What Would You Do If You Were Ordered Back To The Office?

The right people don’t need to be managed. The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake.

– Jim Collins, From Good To Great

A recent news story described how many companies want employees back in the office as they slowly get vaccinated against COVID-19. The reason cited by an employment lawyer was a drop in productivity by pyjama clad employees. Really? As far as I’m concerned, that’s a reductionist simpleton’s view of the situation. Productivity issues most likely existed at the office well before the move to remote work. They were just hidden behind a façade of productivity concealing a flurry of last minute instant in-person interactions.

The employment lawyer interviewed went on to warn that those who refuse to return can be fired. On the other hand, a work-from-home survey referenced in the story, found that 33% of employees working from home would quit their job if they were forced to return to the office full time.

Sounds like a line in the sand has been drawn.

I don’t dispute the sentiment of employers and employees described in the story. What bothered me was the adversarial tone pitting management against employees. As if they had nothing in common. We are all people first and our positions second. This pandemic has been the great equalizer as a common threat to all people regardless of place in the hierarchy.

I wonder how many of those 33% were managers?

According to another work-from-home survey, 68% of remote people work on weekends and 45% regularly put in more than 8 hours per day. So the drop in productivity isn’t for lack of trying on the part of most employees.

Another story reported one U.S. oil refinery CEO who, unlike his competitors, ordered his employees back into the office. I would understand if the employees were fully vaccinated. However, that order happened in July of 2020! Well before any vaccine was available. What was he thinking? It’s one thing for the CEO to exercise his personal beliefs but to force the consequences of his beliefs on others is unconscionable. He claimed to have a desire to get more people back on the roads driving to get the economy going again. Really? And I suppose it had nothing to do with the 3.2B his company could lose in the 1st half of 2020?

I wonder how many of that CEO’s leadership team felt fully at ease with his decision?

That one word “ordered” conveys all that is wrong with Taylorism in today’s reality.

So, before employers start ordering and firing employees for not returning to the office, why not check the pulse and read the sentiment of the people first.

Here’s a compilation of findings from some work-from-home surveys. The one on the left is from May 2020 and the rest from March and April of 2021.

Looking at the data, there may be more in common than one would think. Between 70% and 89% of people polled want to return to the office in some capacity. At the very least, new insights and possibilities may emerge for everyone to consider for the unknown path forward.

With that data in hand, why not take the opportunity now to try something different?

Here are a few examples I can think of.

  1. Did you forget to engage some key management stakeholders in an urgent decision? No problem, we’ll just reach out to them down the hall and get their approval. Crisis averted. With everyone remote working, that simple visit “down the hall” has turned into a frantic search across every virtual channel. Decisions take longer and longer as you multiply the latency of all-virtual interactions. The façade of productivity has been ripped open by remote work to reveal the deeper root issues that had always been there. They were just hidden by the complacency afforded us by the relative ease of interactions within our centralized physical offices. How easy it is to blame remote work for longer decision-making and a drop in productivity. When all along, we could’ve taken the opportunity to question the decision-making process itself. Do we really need the CEO to sign off on the purchase of a $100 expense that a front line worker feels will create a better client experience? What’s the worst that could happen if the front line workers made the decision themselves? How could it benefit our clients?
  2. I wonder how many companies are investing in new on-line collaboration tools rather than continuing to stubbornly push old, functionally deprived collaboration tools onto employees. Outdated tools that were barely effective at the best of times. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s more than a tools issue. Even when bandwidth is available to take full advantage of video calls, people continue to turn their cameras off impacting the effectiveness and efficiency of virtual communications by up to 55%. #VideoON.
  3. And what about access to information? The lack of information transparency within our secure workplaces was already a productivity sapper before COVID-19 . Now out in the wild, it seems that the information we need to do our jobs is harder and harder to come by.

Yes, there may be a few bad actors out there using remote work as another excuse to do less. However, at the same time, the data indicates an overwhelming majority of people can’t wait to get back into the office. Without being ordered or under threat of being fired.

Our old ways of working including decision making, collaboration and information sharing have been broken by this pandemic.

We have 2 basic options to deal with it.

  1. Do nothing & complain. We can wait to get everyone back in the office and accept the productivity drop in the meantime, as just another casualty of remote work.
  2. Do something & learn. We can get off our collective couch of complacency to try something different. Experiment, evaluate and learn. Rinse and repeat. Maybe we’ll even be pleasantly surprised when productivity in the wild rises beyond what has ever been possible in the office.

I think for most of us, the choice is clear.

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