Return to the office - what are you doing?

Mark Lewis
June 5, 2023

The Complex Return-to-Office Dilemma

Return to the office - what are you doing?

It’s a complex question without an easy answer, adding to the challenge are major contextual drivers:

➡️ A tight talent market, give employees what they want or risk losing them

➡️ What’s good for the team might be at odds with the individual

➡️ How do we ensure a collection of individual choices benefits the whole?

➡️ Different roles and circumstances are more compatible with remote work

Finding Balance in a Polarised Environment

Developing a flexible work policy is all about striking a balance, but with strong opinions across the spectrum, where exactly is the balance? Getting it wrong can create a backlash eg Apple this month.

A policy that’s too tight may not meet individual needs:

🔒 Impacting ability to integrate work and life

🔒 Making employees feel disenchanted from a lack of trust

🔒 Increasing cost of living with commute expenses

A policy that’s too loose might not meet the needs of the team:

🔓 New team members may struggle to forge relationships

🔓 Junior employees not seeing/hearing role models of what good looks like

🔓 Empathy for each other may drop without the regular flow of casual conversations.

Personal Choices and Common Biases: A Delicate Dance

My principles bring me back to creating the right environment vs telling people what to do, in a belief that the real solutions lie within ourselves.

But letting people make this decision on their own can have challenges too. Not because of malice or poor intention, but because many of us suffer from common biases, for example:

🛣️ When granted total freedom to make a decision, human nature will often choose what is easier for oneself over what is best for oneself. eg. If it’s beneficial for me that I’m in the office x days a week but it feels like too much effort on the day, I might just stay at home. Similar to go to the gym or stay in bed - I know which I choose.

🤔 If I take a purely individualistic decision as to what suits me for when and where I work without considering the impact or needs of other team members, I might be inadvertently reducing the effectiveness of others on my team.

Crafting Policies That Work: Freedom with Guidelines

How might we create a policy that works if we shouldn’t tell people what to do, but at the same time ceding the decision to employees may be problematic?

I would argue for a policy that offers a high level of freedom at the organisation level, with scope for managers to co-design arrangements with individuals on their team. This avoids the dangers of a one-size-fits-all and allows a more granular discussion around individual circumstances.

Managers and team members can together contemplate nuances of the role, the team, work/life integration, wellbeing, ways of working, etc.

An Enduring Win: Building on Mutually Rewarding Relationships

Clearly, there has been a pendulum swing of power from employer to employee which has left employees with significant scope to call the shots. If the policies being made now are rooted in a mutually rewarding employer/employee relationship (not a power imbalance), these flexible work arrangements can become an enduring win for all, even when the pendulum swings back.

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