Managers contemplating ordering employees back to the office are in many cases softening that blow by letting employees work from home some of the time, on the days the employee prefers.
If you’re in that camp, beware.
Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University and co-director of the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S., advises strongly against letting your employees pick their work from home days. If you intend to allow them two days at home, for example, pick it yourself and let them adjust.
He’s not a meanie. He’s a worrier, specifically about the growth of in-groups and out-groups in a hybrid return to work and the potential dangers for diversity.
He asks you to imagine what will happen when employees at home can see glances or whispering in the office conference room but can’t tell exactly what is going on. They will feel like outsiders, knowing after the meeting ends the folks in the office may chat in the corridor or go grab a coffee together. More than that, I’d add, the boss will see them more frequently, with face time improving their standing. He or she will turn to them first if they are together in a conference room meeting while others are on Zoom, afar. It’s inevitable, and volatile.
His second concern is the risk to diversity given the people preferring to work from home are far from random. His research found among college graduates with young children women want to work from home full-time almost 50 per cent more than men. “This is worrying given the evidence that working from home while your colleagues are in the office can be highly damaging to your career,” he writes in Harvard Business Review. His research of a large multinational showed working from home employees had a 50 per cent lower rate of promotion after 21 months compared to office colleagues.
The danger in the hybrid workplace, he warns, is that single young men could all choose to come into the office five days a week and rocket up the firm, while employees with young children, particularly women, will be held back if they choose to work from home. He calls that a diversity loss and a legal time bomb for companies.
So he recommends managers decide which days their team should work from home. If the manager picks working from home on Wednesday and Friday, everyone would come in on the other days. Initially he was willing to let people come into the office if they wished on working from home days but he feels that just leads to a “creeping collapse” of his equity efforts. If a manager comes in on one of those Fridays, so will those eager for promotions, from the CEO down.
Culture writer Anne Helen Petersen, co-author of a forthcoming book Out of Office, shares the concern. She wants a maximum number of days anyone can come to the office. “If you’re actually invested in creating an equitable, flexible workplace, not everyone can come into the office all day, every day,” she argues in her newsletter. She acknowledges this will be hard for some people to accept, since it runs counter to the freedom the hybrid office celebrates. But the company would be putting up guardrails to protect diversity in the same way it should have guardrails to prevent people from working all the time. And if some people don’t have a good work space at home, they could work from a friend’s place, a coffee shop, or with a company subsidy rent some space.
Deep work evangelist Cal Newport has also been talking recently of companies helping employees financially to fund such third alternatives – out-of-work and out-of-home options where they can work with few distractions. But consultant David Dye says managers should be inspired to figure out how to give their staff a gift of space and silence right in the office itself as restrictions lift.
Start by not holding meetings just for your own convenience. Call them only when the sessions are the most productive use of time for the attendees, such as solving a problem or developing their abilities. Otherwise, learn from the communication protocols you have developed during the pandemic and apply those to eliminate non-essential meetings – gatherings for the sake of gathering or to keep the manager busy.
He urges you to slow the pace. He says watching video meetings “I’ve noticed how people became more comfortable with a pause. A pause while someone reaches to unmute. A pause to ensure they’re not speaking over a colleague. Technology forced us to pause. We can bring that pause into our conversations and meetings. Give a question room to breathe. Don’t rush to fill the silence.”
You can build on that with quiet hours: 90-120 minutes once or twice a day dedicated to deep work. Interruptions may only happen for emergencies. And yes, define emergency. More generally, communicate about quiet and communication, how you are trying to bring the best of working from home to the office.
Returning to the office will be complicated. Think about the guardrails you need to encourage collaboration, creativity, and equal opportunities for all.
- Your decisions on the return to work could well be the most important of your career warns consultant Kevin Eikenberry. We’re at an inflection point, a moment when significant change occurs or may occur, as people decide where, how, when and who they will work with.
- Consider a work week for your employees of four, 10-hour days, which will reduce their commuting burden by 20 per cent, argue academics Tino Sanandaji and Ferdinando Monte and consultants Alexandra Ham and Atta Tarki.
- Double down on your IT security as part of any hybrid workplace decisions, advises consultant Josh Bersin.
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