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Going Back to the Office … Well, Maybe

| September 21, 2021

by Jim Bruce

Going Back to the Office … Well, Maybe

[Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.]
This week I build on last week’s essay and turn to the topic of our returning to the office. By the time you receive this Tuesday Reading, you may already be back in the office, either full or part-time. Nevertheless, I do want to offer some comments.
As we reopen our campuses, our offices and resume in-person work, the watch word is to be cautious, mindful of protecting our health and the health of those around us, at work and at home. If you are not vaccinated, seriously consider getting vaccinated. In fact, your organization may require you to be vaccinated and to submit to regular tests for COVID. For example, MIT’s policy1 requires vaccination for all students, faculty, and staff on campus, unless a medical or religious exemption has been granted. Masks are required indoors as well as regular weekly testing for all people who live, work, or study on the campus.  Other universities and public schools have similar policies in place. And some, particularly companies and public schools, have already delayed their dates to resume in-person activities, even to early 2022. I expect that we will see others follow this pattern in the coming days.
And, vaccinated or not, for your health and that of others, wear a mask even if not required when you are indoors with others, and, if at all possible, avoid situations where you anticipate encountering infected individuals.
Now that I have made the point that we are still in the middle of the COVID pandemic AND that COVID is likely to be around for some time into the future, I want to turn to issues that you need to consider as you plan to return to the office. (While I realize that many of you will have made that transition, I think that my list of things to think about still might be helpful.)
Back in March 2020, when employees moved from their organization’s offices to working from home, there was initially a lot of broken functionality. There was no time to plan and coordinate with others in your work group, in your household, children’s schools went to online learning at different times requiring lots of at-home support, etc. And, there was not much thought about how individuals might interact and work with others on their team and in their organization. Over the intervening 16 months, most of the bumps-in-the-road have smoothed out. And, for many, home has become a place where you enjoy working and where many of you report working more effectively.
As we now plan to and execute going back, we should take advantage of what we’ve learned to design practices that will serve our organization and each of us individually to enable better work. To that end, we need to access what we have learned.  Daisey Dowling, is a short essay suggested that we look at our accomplishments during these past months and that we paint a mental picture of the future we envision. Here is a short list of key things I have learned:

  1. Begin by carefully considering the needs of those you have been living with in your “pod.” Pay particular attention to needs for childcare, to schooling plans for any children, and to anyone else who has special needs of any kind. At least in the Boston area, while some public schools have begun, some are still adjusting schedules and changing their plans. Think through how these needs interact with how you would like to work going forward.
  2. Not everyone wants to return to working in the office. In recent Harvard Business Review essays2,3 reporting on a survey of 5,000 Americans, employees want to continue to work from home an average of 2.5 days per week.  The distribution is broad with about 1/3 rd of the respondents wanting to always work from home and 1/4 th wanting to always work in the office. The survey also indicated that a large fraction of the employees would look for another job if required to be in the office full time. This survey also reported that only 16% of their companies expected employees to be in the office full-time when the company “re-opened.”  
  3. Managers need to talk with each employee about returning to the office. (If you’ve already returned and did not have such a conversation, you might schedule that conversation now.) Employees will be concerned about having the conversation. Managers are also likely to be concerned. It is important that each person in the conversation feel psychologically safe, know that the other’s cares about their needs and concerns, and know that they are respected. These conversations are awkward but very important and necessary. Staff will want to be treated equally. They will want to understand the policy about working from home. Some staff will be concerned as to whether their co-workers are vaccinated, whether they will wear a mask, etc. Others will not want to disclose their vaccination status or whether they might have been exposed to the virus, etc. These and other issues are difficult for both managers and staff to discuss but it is absolutely necessary to have individual conversations with your staff members about them. Developing an understanding of these issues will help in forming a new norm for the office that everyone can be expected to conform to. 
  4. When you have conversations such as these, both the manager and the staff member must know their own priorities. For example, there may be some risk if you insist in working from home. Or, even though it might not violate the “rules,” you might be socially marginalized if you confront an unvaccinated individual – a coworker, your manager, your manager’s boss – who doesn’t wear a mask. Your anxiety in situations such as these decreases when you make the decision based upon what matters the most to you. If you don’t make these prioritizing decisions as you are planning the conversation, you may turn your anxiety into resentment.  
  5. A final point to made has to do with the effectiveness of working from home. As noted earlier some 75% of staff want to work at least one day per week at home. Many organizations have voiced opposition to any amount of working from home if conditions indicate staff can work safely in the office.

The NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) has studied4 this issue and concluded that most arguments against working from home fall into four categories:

  • Productivity will decrease
  • Culture will suffer
  • Innovation will suffer
  • Hybrid work is inherently unfair.

Let’s examine each of these arguments:
Productivity will decrease — A two-year study of 80,000 employees of Fortune 500 companies found that “most people recorded stable or increased productivity levels after employees started working from home.”
Culture will suffer — Research shows that our shared daily habits – how we interact, collaborate and communicate, and how and when we speak up – make up the culture and not whether we are physically face-to-face. Research has shown that hybrid work actually presents the opportunity to accelerate formation of these habits and to strengthen our culture. We learn the habits that make up our “culture” by watching others, mostly unconsciously and copying their habits, and by practicing what we observe. This is what leads to an organization’s culture. And virtual work, Joy VerPlanack4 argues, gives us more opportunities to observe the habits of others.
Innovation will suffer — A study published in 2010 reviewing the work of more than 800 teams found that individuals are more likely to come up with more ideas when they don’t interact with others. Insights tend to emerge from moments of quiet.
Hybrid work is inherently unfair — Studies have shown that people working remotely may not be as visible to their supervisors and others in the office. This may introduce biases that result in fewer opportunities and promotions, lower salary increases, and fewer exciting projects.
Three of these four arguments are supported by NLI research and the fourth can be addressed by a review of (and possibly changes to) an organization’s policies and practices.
In concluding this essay, I want to note that this pandemic has thrown the world into an unprecedented state, like nothing it has ever experienced. Individuals, organizations, states, and nations are coping in their own ways to address and make set the pandemic. It will not likely go away soon or easily. We each need to pay attention to what the science is telling us and to make it safe for ourselves, our family, and for others within our reach. While we would each like for it to be back like it was before this virus surfaced, that is not going to happen. Until the virus is controlled, and that will take months if not years, we have to act safely for ourselves, our families, and others within our community.
Be safe.  .  .  .  jim

  1. Jennifer Chu, 3 Questions: Peko Hosoi on the data-driven reasoning behind MIT’s Covid-190 policies for the fall, MIT News, August 21, 2021.
  2. Joseph Grenny and Derek Cullimore, How to Have Those Difficult Return-to-Office Conversations, Harvard Business Review, August 13, 2021.
  3. Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven H, Davis, Don’t Force People to Come Back to the Office Full Time, Harvard Business Review, August 24, 2021.
  4. Joy VerPlanack, 4 Big Debates About Hybrid Work, and Why They’re Overhyped, The NeuroLeadership Institute, July 13, 2021.