Everywhere you listen in today, there are conversations about work from home.  New virus cases are waning, vaccine progress is accelerating, and pandemic restrictions are rapidly loosening.  Business leaders are wrestling with the path forward – what work should look like in three months, or six – or next year.  From what I see, most of these efforts are off track.

Here’s what I think:  If your work from home discussions today include the word policy  – you’re probably doing it wrong.

Let’s unpack this a bit.

Before the pandemic, I’d noticed for a while a shift in how some viewed the firm and work.  In assessment-related discussions with both individuals and groups, I’d hear senior leaders (firm owners, partners, and principals) describe the office situation as ‘pretty good.’  These folks enjoyed a high level of enthusiasm, engagement with the work, and an ‘it ain’t too broke, so let’s not fix it too much’ attitude.

Meanwhile, less experienced (and typically younger) staff in the same firm expressed less engagement, more frustration, and many more questions about the workplace – and the direction of the firm itself.  Some of this is simply weak communication – junior staff (outside of the partners’ club) often don’t fully understand their opportunity ahead.  They don’t get the mission, vision, strategy, and plan – in quite the same way as do senior staff.

But some of this problem ties directly to a lack of flexibility in work.  The plain truth is this: executives have enjoyed considerable work flexibility now for three decades.  Information and communications technology long ago allowed those at the top the freedom to disconnect from their desk – to do good work from home, on the road, or from a nice hotel in the Caribbean.  Those with authority, influence, and agency flex as desired – working from home today to also meet with the pool contractor.

Meanwhile most staff – the rank and file of the firm – have enjoyed much less of this freedom of time and place.  Of course, some jobs demand an onsite presence  – as we’ve all learned and appreciated in the last year.  But for many others, the requirement to work at the office is rooted much deeper – in unclear role definition, indirect performance measurements, and (frankly) a basic lack of trust.

Most want this flexibility – we share the common challenges of child-care, kids in school, or elder parents – or even a need to meet the pool contractor this afternoon.  Our pandemic year revealed this flexibility for millions more (beyond executives) – and most don’t want to give it up.  Additionally, work productivity has been quite high this year in the professions (though not all of that productivity has come without cost).  High utilization, lower overhead, record profits.  Why change back?

Firm owners want more staff back in the office because they believe that a better work product (for clients and for the firm) develops through the close up, hands-on collaborative interaction of staff.  I wholeheartedly agree.  Our communications and collaboration technologies – though evolving now at breakneck pace – still don’t quite measure up to being there in person.

But a second, more insidious (and certainly less defensible) reason is control – the instinctive lack of trust in others, and desire to manage the work through overt supervision.  Sometimes this makes sense – with untrained and unskilled labor who need direction and oversight.  But for professionals … in your firm?

This instinct toward control is, I’m afraid, particularly strong with those of my age and experience cohort.  I’ve joked for years that what defines us baby boomers is how we act at the workday’s end – wandering the halls at 5:15 PM wondering ‘where the heck is everybody?’  We developed our lives and identity around our work, profession, and career.  Staying late at the office wasn’t a sentence, but a ticket – to a future, fame and riches, and God knows what else.  Not all of us cashed that ticket, but most of us believed (and still do) in the dream.

So baby boomers tend to view ‘being at the office’ and ‘working’ as the same thing (though a bit hypocritically, since we grant ourselves more flexibility).  Also, we generally believe that productivity is best achieved through the management of effort – that is, how much time and energy is devoted to the task (utilization).  We’re less adept at measuring results rather than effort.

By comparison (and with apologies for oversimplified stereotypes) younger, Gen Y millennials often see work quite differently (BTW: why would it surprise anyone that the children of baby boomers want to do things differently from mom and dad?)  These folks want to be measured more by results, and less by effort.  They’ll ask, “Why care when I do the work, as long as I get it done?” and “If I work from midnight to 3:00 am – at the kitchen table – why doesn’t that count the same as three hours in my cubicle?”

Today we have too many senior leaders working desperately to ‘get back to normal’ – while more junior staff clamor for ‘holding on to the new normal.’  Most of the latter have tasted the flexibility and freedom of the last year – and they don’t want to give it up.  

More office time, and more in-person collaboration, will be welcomed by most.  We all want to reconnect and do some of the things we did before.  But sitting in traffic again – for an hour each way – just so the boss will feel less insecure about the place … not so much. 

Stuffing the work from home opportunity back into the ‘old-normal’ genie-bottle – through a new WFH policy – might be doable right now (many are reluctance to change jobs in this uncertain moment) –  but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it.

There is a much better way – one that progressive, innovative organizations are already pushing ahead.  And in our next post, we’ll outline a path foreword for doing just that.

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