching the news makes this optimism seem quixotically deluded but I’m ever hopeful).

When it comes to the new equilibrium, there’s no point planning for the future when it’s upon us, smart companies will charge a team of colleagues to start preparing for September 2021 right now. The critical thing for anyone is to look down the road and to understand what they are planning for.

Here are 4 considerations that you need to take into account when you’re planning ahead. Beware pitfalls lie ahead!

Have no doubt, offices are getting smaller from now

The great office downsizing is underway: A Bloomberg analysis of thousands of earnings calls found that many of them included commentary about reducing office space.

More than 50% of companies in a separate UK survey said they planned to reduce their office footprint.

A norm of offices configured for meetings, coworking and to entertain customers is going to become standard. Meaning that those firms who choose to hang on to more space will be consciously choosing to have higher outgoings. A higher cost strategy is sustainable but there will be pressure from shareholders and owners to prove the justification.

We’ve shown that working from home is possible, now the burden of proof will be on working full time in the office. For most firms smaller will be the default, so plan on using space differently. But a smaller office means that some people will use office space as a sign of hierarchy - if you allow certain leaders to have designated desks that will immediate signal a two-tier culture. Knowing how committed you are to the new world is a vital consideration to be baked in from the off.

Co-working & events are going to have a huge 2022

A few months ago I talked about the disruption that we’re in the midst of could be the salvation of WeWork, and it increasingly seems to be the case. Flexible coworking seems to be the solution that many firms are increasingly looking at.

One of the limiting factors for changes in the commercial property market is the length of leases. Small firms tend to have short leases, bigger firms are committed to longer into the future. The Guardian newspaper were one of the firms who found themselves seeing that they no longer needed huge offices especially as things were working so well remotely, but - they explained to unions - a 10 year lease prevents them from reaping the benefits of downsizing.

Firms who have been caught out by their landlords approach are likely to have long memories. Expect that more firms will trial WeWork style solutions in the short-term and have an honest discussion about what they really need as they go into 2022.

As we start honestly breaking down what we really need the office for there’s no doubt going to be a focus on the moments when we do gather together - internal and external conferences are going to be celebrated like never before.

Hybrid video calls are worse than remote video calls

Anyone who has seen colleagues return to the office at some point this year may have witnessed something that we’d forgotten about video calls: there is an issue when some people are together in person while everyone else is dialling in - in-person/video hybrid calls.When everyone is on video calls dialling in individually there is a balance. Each image on screen represents a voice. One of the things that many have observed is that video calls often achieve an unexpected harmony - quiet people are heard, discussion can become more inclusive.

Hybrid video calls achieve the opposite of that.

When there are multiple people in a room dialling into a call what happens next is a reflect of the power balance of those calling in. If the co-located people are bosses in a boardroom then the other callers will quickly observe that they are merely spectators to the real discussion taking place back at HQ.

What’s the solution? If you have meetings in the calendar it’s worth trying to get these done when people are working from home or all in the office but not a mix.

A lot of people have reported that meetings that are status meetings work well remotely, those which are arranged to spark creative ideas seem to work best in person.

Knowing how to best schedule these things can help determine which days teams are in the office. And on the subject of that…

Being in the office can’t become a status symbol

If you’ve ever worked in an office you’ve witnessed office politics. A tiresome version of workplace Game Theory where needy colleagues can try to best each other by disingenuous actions to win favour. Now imagine that where making the daily commute suddenly becomes a way to win favour and ascend the ranks.

Firms who don’t check this may find that the workers without domestic responsibilities, or with shorter commutes, suddenly look more eager, hungrier. In contrast those people who are dialing in on Zoom each day look less committed. In the face of career downgrading those who can make a change soon might find themselves taking on a daily 2 hours of commuting time to avoid being sidelined in their jobs. Before you know it we’re back to a culture of toxic presenteeism and facetime to win favour.

The alternative will be that firms will need to be more deliberate. If not prohibiting workers to come in on their ‘home days’ then ensuring that they discourage it.

The biggest recognition facing firms as they head towards their new workplace cultures is understanding that where we work is just one factor in designing productive working. Ensuring that workers are working together productively without fear of workplace politics will have a much bigger impact than desk layout.]

I wrote something for HRD about how resilience is best considered as a collective - rather than individual - strength.

Embarrassed as you need to hold an awkward smile while you find the Leave Meeting button? End your Zoom calls with a little more closure:

Free ticket: I’m speaking at Innovation@Work, a free event by The Economist in February.

There is no better podcast guest to kick off 2021 than Amy Gallo. Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review writing about workplace dynamics and emotional intelligence. We had a great discussion about where the disruption of 2020 leaves us - and what the challenges are for anyone trying to build strong workplace culture in 2021 (and beyond). Apple / Spotify / website

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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. I spend a couple of days a week pulling this together so if you find it valuable the best thing you can do it send it to a few like-minded colleagues.