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Two years into a world where remote work plays a greater role than ever, we’re still struggling to find the best working arrangements for our employees.

“Lost in the ongoing debate, particularly in the popular media, is a simple insight: There is no one right answer because managers need to tailor their working environment to the business needs of their organization,” Harvard Business School professors Maria Roche and Andy Wu argue in Harvard Business Review.

So don’t look at what other organizations – even in your own field – are doing. Don’t obsess over what employees want. Don’t look for a compromise between the remote and in-office options. Instead, step back and consider what the optimal working arrangements for your organization are. And that begins by considering the size of your organization and its growth orientation.

Small businesses and large enterprises need to rethink office design differently. As a rule of thumb, they suggest that 100 employees be the cut-off line between classifying small and large organizations. But they add that for knowledge-intensive work such as the development of new technology, the delineation between small and large workplaces could be about 10 employees. Also to be considered are factors such as being nimble, scale and co-ordinating available knowledge.

As for growth orientation, they ask you to evaluate whether innovation or efficient execution is more central to your strategic goals. “If fostering creativity is paramount to your business, your workplace needs to bring knowledge together by bringing people together, ideally in person. If execution is your primary objective, your business must make sure that individual contributors are as efficient as possible in their own work; being around others may actually distract from the job that needs to be done and impede efficiency,” they write.

That leads to four possibilities for workplaces – but only one ideal for you:

  • For creativity-oriented large enterprises, the stand-alone office or campus is preferred. A Zoom meeting is not enough. You must bring people together for what is referred to as knowledge recombination, the process by which innovation arises when existing knowledge is combined in novel ways. “Knowledge transfer – especially the type that is not written down or easily codified – is easiest face-to-face and aided by other non-verbal cues. Immediate feedback and updating are crucial for well-functioning discussions and brainstorming,” they say.
  • For execution-oriented large enterprises, aim for a hybrid office with flexible spaces. You need to give your staff the flexibility to be where they are most productive. Constant interruptions can be their nemesis. You need to give them a remote space where they can retreat from the office when necessary. But the professors stress that fully remote work arrangements come with deficits. They don’t allow for the meetings to divide up projects, or manager check-ins to motivate and track individual progress that are required to keep employees aligned with corporate goals. Virtual meetings are a poor substitute.
  • For the creativity-oriented startup, opt for a co-working environment. A main challenge here is that no matter how brilliant your team, it’s small, and so while you want the reshuffling and recombination of ideas that lead to innovation, you would be wise to extend that environment beyond just your employees. Seek knowledge spillover from outsiders. It can be obtained by locating your office close by other companies – even competitors – in the same neighbourhood, building or even room. Pay attention to office design to encourage such spillover, such as can be found through kitchenettes, for example.
  • For the execution-oriented small startup, go fully remote. “Some small startups just need to execute: you know what your people need to do, and so do they. In organizations like this, you must make sure you empower your employees to execute with independent efficiency,” they write. You also want to grow quickly, so why be limited by four walls?

These ideas may hold more value for smaller organizations, given it’s easier for them to determine their growth orientation, and the recommendations challenge the belief that for smaller organizations, remote is easy, cheap and sensible. Co-working is a particularly provocative suggestion. Large organizations may have a harder time adapting to the two growth orientation models but might apply the formula for different units.

As a backdrop, it’s worth also considering what Jason Fried, co-founder of web software company Basecamp, calls “the presence prison.” Historically, we have wanted to keep tabs on others, expecting to be able to reach a colleague when we want, pulling them into a discussion of what’s top of mind for us, whether working remotely or side-by-side. So it matters where they are at this moment – whether in the office or even online, where many communications tools indicate if the person is present or not.

If they are available, that is an invitation to be bugged – which is another perspective on what we think of as collaboration. But as professor Rob Cross of Babson College in Massachusetts pointed out in his book Collaboration Overload last year, collaboration is not an unalloyed benefit. Prof. Fried’s advice is particularly true for the two execution-orientated options: “If you truly need something from someone, ask them. If they respond, then you have what you needed. If they don’t, it’s not because they’re ignoring you – it’s because they’re busy. Respect that! Assume people are focused on their own work.”

Cannonballs

  • In an era that has been dubbed “The Project Economy,” perhaps decisions on where work is carried out need to revolve around projects. In the CharterWorks newsletter, consultant Simon Roberts notes his company’s projects tend to be broken into three-week phases, with some more fitting for remote work, some not.
  • As costs rise with inflation, management professor Michael Roberto of Bryant College in Rhode Island suggests managers asking: Are we investing in the activities that will maintain or enhance willingness to pay on the part of our customers?
  • Hire happy people and then keep checking they remain happy. That’s the advice of three academics whose study of one million U.S. Army soldiers over five years found that the happiest soldiers went on to earn four times as many awards compared with those who were unhappiest. “Not only do happiness and optimism matter to employee performance, but they matter a lot,” Paul B. Lester, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman conclude in MIT Sloan Management Review.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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