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Why getting your people back in the office could be the best decision you make

When was the last time you surveyed your whole team about an important strategic decision you had to make? My gut feel is never. No CEO, Managing Director or business leader has ever done that. Yes, you might ask for advice or people’s views. But fundamentally, you make the decision.

So why are so many businesses doing this over the decision to come back to work? You know what the answers are going to be. More than half of your staff will say they don’t want to pay the tax that’s the daily commute. And that’s because your office, culture and purpose that you’re leading with aren’t compelling enough. It’s on you. It’s time to show some leadership and get everyone back in the office.

When I suggest this to clients, it’s seen as unfashionable. Almost like they see me as an exploitative capitalist! Everyone’s proved you can work from home, so why would you make people commute again? Fundamentally, I believe humans are social animals. We thrive when we’re around other people. We’re just not designed to be apart. And remote working can lead to mental lethargy, dipping engagement and falling productivity. Not to mention deepening levels of unhappiness and frustration.

I guess it all boils down to the purpose of employment. Ultimately, companies employ staff to solve their customers’ problems profitably. My feeling has always been that the best way to do this is through a happy, engaged workforce. And they’re more likely to be happy and engaged if they’re working collaboratively together – in the same space.

    Senior leaders should lead the way

    Do you let teams decide the best way to work together post-pandemic? Or do you mandate that everyone comes back? My view is the senior leadership needs to lead the way. Many of our CEO clients and their Executive teams have enjoyed the freedom of working from home. Well established in their careers, they’ve welcomed the opportunity for less distraction and more time with their families.

    However, this isn’t about what works for you. It’s what works best for the success of your business. Success comes from competitive advantage. And competitive advantage drives more profit. The way you structure your work needs to be in service of your vision and your strategy.

    Last summer, a number of our CEO clients wanted their staff back in the office. So they mandated that team leaders came in. One of these, an Operations Director, told us she was pleased they did this. ‘I thought I was OK at home,’ she said. ‘But actually, I wasn’t. Not at all. Now that I’m back in the office, I realise that my mental health was suffering working from home.’ Some of your staff may be in denial that this is happening to them. There’s a mental lethargy that’s afflicted the whole nation due to lockdown and its consequent lack of neuro-stimulation.

    Another client dilemma is the fact that individual staff have relocated, some of them abroad. These people want to carry on working under the same terms and conditions as before. So, do you give them a pay cut because they’re now working in Spain? Or require them to come to the office with some frequency to justify their salary? Not easy questions to answer, but sometimes difficult decisions need to be made. You’re not running the business to suit the whims of your staff.

    It’s much easier to build a great culture

    I’ve always thought of the commute as a tax. If you’ve built an incredible culture that people want to travel to, they’ll be willing to pay that tax. If the experience of working with you is miserable, it’s hardly surprising people don’t want to come back to work. It’s harder to build an integrated community when everyone’s in different places. Businesses with great cultures often have special rituals which instil a sense of shared purpose and experience. These spark behaviours that make the work and company more successful. It’s much more difficult to embed these in the daily experience of the organisation when people aren’t physically there.

    When I was MD of Peer 1 in Southampton, we wanted to build a culture that energised staff and attracted the best talent available. To do this, we created an office that was designed around interaction and fun. A giant helter-skelter slide dominated the space, which also included an indoor garden, cinema, pool table and even a pub! Our staff were allowed to work from home but, no surprise, most of them didn’t as they loved coming to work!

    Business is a team sport

    Fundamentally, I believe business is a team sport. And like any sport, teams need to practice and compete together. As well as culture being challenging to build, it’s also harder to build effective, successful teams when some members are remote. To form strong bonds, team members need to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Understanding differences is really important but is less likely to happen without physical contact. There’s real value in social contact – going out for a drink after work or having lunch together. Empathy occurs much less naturally when people aren’t looking each other in the eye.

    My view is that teams either need to be all remote or all in the office. What doesn’t work is when there’s a hybrid of the two. This can be disjointed, meaning team members worry about voicing concerns or are more likely to take offence to well-meant criticism. They can quickly feel unsupported if projects go wrong, and it can be harder to manage them effectively.

    Work is fun and more rewarding

    There’s just no doubt in my mind – working with talented, like-minded people in a vibrant office is just way more fun than wfh. At Peer 1, I remember speaking to a customer, Paul, who had given up his office space and gone remote. He asked if he could use office share with us occasionally and ended up working for us as a Project Manager. He said, ‘Noone ever asks to work from home all of the time. They would rather come to work’. This was a reflection of the culture we had built.

    Not that we weren’t flexible. If someone had a hospital appointment or had a sofa delivered, it was acceptable to work from home. No need to take a holiday for that kind of thing, unlike in other companies with more draconian rules. A great outcome from the pandemic has meant that most companies can offer this flexibility now. As well as being more convenient for staff, this brings greater resilience during natural disasters like heavy snowfall or flooding when commuting is impossible.

    I don’t buy the argument that it’s better for concentration to work from home. Open-plan offices can be designed in a way that allows for quiet work. At Peer 1, desks were configured so you could work on a laptop from any location. We had an indoor garden space and semi-private meeting rooms and workspaces. At Rackspace, we called an area of the office the library. Granted, there were no books, but you could work without distraction as the rules were the same.

    Everyone gets the same treatment

    Most of our clients have some but not all staff back at work. Sometimes it’s because they’ve been unable to find talent locally, so they have looked further afield. Whilst everyone’s been remote, this has worked OK. But now that people are starting to return to the office, they’re wondering about these hiring decisions’ long-term viability. It’s looking likely that these new employees will rarely meet other staff, and they’ll miss out on opportunities to build bonds. I chatted recently with Nic Marks, Founder of Friday Pulse (a great measure of staff engagement that we highly recommend). He said their data was showing that staff who have been onboarded remotely in the last 12 months, were less engaged. There was less ‘emotional glue’ binding them to their employer.

    Everyone must get the same treatment. If you have seven people in a team and three of them work from home, what do you do when there’s a team meeting? Do you mandate that the people in the office go into separate rooms and dial into Zoom? Even if this means they have a lesser experience? Or do the wfh people dial in and accept that they might be disadvantaged by not being present? Pre-covid, this is what happened all the time. If you weren’t in the office people tended to forget about you. I spent most of my working life being that person. I spent hours on executive calls to North America. Most of that time, my interaction was two or three out of 10. It’s awful – particularly if you’re introverted and don’t like to be forceful.

    More opportunity for creativity and collaboration

    Boy Thinking

    In 2013, the Chief Executive of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, decided to ban employees from home-working. She felt people were more inventive when they came together and far more likely to collaborate. Her decision stemmed from her first few months at Yahoo, when she spent a couple of hours each day in the cafe, talking to any member of staff who fancied a chat. Some employees told her they weren’t able to move forward with new ideas as their colleagues weren’t on site.

    Within a few months of introducing the ban, Yahoo’s senior director of real estate and workplace, Julie Ford-Tempesta, reported ‘The workplace has become a catalyst for energy and buzz. Employee engagement is up, product launches have increased significantly, and agile teams are thriving’. Interesting stuff.

    Collaboration is hugely important to creativity. Whilst technology exists to enable this remotely, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting to brainstorm ideas. This is, to my mind, the best way to encourage innovative thinking.

    Younger people learn better

    Research from Oktra in the Autumn of 2020 showed that over a third of younger office workers forced to work from home feel remote, unfocused and less committed to their employers. This poses a real threat to businesses in the medium to long term. They surveyed 1500 people who used to work in the office full time but had been working from home for six months. The experience had changed the way that 71% of them felt about their employer and 85% had struggled with the experience of remote work.

    I was chatting to my son the other day who’s a team leader in his early twenties. He told me he couldn’t wait to get him and his team back in full time. ‘Frankly Dad I’m bored of doing the same thing every day, sitting in my hallway and never meeting anyone,’ he said. ‘What’s the point of being in London if you don’t go out? When I’m in the office, I overhear people having a good call and shadow them. Or I learn from a bad call. Afterwards we share information in a way that just doesn’t happen when working from home. And then we finish work and go out for a drink!’ This stuff matters. You can’t underestimate the impact of social bonds, shared understanding and mentorship. It’s incredibly hard to develop younger staff without that close interaction with more senior peers.

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    Ultimately, I think it depends on the business whether hybrid working is beneficial long term. The best companies will give staff the flexibility to come in when they want. And I bet most of their staff will choose to be in more of the time than out. Some roles are better done from home – particularly transactional work – and I fully accept that. But if you really want to make the most of the economic upturn as we come out of COVID, my advice is to get everyone back.

    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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