Future Advice About Going Back To The Office

JonBarnes
Written by
- 7 min read

As some semblance of hope starts to bubble up and our minds tempt us with the thought of things going back to normal, I have a small fear about things going back to what they were. Mainly about everybody going back to the office. My advice: Don’t.

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Well no that’s not good enough. That’s bad advice actually. Some people will need to, some jobs will require it but… well at least be careful.

Hmm… here are some thoughts.

The pandemic has been devastating. This I’ll acknowledge up front. The sheer loss of life is immensely tragic.

From an economic standpoint it has also been tragic (which feels secondary at first, but let’s not forget the very human consequences of this).

And yet, when we have grieved and are able to look beyond the suffering, we see some silver linings. Remote work has in many (not all) cases been one of them.

The paradox of a year at home

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t always the case. I’m aware that so many people have experienced it all so differently just by virtue of having different minds, let alone different financial situations, family situations, housing situations...etc.

I heard of a story of somebody living in a small studio flat recently with their partner both working from home and having to rotate who took Zoom calls sitting on the toilet.

How incredibly difficult this must be for a person’s mental health. And yet for others (I’m lucky to be one of them), this has been liberating. More time with my family, less time working, easier to work across multiple projects… etc.

So it’s strange because I think this could be the biggest shared experience in our lifetimes but also the most individual experience ever.

What a strange paradox. The illusion of all being in the same boat, and yet having potentially radically different experiences.

Empathy and compassion feel particularly important.

An act of imagination, to wonder what it is like to be somebody else and to not make assumptions or take a ‘shared’ situation for granted. To really reach out to people and understand how they are, to get that extra context for somebody’s lived experience is I think vital both on a human and professional level when working remotely.

The opportunities from remote work

And so whilst there are undoubtedly big downsides for some, I’d like to look on the bright side of remote working. I think the potential upsides in many contexts are now there to be seen.

Before the pandemic, I used to often tell organisations wanting to want (repetition intentional) to shift to adaptive ways of working that remote working is one of the few structural shortcuts.

I had experienced this whilst working with one client who through testing a fully remote policy (at first one day per week) experienced the ripple effects of higher transparency, less man-management, more asynchronous work getting done…etc.

Now after months on Zoom we all know that there are downsides if mis-managed, but still, time and time again I hear people saying they are grateful for the benefits.

Tips for a return to ‘normality’

And so what next? We all head back to the office? That seems a great shame. To not take anything positive from this experience seems almost disrespectful to what we’ve been through, it certainly doesn’t seem to constitute learning.

So do we all stay at home? Well that isn’t what many people or jobs need. I would certainly welcome a return to in person serendipity, time away from screens, meetings where we look into each other’s eyes and notice body language and non verbal queues.

What about half half? A ‘hybrid’ experience?

Well, I think this probably is desirable and yet there are pitfalls, some obvious and practical, others more abstract and systemic.

Here are some that come to mind immediately, I’m sure there are many more (please feel free to share yours in the comments). I share them in hope that some reading this article can prepare well and get their best of both worlds:

1. Be careful of hybrid meetings

When some people are at home, whilst others in a group in person, the in person group will tend to contribute to poor group dynamics by cross talking, forgetting those on screen, defaulting to each other even over their remote colleagues.

So either ask for the meetings to be one laptop per person, or really put some strong facilitation guidelines in place (e.g. speak in turn, alternate between those on screen and in the room, document everything digitally for all to contribute, get extra context for the remote workers by clarifying how they interpret and experience things).

2. Record in person conversations digitally and transparently

When we meet in person, the conversation typically stays in the room and struggles to spread in a unified way to others. To help the crowd to learn and align organically, make a concerted effort to document what happens in person online.

This could be as simple as posting in a slack channel to say ‘Hey all, @[name] and I had a great conversation about [topic] today and I want to share my key takeaways and get your thoughts in this thread. [share takeaways].’

3. Stick to a meticulous meeting culture

Ok we’re zoomed out. And many have created a zoom culture rather than a culture organised around the work through asynchronous collaboration.

But one improvement I’ve heard from those who’ve achieved it, is that meetings on zoom have in many instances become more egalitarian, more structures, somebody takes open notes, clear actions and documented decisions, and somebody else facilitates the process by which we meet (bare in mind that this is what I experience by definition in my corner of the world, I’m aware this won’t be the case everywhere).

Well, this should be the case in person too. Take that rigour back to the office.

4. Trust people to work in their best way and to choose

Another benefit I’ve heard from many is that they’re grateful to work to their own personal pattern. Some prefer early, others late, others like naps after lunch.

Thankfully a control freak manager can’t know if under the desk on zoom their employee is wearing pyjamas.

When we part return to the office, let’s stay tuned in to each other’s personal needs. However you work best, works best for me.

5. Stay open and vulnerable

One upside that I have noticed is an increasing ok’ness to ask ‘How are you finding it?’ and to answer ‘I’m finding this hard’.

This is where we want work to get to.

The benefits for our mental health are huge and therefore the commercial benefits are too. To build organisations around solidarity is an enormous shift.

To genuinely look out for the other. This is something that I’ve seen emerge in small ways throughout the last year at work (let alone outside of work).

Getting the best of both worlds

Another paradox will no doubt be that returning to normal will not feel normal.

Going back to old ways doesn’t seem wise and yet what we have now is by necessity more than by choice. Our choice as we emerge from the chaos of a devastating year is to re-enter the world having accrued sufficient wisdom to operate with a new normal.

I aspire for that new normal in the workplace to include: increased openness and transparency, more empathy and compassion, a more participative working culture, an increase in personal autonomy and accountability to name just a few.

I wish you many wonderful conversations around the coffee machine, the water cooler, the company canteen and… don’t forget what has been learned in the multiverse of bedroom zoom calls.

We have the opportunity to have our cake and eat it. That is the point of cake after all.

Take care, Jon


This is a guest blog written by Jon Barnes. Jon is an organisational change consultant helping companies and teams to self-organise, an author of several books, and TEDX speaker. For more information on Jon and his work, check out his rebel page.

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Replies (7)

Jacqui

Jacqui

I strongly recommend this approach.
We’ve been able to return to ‘pre-COVID’ life for quite a while now in NZ and it’s been interesting to watch the dynamics of the hybrid vs traditional workplaces. Many workplaces have embraced the hybrid model and are proving that productivity isn’t driven by the office environment, it’s driven by the attitude of the workplace; if everyone is aligned and motivated, they will be productive anywhere.
Sadly, I work in a traditional environment, which prefers people to be at a desk, in the office. Even when we proved through our first lockdown that we could be more productive from our homes, the orders were to go back to what they knew. And what they have forgotten is it’s a competitive employment market; when you show you only trust people when you can physically contain them in the office, they recognise that lack of trust and choose to work elsewhere.
With the shift away from the office, there has been knock-on effects for supporting businesses such as cafes and lunch outlets. But with a hybrid environment, people are adjusting - it’s not the same as before but a new equilibrium is being created.

| | 7 | Flag
Rob

Rob

For me the work environment has certainly changed for the better, as I already worked remotely prior to the pandemic. My colleagues had to adopt to what was already my reality for so long.

I would love to go back to the situation where I would like to visit my colleagues abroad to build on personal contacts. But the freedom that comes with hybrid is also my preferred option.

I believe the real important thing will be finding the right balance between personal contact in an office and remote working. For me the personal element just makes the big difference to be happy & successful. But this can definitely be achieved with a lot less office time!

| | 2 | Flag
Grahame

Grahame

And with an eye on the big picture, the potential benefits for the planet are enormous when you factor in reduced travel, less traffic congestion, less pollution from redundant office space, less ‘business flights’ etc...

| | 5 | Flag
Pricejay

Pricejay

Great article Jon and would love to connect as fellow UK based rebels!!

Another situation we should be cautious to consider as we trial Hybrid ways of working post-pandemic, is the potential to widen the gender pay gap. Gartner predict that women are more likely to take up the opportunity to work away from the office than men, to better juggle caring responsibilities alongside work. If managers are not skilled in recognising contributions of staff, regardless of where they undertake that work, the less visible workers are likely to miss out on promotion opportunities.

Personally I have been far more productive working out of my bedroom this last year and have loved getting to know my kids better!

| | 4 | Flag
Jacqui

Jacqui

Great article Jon and would love to connect as fellow UK based rebels!!

Another situation we should be cautious to consider as we trial Hybrid ways of working post-pandemic, is the potential to widen the gender pay gap. Gartner predict that women are more likely to take up the opportunity to work away from the office than men, to better juggle caring responsibilities alongside work. If managers are not skilled in recognising contributions of staff, regardless of where they undertake that work, the less visible workers are likely to miss out on promotion opportunities.

Personally I have been far more productive working out of my bedroom this last year and have loved getting to know my kids better!

Pricejay

Interestingly, one of my ex-colleagues was on a call the other day and told us all he was turning off his camera but would still listen in because he had to pick his daughters up from school. Everyone understood and accepted this was the reality of the new working environment; when he accidentally unmuted and his daughters joined us, no one minded at all!
We then had a discussion about the fact that we have all started to develop a maturity in our thinking about the boundaries between work life and home life, and acknowledging that they have become fuzzy in a very beneficial way. One of the proponents of the 30-hour work week here in NZ talks about the fact that ‘we borrow people from their lives’. By bringing our workplaces so obviously into our homes, we have made it very clear that our lives encompass more than just our work, and it’s actually beholden on our employers to really flex around our ‘lives’ if they want an engaged and empowered workforce.

| | 4 | Flag
nick_pulley

nick_pulley

Nice article Jon (hello!), I'm certainly intrigued to see how a dispersed approach works as I see an equal measure of potential benefits and likely pitfalls, with the ease of slipping into 'old, bad habits' ever looming. However, done right and with consideration it offers a huge amount of potential.

| | 1 | Flag
Michael McMaster

Michael McMaster

Article covers a lot of ground. Good on the pros and cons. The idea of "flex time" decades ago excited me and I got to implement it in the agricultural Co-op I was CFO of. I was in charge of installing an IBM system 3 DISK system. This would replace a large space for a giant punch card system. The obvious answer to the challenge was to fire 1/2 the bookkeeping staff. The managing director agreed to let me guarantee those staff jobs for 1 year. First they tested me and "snuck off" to the beach or sent shopping. When there was no consequences, they played cards in the lunch room. Then that got boring and the walked around asking other staff what they could do for them. Soon they were busies than ever and got a big dose of respect. Before their year was up, they became a valued part of the staff. People can be free at work and have it work!

| | 1 | Flag
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