The WTF...err...WFH Issue

The WTF...err...WFH Issue

*This article was kindly contributed by Leo Borges author of The LeadTech newsletter (subscribe here).

 

In March 2020 the largest scale Work From Home experiment was forced upon us. Companies had to shut their offices and allow their employees to work from home whether they believed they could do it or not.

Fast forward to May 2022 and few would argue this forced experiment was anything other than a success.

Yet, as the world adapts to the new normal — a normal where less restrictions are in place and people are able to gather again — we can hear the faint yet persistent voice of years past requiring their employees come back to the office….or else.

When companies do this, they usually cite two main reasons: productivity and culture.

Productivity

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

While the thought experiment above raises questions regarding observation and perception, I can’t help but think it’s applicable here too. Managers in most companies who are requiring knowledge workers to come back to the office seem to have a fundamentally flawed perception that if they can’t see people in the office, how could they possibly know that work is actually getting done?

They say if they can’t observe work — watch the tree fall — they can’t know if work has been done — or that the tree has actually fallen.

In both cases, the answer is in observing the output. You can go back to the forest later and indeed see that the tree has fallen, even if it didn’t make a sound.

The same must be true of work. As a manager, you are entitled to verify output - and that is what we should be doing. Whether the output was created from a cubicle in NYC or a beach in Belize shouldn’t make a difference.

The thing is, having a distributed team demands more from leadership. Without the benefit of face-to-face interaction everyday, leaders need to invest more time into setting goals, context and constraints. The more information your teams have in their hands, the better the decisions they are able to make.

As leaders, we need to be willing to put in the work. This brings us to the second most cited reason for wanting workers back in the office: culture.

   

Does culture need an office?

Culture is what people do when no one is looking — Herb Kelleher

I love this quote because it is so true. Carrots and sticks only go so far.

The dictionary then defines culture as follows:

[…] the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.

Culture is what a group of people do as well as the ideas they hold. This makes sense. Culture evolves over time, people self-select into groups they identify with, people who share similar values.

However neither of these definitions mention that culture happens only when people are together at the same location. That is not the case and we have many examples in the open source software community that can prove that. I’ll pick just one: the Linux kernel.

The Linux kernel is a 8 million+ lines of code project with thousands of contributors from all over the world, most of which have never met other contributors in person.

Yet, few would argue that joining, contributing, and remaining an active member of the project is governed by a strong code of conduct that outlines how people interact, what the quality of their contributions should be and many other behaviours and values that are expected and enforced by the open source community. All without an office. All without Zoom calls.

For those unfamiliar with how incredibly successful the Linux Kernel is, these stats should put it in perspective:

  • In 2021, 100% of the world’s top 500 supercomputers run on Linux.

  • Out of the top 25 websites in the world, only 2 aren’t using Linux.

  • 96.3% of the world’s top 1 million servers run on Linux.

  • 90% of all cloud infrastructure operates on Linux and practically all the best cloud hosts use it.

Ultimately no, culture does not need an office. What it needs is:

  • Transparency

  • A clear set of values

  • A way to hold each other accountable

  • A well defined way of communicating and making decisions

All this can be done in or outside the office.

So what happens to offices?

People are different.

A new graduate who’s on her first job is still building her network. They value every opportunity to mingle and get to know the people they work with.

A single parent who’s been in the workforce for a while has different needs. It’s hard for him to be at the office and still do school drop-offs and pickups without feeling like he’s missing out.

So it’s true there is no one-size-fits-all, which is why I believe the future of the office is all about intentional and meaningful connection.

Instead of requiring people to come back to the office every week under the excuse of “productivity” or “building culture”, we need to make it useful.

Set aside a few times during the year where you’ll gather the team in the office for the purpose of building connection through team events, workshops, quarterly kickoffs, celebrations, recognition and other activities that encourage participation from your teams.

Companies like Gitlab, Github and Zapier have been doing this since long before the pandemic. And others like Atlassian and Airbnb have fully embraced remote work. Canva has also embraced remote working and has a guide with tips on how to do it effectively.

I believe this offers the right level of balance between flexibility and face-to-face interaction.

I for one am deeply appreciative of the flexibility remote working brings. It’s not without its challenges but its benefits seem to be worth the cost.

What are your thoughts?

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