To my fellow CEOs, with all due respect, maybe this “back to office” mandate is more about your comfort than team performance.
The most recent American Time Use survey shows that women are 30 percent more likely to work from home. People with disabilities and caregivers need work-from-home accommodations. Knowing that forcing people back into the office will disproportionately affect these groups, do you really want to resist adopting one of the biggest innovations to office work since the automatic coffee machine?
Listen, I know it’s hard. When we went fully remote at my company in March 2020, I did everything wrong. The team got burned out and had a hard time feeling successful at their jobs. Why? I failed to treat going remote as a full reorg (it is) and distribute power in the organization to allow people to streamline their work. I didn’t set clear, healthy boundaries for employees between working and not working, and I assumed that building trust was the same process in the virtual environment as in the office.
Yes, I did everything wrong except assume their discomfort and anger was because employees wanted to be sneaky and binge-watch TV at home instead of working. Instead, I assumed that this was a leadership challenge on how to distribute power and create trust and shared context.
What you might learn from the distributed workplace is how to make space for and gain the benefits of genuine diversity of thought in any organization. Here are three places to start with clear leadership actions:
—Distribute power through job role clarity.
Job role clarity was the No. 1 reported reason for low psychological safety across all our clients at Film Forward last year, regardless of industry and whether teams were working in-office or distributed/hybrid. Everyone needs to know exactly what their job is as well as how success in their role is measured and ties into the larger company strategy. All of this should be outlined in a detailed job description that is mutually agreed upon — and every team member should know what decisions they can make independently and when they need sign-off or buy-in.
—You will need frameworks and tools to stand in for trust.
Many teams are working together who have never met in person, and will have different ways of working and speeds of building trust. A shared codex of tools and frameworks such as an inclusive meeting framework, a scripted retrospective practice and a reliable accountability framework that leaders model by using can stand in while trust is still being built.
—You will need emotional energy for remote work — a lot of it.
In the virtual environment, leaders bear a great responsibility to create conditions for people to succeed while they’re not just in different physical spaces but in very different frames of mind. Leaders have to exercise the emotional cognizance to understand that personal factors such as the demands of caring for children or older adults as well as social and political stressors — these factors affect employees differently. Leaders should help their teams set up calendars and communication tools to block out work hours, protect deep work time, and make it easier to contribute to scheduled meetings. It’s a leader’s job to empower employees to set healthy boundaries — and then not override them with demands to answer late-night emails.
This, I believe, is why many company leaders are eager to force their employees back into the workplace. Historically, the workplace is some magic portal where we’re supposed to check our feelings at the door, mask disfavored identities and step over people’s feelings so we can “crush the competition.” But as employees demand work-from-home options, we simply can’t ignore feelings and expect productive outputs. While we can’t solve all the problems, we can gain a lot of trust by acknowledging they exist.
The very human advantages of distributed work cannot be replicated with strict in-office work protocols. The accommodations for people with disabilities, the flexibility for families and caregivers and the savings of time and money on commuting are too precious to too many workers to take back. A leader’s job is not to uphold the status quo. A leader’s job is to lead, experiment and learn how to change with the times, and to create space for new ways of working to move our companies and our culture forward.