CEO That People Thing Ltd
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Working from home wears thin, but is the office working?

The novelty of working from home is wearing thin for many, with some finding the setup less productive than the office. But is a return to the office the right solution?

26th Oct 2020
CEO That People Thing Ltd
Columnist
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A worker is drained when working from home
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A recent question in Any Answers about whether to ignore the most recent government guidance to stay at home elicited a large response.This, after the government had days previously been encouraging us all to return to ‘work’ just underlines how unpredictable the next few months are going to be.

“The lockdown work from home was a really unproductive period for us, mainly due to a large bottleneck with my time being slashed in half with childcare responsibilities,” said AccountingWEB reader At least I sound knowledgeable. 

Inevitably the discussion becomes ‘How do we make the office safe?”, “How many days should people come in to the office?” and “Do we follow the letter of the guidance or its spirit?”

All of these are the wrong questions.

These are the wrong questions

It may well be true that you’ve seen productivity drop, staff complain of feeling isolated and a lack of energy and enthusiasm you would normally see in the office. The natural solution would appear to be to get peope back to normal as soon as possible.

But WFH is not the problem. Rather than quick fixes to return to ‘normal’ we need to ask bigger questions that get to the heart of the opportunity gifted us by this pandemic.

For people to do their best work, what is the office for?

Our primary responsibility as leaders in a firm is to ensure people can do their best work.

For 250 years we’ve assumed that people do their best work in an office. We can see them there so we know they are ‘at work’. The building creates a sense of belonging. There’s a meeting room and everyone can see you there (or not). Hierarchy and status are communicated in subtle ways through size of office and plushness of carpet.

People learn how to game the system by sitting close to the boss (proximity to power) or further away where they can’t be seen. And they are able to hide their responsibilities outside of the workplace – it’s easy to assume that, because they turned up today they don’t have a sick child, a sick parent or a dog that has destroyed half the living room.

But does all of this ensure they are able to do their best work? No.

A building isn’t the same as culture. We know this because when you take people out of the building the culture falls apart.

  • Just because people are present doesn’t mean they are efficient; and
  • Just because you’re at the meeting doesn't mean you’re adding or getting value.

The office wasn’t working

The ways the office wasn’t working were familiar and therefore acceptable. But that wasn’t optimal by any means.

The second part of the question is ‘What’s the office for?”

This is a much better question than ‘How many days a week should we ask people to come in?”.

If you have no suitable place to work at home, a desk and a quiet place to work has value. That doesn’t have to be the office. Covid may mean a ‘third space’ isn’t an option right now but for many a co-working space or a coffee shop near home is far preferable to the office an hour’s commute away.

The office is great for accidental conversations, connecting informally with colleagues and playing around with ideas. If you want to dive in to a complex document, think deeply, power through your emails or even attend a meeting you may as well be home.

 

It’s the nature of the activity that should determine why people come to the office, not a random number of days. We need to rethink what the office looks like – move from desks and workstations to communal dining and comfortable seating (none of which works well with current restrictions).

Boundaries, balance and trust

Yearning for a return to how things were is avoidance of how things are and how they are going to be. We’ve experienced the good, bad and ugly of WFH. And while we want to address the bad and ugly, no one is going to be willing to lose the good.

We thought WFH was about tech. We now know it isn’t.

We need to learn (and help our staff to learn) how to create boundaries. We need boundaries between work time and home time, between meeting time and non-meeting time, between doing-work and thinking-work. We need boundaries around when we can be contacted and when we can’t. And we need to learn how to set expectations around those boundaries and hold ourselves to those boundaries or we will quickly burn out. Without the enforced going home time of the office we will have to grow up and take better care of ourselves.

We also need to understand work-life balance in a new way. As work and home blend we need to take care of our mental health. There is no such thing as work-life balance without a balanced mind. We need to know when we are tired and when we’ve done enough. We need to measure ourselves and others by outputs not inputs. And we need to give ourselves permission to take a break.

And we need trust to be at the heart of our organisations. We know now that working from home doesn’t mean slobbing about in PJs until lunchtime and playing with the kids when they get home from school. Rather it seems to mean working all the time to prove to yourself and your boss that you aren’t a slacker.

If we don’t trust our people, if we insist that they come to meetings just so we can see they are awake and at a desk, if we require lengthy reports just to prove they weren’t taking advantage of being out of sight then we will burn them out. And we will burn out trying to control what cannot be controlled.

The office isn’t bad

You might love to be in the office every day. For someone else the peace and quiet of home works best. For still others they want to know that they can choose, day by day, without anyone doubting their motives.

This isn’t about making the best of a temporary situation. It’s about thinking deeply about more fundamental questions related to how we get the best from people and letting go of outdated assumptions about the workplace. If we do that we could squeeze some long term benefit out of this unpleasant situation.

Download Blaire’s free ebook, Punks in Suits, which busts the myths of leadership and gives you practical exercises to help you identify where you need to grow as a leader.

Replies (3)

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Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
27th Oct 2020 09:58

What a superb and thought provoking article. Must admit it's a relief to be self employed and not to have to worry about such things myself - but many of my clients do of course.

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By alipearson
27th Oct 2020 13:28

Great article! I must admit I enjoy WFH and have saved hours since lockdown as I'm not spending time travelling to clients.

What I have struggled with (and I know some clients have too) is the work life balance and as Blaire's article suggests we can be so close to burn out if we're not careful.

We definitely need a change in mindset and assumptions - hopefully we'll learn something new and something positive will come out of all of this.

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12th Nov 2020 06:33

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