Work from home, office or hybrid?

Answer? None of the above when mandated.

This is a framing of a question around how an organisation approaches the new ways of working as we come out of lockdown and we can see the benefits of normal working from home, not working from home in a pandemic trying to home school as well. Also, for clarity “face to face” means you can see someone’s face in a meeting and they can see yours, this can be virtual as well as in the same physical space.

We’re at a point in history compared to the rise of e-commerce in the early 1990s and the launch of eBay, Amazon and online shopping. A switch from the physical in-person to the virtual. We’re now seeing the same for office life moving from in-person to virtual. It’s the same thing as the e-commerce revolution but in a different context and with much better technology. There wasn’t free useful video calling back in 1994. Think back on how it could be for offices that don’t go virtual — limited to employees that live locally, people who want to spend money on commuting, people who prefer to spend time away from their family. It’s a pivot point. How did it work out in the long term for those high street only brands that had online competition? Feeling lucky?

Mandated Policy

An organisation might adopt a fully remote policy, or it might adopt a fully back to the office policy or it might adopt a hybrid policy coming into work a certain number of days a week. All of these will likely fail.

  1. Back to the office annoys people who prefer working from home.
  2. Stay at home annoys people who prefer going to the office.
  3. Hybrid annoys people who don’t see a compelling, data driven need to back to an office regularly to do a job that can be done from home (and it’s greener). It may not be the long term answer either. My commute is 400 miles each way regardless of being in the office 3 days a week or 5.

What we see is that for work that can be done remotely, the amount of time at home Vs the office is situational to people’s needs more than the organisational needs. The organisation is probably distributed anyway with offices all over the country or around the world. What’s the point of coming in to an office just to zoom someone in another country?

Data over opinions

There are some organisations wanting to force people back to the office, generally the main reasons for this are strongly correlated with how new their office is, the length of lease remaining, or how much old school culture pervades the office and is based around it being “dynamic” “exciting”, “bouncing ideas off one another” or “open plan collaboration”. None of these sit very well with introverts, neurodiversity or people who really need to focus. Just because the extrovert rose to the top of the company by being an extrovert, wining, dining and hand shaking after work doesn’t mean that’s the best culture for the company as a whole. Handshake bias exists. Introverts do not come into the office to make it exciting and a place of entertainment for extroverts.

“Body language” is not as important as you think and has many opportunities for discrimination and bias. We can see people smile on zoom and no I don’t need to know what way their feet are pointing and other pseudo body language science. You can’t actually tell that under a table in any case. It’s funny how these body language experts come creeping out the woodwork to justify a CEO’s position now. In the 1990s organisations set them themselves up for distributed working by phone, contact centres by phone and developed an excessive email and PowerPoint communication style none of which involved either body language or even seeing people’s faces. Where were the body language “experts” then? All that’s also discriminatory as I wrote in 2016. Myres Briggs Type Index and personality tests? Take a look here.

There is also data that about 2/3 of workers would prefer to forgo a $30,000 raise to work from home. That’s how much people want it and how many people want it. Don’t be fooled by the small number of bosses or people with large marketing reach or a self-serving position telling you it’s a majority position. It’s not. Their lack of objective independent data should speak for itself. LinkedIn news featured my comments on the $30,000 question.

Preferences

We see that people with limited room, poor broadband and living alone are more likely to prefer more time in an office. We see people with great broadband and setup, space at home and children more likely to want to spent time at home. For them it’s usually more preferable to spend time with their family than time on an expensive commute. It’s also greener — transport is a major source of CO2 emissions. We also see people who want a bit of both. There’s no one size fits all, therefore organisations shouldn’t assume there is. Also given a choice, would you rather optimise for a great family life or a great office life? An 8 hour day and a 1 hour commute each way means you’re not optimising for a great family life if your kids are in bed asleep by the time you’re back.

Organisational policies around “home” “office” or “hybrid” typically allow working from home, working from the office or being in the office for a few days a week. Note I wrote “allow working from home” as opposed to “allow working in the office” because still the default seems to be office unless permitted otherwise. None of these however really account for people first. In an organisation claiming to be people centric, why would you not have a people centric flexible working policy? Flexibility first, what’s not to like if you want to attract the best people wherever they are?

Data tells us that the average time spent in a job in the UK is around 5 years, less in the US. This tells us that around 20% of your workforce might have been recruited in the pandemic and so might not even be living near one of the offices. This has now happened to me twice. I haven’t been into an office for work for over 15 months. Going to an office “hybrid” 3 days a week model won’t work for many of these new recruits.

Home, work or hybrid?
None: Look at the data and listen to your people. Let them choose.

Here’s some independent data from the Chartered Management Institute “It’s how you are led that makes the difference”.

Manage the work. Not the worker.
Then organise the organisation for the workers. Not the managers.

You can’t just listen to the needs now of the business and your staff. Be a leader. Actually lead, it’s what you’re paid for. Lead with compassion rather than coercion. See the direction of travel and head there rather than longing for yesterday. If your staff see the direction of travel before you, they are more likely to leave. Office first competitors will hire from about a 1 hour commute radius, they will have a disadvantage against organisations that can hire from anywhere.

Customer needs matter, business needs matter but as those who ignored the pivot from the high street to online trading found, economics and talent retention are bigger levers of change. Like the shift from the high street to e-commerce, the bigger levers tend to prevail in the long term.

Further reading

Article from 2017. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/working-from-home-so-why-craig-cockburn/ This was based on experience of hybrid working because 100% remote wasn’t an option. I still had the same lengthy commute and overnight travel costs as I would have had with a 100% office job.

Article I wrote in 1993 on remote working https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320395213_Computer_Supported_Co-operative_work_CSCW

Posting I wrote in 1992 calling for papers on teleworking on a forum set up in 1990.

Scottish Parliament main debating chamber
Scottish Parliament main debating chamber
Even parliaments have used remote working effectively

Update: Thanks to Daniel Mezick for the praise on LinkedIn and to LinkedIn for featuring my comments in a news post.

Freelance IT Professional, Lean Agile Coach. Wrote UK's first guide to getting online. Non Exec Director. From Dunblane, Perthshire. www.craigcockburn.com