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The Great Office Migration?

& Change Management, Leadership, Management.

As pandemic-related restrictions ease, small businesses are wrestling with a myriad of options regarding how/where their employees will work. While there is research to help guide this decision making, it is important to recognize that the context of this information must be examined. No one has experienced a global return after a global forced exit before. We will not return to “normal”, whatever that was. While the departure was rapid by necessity, there is no need to return at that pace.

Pre-pandemic, a meaningful proportion of people believed “Work From Home” (WFH) was a euphemism for “time off”. Hopefully, the past 18 months have persuaded them that most adults can actually be trusted to do the work they are paid for, whether their boss is watching or not. Likely some will say that is true only when the entire global workforce is at home.

What The Research Says On WFH

Statistics Canada did some surveying on the productivity of people working from home, the results of which were released April 1, 2021 (but were not a joke). The focus was on new teleworkers – those that had not been WFH pre-COVID19. They found that 90% reported being at least as productive (accomplishing the same amount of work per hour) as they were when working from the office. Of the 10% that were less productive, 20% said it was due to a lack of interaction with co-workers. That means two of every 100 workers found a lack of interaction with their co-workers hampered their productivity when at home. 98 of 100 didn’t. The leaders that are insisting productivity will suffer without a return to the office may want to reconsider that position.

They also measured peoples’ preference to return to the office. It turns out that we are humans, not machines, and productivity is not the only factor of note. While productivity at home did not suffer, our feelings of belonging, and camaraderie did. We’re lonely at home…at least when we’re at home all the time. Only 20% of those surveyed would prefer to remain permanently remote. Culture and in-person interaction matter.

Interestingly, the Statistics Canada findings mirror those that our clients have been reporting. Some have been surprised by the results, particularly that many of their teammates would prefer to permanently work remotely. “20% want to remain remote?! What about our culture!”

When it comes to culture, we’ve learned that we need to get way better at building and reinforcing it. Throwing a company picnic and ensuring the water cooler and coffee machines are full is insufficient and exclusionary. For example, some functions in business have always worked outside the office at least some of the time. Take the construction industry. The divide between the “field” and the “office” is real. We’ve often been told the field feels they work harder than the office while the office resents the lack of overtime pay for their late nights. In manufacturing, the “plant” can feel they are working harder while “sales” is out of the office on the golf course. But the constant air travel and time zone changes make “sales” feel they are the ones hard done by. There are many alternatives to bridging those legacy gaps. Now is an excellent opportunity to hit the reset button. Belonging is an important motivational tool and should not be left to chance water cooler gatherings or “it is what it is” thinking.

What To Ask Your Staff

If you complete a survey of your team and find that more people are looking to be out of the office than you expected or prefer, some of the nuance may have been missing from the questions you asked. Whatever remote work looks like now, it will change as some people return to the office. The initial preferences may not hold when people start missing having lunch with their colleagues or are struggling to participate virtually in an in-person meeting with ten people. When asking peoples’ preferences of remote vs. in office work, it might be prudent to ask for their ideas on how to make a hybrid solution work.

“If some of us are fully remote, some fully in the office, and some hybrid, what are your suggestions regarding:

  • Maintaining company culture?
  • Reducing the effect of proximity bias?
  • Having set hours when people must be available?
  • Reservation systems for desks to avoid unnecessary overhead costs?”

Asking these questions will start to paint a picture of the vast array of options and that, whatever today’s experience is, WFH will not be the same in the future.

What To Do

As you work through your company’s specific approach, do your best to reduce uncertainty. You don’t need to know what the policy will ultimately be, but you should endeavour to let everyone know when you will have a decision, the decision-making process you will follow, and how you will let people know.  

When it comes to the decision-making process examine your own motives and bias. Does everyone really need to be in the office to be efficient or do you just like to be around people? Whether you prefer home or office, try to remove your bias from the decision-making process. If your business has delivered better than ever results in the WFH era, maybe work really can occur anywhere.

Thrusting the entire workforce into WFH happened quickly and by necessity. There weren’t many decisions to be made but there was a lot of adaptation under stress. The return to regular work doesn’t need to be that disruptive. You can decide not to decide. For example:

“Now that we’ve got the “all clear” to return, we’d like to use the summer months to test peoples’ preferences and see what works and what doesn’t. Please work from wherever you please, and we will revisit in September with a formal plan by October 1.”

Let everyone work from wherever they feel most productive this summer. More productive at the office on Tuesdays and every third Wednesday? Do it. More productive at the office in the mornings only? Do it. No need for the office? Enjoy.

We have NO IDEA what results a hybrid model will bring, particularly when all businesses around the world are returning at the same time. Every business is unique, but for most small companies, there is little downside to some experimentation before the decision is written in stone.

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