Home IT management Swipe In Or Fall Behind: Key Leaders Continue Endorsing The Office

Swipe In Or Fall Behind: Key Leaders Continue Endorsing The Office

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Swipe In Or Fall Behind: Key Leaders Continue Endorsing The Office

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The office has become a lightning rod topic for many professionals. On one end, most C-suite leaders recognize there is an exponential value-add from being in the office with some consistency. On the other end, most employees value and now expect the convenience of virtual work, whether you are the individual contributor who codes twelve hours a day, the working parent who saves valuable time without a traffic-filled commute, or the professional who now appreciates the long weekend that begins on early Friday afternoon. This dilemma has left many leaders in the precarious position of trying to define the right level of in-office time required to maintain high levels of team effectiveness and Company culture. Some executives argue that the “coordination tax” is too high in the hybrid world and that speed, outcomes, relationships, organizational connectivity, and mentorship that drives development all suffer from remote work. Recently, Sam Altman, the Co-founder & CEO of OpenAI, said “the work from home experiment is over,” calling it “one of the tech industry’s worst mistakes ever,” as reported by Steve Mollman of Fortune. He is among a growing chorus of top executives across industries calling for a return to the office at least some of the time.

To highlight the lack of professional development and rust associated with a pure virtual work environment, The Financial Times reported that companies like PwC and Deloitte in the UK are intentionally offering extra coaching and learning opportunities to recent graduates who are still coming up the curve on core professional skills, like teamwork and communication. This was not necessary with previous cohorts before the pandemic. With some of the first large studies on the impacts of fully remote work coming out, there is a strong case to be made that newer executives will need to play catch-up on their development. While “The Power Of Proximity To Coworkers” study by Natalia Emanuel, Emma Harrington, and Amanda Pallais is relatively narrow, the authors said in an interview with The New York Times that their findings suggest something broader: “that the office, at least for a certain type of white-collar knowledge worker, played an important role in early-career development. And the mentorship and training people get in person [has] so far proved hard to replicate on Slack and Zoom.”

The key to making the office an effective tool going forward is to use it properly. Just going back into the office physically is not going to be sufficient for reaching high performance and achieving the value-add of being in-person together. The office should not simply be another place to get on video calls but rather should be set up intentionally for employee “density days,” where efforts requiring in-person collaboration, ideation, and editing can take place. This way, flex days can be even more productive since in-person team elements that facilitate and ensure consensus on critical work have already occurred.

There are a few other critical elements of successfully re-entering the office, and they all center on being highly intentional on how you spend your time in the office:

The goal of bringing everyone back to the office, at least some of the time, is to enhance the in-person aspects of work and boost high-performing teams. One significant disadvantage of the virtual environment is the inability to have substantive discussion and debate at the team level, where individuals can engage in and edit ideas together. Creativity, innovation and high stakes decision-making all require you to challenge assumptions and hypothesis test in order to make the outcome better. The muscles to effectively do this have not been used regularly for the last three years, so the process of re-entry into this type of in-person interaction will require many executives to go to “manual mode,” overriding the automatic version of themselves to use these muscles again. Because everyone needs practice, the probability of someone annoying someone else in the process of discussing and debating issues is high. This leads to “behavioral friction,”in which team members are working through difficult personal dynamics with each other rather than working on advancing ideas together. One simple process workaround is to assign someone on the team who is credible on the topic to become the devil’s advocate. Their goal is to challenge assumptions and support the editing and refinement. By giving someone permission, you can proactively remove some of the behavioral friction that might occur when someone clumsily enters the conversation and upsets another team member.

Emphasizing relationship-building in the office is important to sustain a high level of team performance. Strong relationships facilitate trust building, which is the fuel for a high performing team and organization. There are two types of relationships: transactional relationships and what I like to call “empathy-based” relationships. The test of your relationship is when something goes wrong, does the person point the finger and assign blame or do they give you a heads up, jump in, and problem solve? Empathy-based relationships take time to invest in so you may need to identify a key set of colleagues based on the work you need to get done, and the key people who you need to engage with to achieve your desired outcome. The virtual world creates a more vertical work environment, requiring higher effort to coordinate across the organization. It becomes easier for people to stay in their silo and force outcomes with their best interests in mind rather than working to operate across the organization and deliver optimal enterprise outcomes. By spending time with critical colleagues in-person to establish or reestablish trust, the individual and the teams they sit on can increase their outputs and overall performance.

In a virtual or hybrid environment, context, or the ongoing flow of information, is also significantly reduced. When you combine this with the multivariate, ever-changing external world, context becomes one of the most important currencies of high performing individuals and teams. If you want to increase your own effectiveness and support those around you, turning context setting into one of your management habits will do just that. This can be achieved through simple practices like saying “let me share two minutes of context before we begin,” or asking for context if you don’t receive it. By creating a shared understanding, you avoid wasting time continually searching for context. As context changes often, it is important to develop a personal process for continually setting and asking for context to stay aligned, especially when working across teams or departments. One of the key benefits of being in-person together with some frequency is that context flows much easier, weather it’s the sporadic lunch with colleagues, the ad hoc hallway run-in, or the walk out of the conference room when you find out the information or perspectives not actually shared with the whole group in a meeting.

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