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Navigating the return to office

When the world started going into lockdown, we saw an unprecedented rise in productivity from home. Talks about the “new normal” started popping up in each conversation. I was always wary of those that professed remote work to be the “new normal” because the pandemic lockdowns were too big a factor in the productivity rise we witnessed.

Unsurprisingly, as the pandemic receded, most organizations started talking about “back to office” initiatives. Managers cited productivity as the main reason, leaders cited culture. Most workers, though, showed a clear preference for WFH. Most people settle on some poorly thought through middle-ground of “x-days-from-office” and everyone continues to argue about how absurd the others’ position is. I want to propose an explanation that reconciles these arguments and attempts to provide a more objective view of how to navigate this hybrid hell we’re living through.

I believe, to be able to think through these different opinions, it is important to understand what each of these parties understand as “work”. This nature of work model talks about 4 types of work.

  • Deliver: Predictable daily work that usually requires your individual skills to get done
  • Design: Predictable future focused work. Typically requires many experts to come together
  • Strategize: Unpredictable future focused work that requires a mix of expertise, intuition and risk-taking. The main work here is not to come up with the strategy but to get the stakeholders to buy into the strategy. This depends heavily on creating alignment and conviction.
  • Deal with: This is the fire-fighting quadrant. Work here requires quick decisions and quick action following the chain of command.

Most people have a mix of these types of work to deal with but one of them is likely to be dominant for each one of us. This can also shift over time (in fact even day to day) for each one of us.

An argument for remote work

The group that’s most passionately arguing for remote work is the practitioners. Developers, testers, graphic designers, product owners, experience designers, et al. This is also the most voluminous cohort of the entire workforce of the world.

Most of the practitioners have a dominant Deliver quadrant. They have (usually a LOT of) predictable-urgent work to get done. For the most part they need to do it themselves. Whatever collaboration might be required can easily be achieved with the at their disposal. A daily commute, socializing, team-building events, etc. only get in the way of them trying to deliver what they know they can deliver efficiently from their place of remote work.

No doubt they think coming to office is a waste of life.

The SMEs

Tech leads, Senior POs, Product Managers, Architects… They are usually not dealing with just day to day deliverables but also creating new solutions, products, assets, frameworks to deal with problems / opportunities in the future. The Design quadrant is dominant in their work. It requires them to collaborate with other experts and talk about abstract ideas that are difficult to convey concisely. This is the kind of stuff that is easily done in hours on a whiteboard but takes weeks and months over zoom calls.

This is the group that also needs to think deeply, to be able to solve the problems in their field while collaborating with others to ensure the whole system hangs together.

They see the benefits of sitting remote and focusing on deep work but also understand the benefits of quick face to face collaboration. But they would want to do it on their terms, so an x-days-in-office policy can actually be counter-productive for them. Moreover, their office is probably not equipped for the purpose they value face-to-face meetings for… deep collaboration.

Note: This applies to product oriented agile teams where synchronous design with a cross-functional team is the norm. There are functional organizations where even design work happens in a sequence and hence this concept of all experts coming together doesn’t apply.

The Managers

The group that is most passionately arguing for “back to office” is the managers. They are worried about productivity dropping but I feel that’s a poorly worded argument for the real trouble their work causes them. These are more experienced folk in the organization, and they spend most of their time in the Deal With quadrant. Unfortunately, in most organizations, this means that they are constantly in fire-fighting mode to keep multiple stakeholders happy and remove hurdles from the team’s path.

A LOT of the managers practice “hands-on” management. They feel they can be more responsive if they can minutely adjust each team member’s work on an almost hourly basis. They can’t adjust what they can’t see. So even if they don’t believe people are outright slacking off… they are naturally skeptical, whether the remote workers, truly understand the priority this very instant and are acting accordingly.

No doubt they want people to be present in office.

Note : This is especially true in an agile software delivery setup where the manager has to deal with multiple team members and stakeholders simultaneously to make progress in a firefighting situation. In a lot of organizations, where the pre-dominant style of management is hub-and-spoke, it is the managers making all the decisions and orchestrating their team members’ activities. They might find “remote” suitable enough for their style.

The Leaders

This group is thinking strategy. Abstract ideas about how to win in an unpredictable environment. For this group, it’s the easiest to agree amongst themselves to spend certain amount of time face to face; they all understand the benefits of doing so. Also, the stakes for staying out-of-sight are too high for most people here. So, whether to show their commitment, pounce on juicy opportunities or for real camaraderie during difficult times, this group is likely to hang together in office, frequently.

This is also the group that wakes up worrying about the future of the business. They want all employees to take an active interest in the future of the organization and go above and beyond the day-to-day work. Their argument is “cultural deterioration” which again is a poorly worded argument for long term employee engagement.

They would “like” employees to come to office but it’s not a tangible problem for them, so they typically leave it at high level intent / soft nudges unless they are overrun by the managers. They are also typically responsible for retention and are cautious of backlash of strong back-to-office policies.

The compromise

And so, we live in a constant compromise. X-days-a-week in an office, not built for what it should really be used for. Deep collaboration, socializing, alignment & conviction towards the future of the organization and only rarely, firefighting.

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