Everywhere we turn at the moment there’s another headline about returning to the office and it is exposing some seemingly entrenched views. One person I follow on Twitter is on a crusade to convince us all that the future is remote only and that anything else is short-sighted and a threat to the world’s mental health and family unity.
Then there’s Sandeep Mathrani, the new CEO of WeWork. In a recent statement, one he might now be regretting given the backlash, he said that wanting to come back to the office was a sign of commitment and that “Those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home.”
The right answer – inconveniently given our inherent bias for simplicity – is much more likely to be “it depends”. It depends on the organisation, it depends on its strategy and it depends on the nature of the work, tasks and the individuals central to bringing that strategy to life.
We spoke about the Cynefin model in a recent podcast on decision-making and this is one decision that definitely falls into the complex category. There’s no silver bullet, no one right answer but there are some tried and tested ways of getting closer to a good solution.
Key to that is starting with the right question. How you frame your question is important. It will shape the options you consider, how and if people choose to engage with the discussions and ultimately the answer you arrive at. The starting point you choose will determine the pathway your decision-making process, and ultimately your organisation, takes.
So is your starting question ‘how many days should be in the office vs working from home?’ That risks taking you down a narrow path. You’re weighing the pros and cons of 3 days a week versus 2 or 4 but you’ve already concluded it’s something you’re going to do.
A slightly better question is ‘should we do hybrid working? But an even better question might be ‘how do we best organise ourselves to deliver on our strategic priorities?’ or how about “what arrangements will allow our people to do their best work?”
General Motors, for example, have summarised their return-to-work policy in just two words Work Appropriately.
These broader questions open up possibilities. They invite people to be creative. This is an opportunity to reimagine how we work rather than just overlaying hybrid on top of existing, potentially outdated, processes and ways of working. Automation, AI and augmented reality are pushing the boundaries of what is possible with remote work so take this chance to explore what is possible before determining a role can only be done by being on-site.
Widen your options out from binary home vs office debates. A 20-year long study found that 71% of organisation decisions are binary choices (Nutt). A lack of options to choose from led to a >50% failure rate in the study. Whilst decisions with just one more option lowered the failure rate down to 30%.
What timeframe for hybrid are you considering? Week by week, month by month or across the entire year? Companies like Automattic have annual in-person gatherings to give people valuable opportunities to build connections that sustain them across an otherwise remote-only operation.
It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution. We all have our own preferences shaped by personality, work experience and life stage so it’s important not to let them overshadow the options we choose to consider. Some recent research by Humu found that most leaders have experienced a decrease in job satisfaction over the last 12 months and are therefore keener to get back to the office. This is in contrast to the overall picture for non-managers who are broadly happier working from home (though clearly, this will vary from individual to individual).
Bias is also worth watching out for. Overconfidence bias can make us prone to think we’ve got the right answer. Desirability bias can put us at risk of favouring the solution we personally prefer and the recency effect – what we’ve read in the press or a challenging situation caused by people working from home – can all impact our decision-making processes.
Clearly, it’s not just about individual preferences but working out the best combination that balances the needs of the role, the team, financial and customer considerations alongside productivity, performance, and wellbeing.
And what’s right now might not be right forever. Our organisational strategies and landscapes will change. Productivity, performance, and wellbeing vary dramatically from person to person and any futures changes in roles, personal circumstances, living conditions, tenure or personal development needs might mean the chosen arrangements need a revisit.
So “what arrangements will allow our people to do their best work?” needs to be kept under constant review if we are all to make the most of the opportunities ahead of us.