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Maddison Thomas, a business manager at MSS Security, works in the company's mostly empty office space following an extended COVID-19 lockdown in Sydney, Australia, on Oct. 26.LOREN ELLIOTT/Reuters

Compulsion has long been the order of the day when it comes to where we perform our company’s work. Essentially, bosses tell employees where and when to work although at the margins, adjustments can be negotiated. While the pandemic caused a sudden disruption of place for most white-collar workers, it also involved compulsion – everyone ordered out of the office as a safety measure.

When it comes to the return to the office, flexibility is often mentioned – in some offices, it’s even an essential feature of the plan. But that misses the essential fact that employees want flexibility by way of autonomy, writes Holger Reisinger, a senior vice-president at audio technology specialist Jabra, and Dane Fetterer, a researcher at the firm, in Harvard Business Review. Employees want to be the primary decision-makers of where and when they do their work.

A workplace study by Jabra found 61 per cent of employees would prefer if management allowed team members to come into the office when they need to and work from home when they need to. “The flexibility they want is conditional upon their ability to exercise it in a way that best fits them. In other words, it’s conditional upon autonomy,” the duo writes.

Of course, many employees previously wanted such autonomy, but in the era of compulsion never dared say so.

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A pandemic Pandora’s box was opened when we realized organizations could operate with a large contingent of remote workers. Leaders sensed they would have to be cautious with the return to work, in many cases opting for the hybrid compromise and highlighting flexibility options. But flexibility without autonomy will fall short. And with many organizations seeing employees willing to leave for better pastures, it’s important to recognize that flexibility may not be enough.

Reisinger and Fetterer suggest a shift from policies to principles might see “minimum three days in the office per week” becoming “there is inherent value in both the physical office and remote locations – we strongly encourage employees to consider which locations best enable them to most effectively carry out certain tasks.” They add: “This sets a guideline for best practices without stepping on the toes of any employees for whom a minimum number of days in-office policy may be seen as restrictive or outright impossible for them to fit into the balance of their life. If communicated correctly, principles can be just as effective as policies, while creating room to explore new ways of working.”

Of course, you also need to make sure employees have the skills and tools to handle this new environment. In the scramble to pandemic distancing, that was too often missed. One important but expensive tool to consider is finding remote spaces for people to work outside, but still near, their home.

That more autonomous approach requires a dramatic change of philosophy and an ability to give up some power. It has been a long time coming. Austrian-American management consultant and author Peter Drucker, who first coined the term “knowledge workers” in 1959, warned us to “accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer.”

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Flipping our thinking might also involve making the office the new off-site. Consultant Claire Lew says organizations should commit to a remote-first framework. All communication and collaboration should happen in your team as though 100 per cent of your team is remote. “With remote communication and collaboration as the default, everyone then has the ability to opt into meetings, decisions and information can easily be shared, and the most basic questions around how to work are easily and swiftly answered.” she notes on her blog.

Off-sites are critical opportunities to brainstorm new ideas and bring together people across different functions, building bonds and trust. Similarly, people should view being in the office not as an opportunity to show their face, but to take part in the same sort of collaboration off-sites are known for.

Adam Roseman, co-founder of the finance app Steady, recommends changing your one-on-one formula, adopting 15-minute sessions in a compressed time frame, such as two weeks, for talking to each direct report. The quarter-hour limit ensures you get right into the issues concerning the employee. “By packing these individual meetings closely together, I quickly identify common themes raised by employees across the organization so I know what issues need to be addressed right away. If I were to spread these meetings out across a month, the similarities among what my employees say would be less striking. And I’d be showing them that I’m in no rush to mitigate the challenges they’re facing,” he writes in MIT Sloan Management Review.

If you allow more autonomy and more remote work, you need to be sure you know what’s happening. That arrangement – he repeats it every six to eight weeks – will help. We talked in the early days of the pandemic about a new normal – could autonomy, the office as off-site, and re-energized one-on-ones be the magic formula for that kind of renewal?

Cannonballs

  • McKinsey & Company consultant Bill Schaninger warns it is so much easier to blame employees for leaving the firm than to take responsibility for your part in the departure.
  • Entrepreneur Seth Godin urges you to consider optimism and pessimism as managerial tools to deploy as needed rather than simply allow to occur with your moods. He sees optimism as a tool that permits us to solve problems more effectively, bringing enthusiasm, inspiration and hope to projects. Pessimism is helpful with budgeting, scheduling and other activities.
  • Another one-on-one tip: Be your employee’s Barbara Walters. Take an hour to get to know the individual deeply, advises consultant Russ Laraway. Also helpful is a conversation to spot their career lighthouse and bring it into focus, or to create a career action plan.

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