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Return To Office is all about power

A laptop open on a table in a cabin in the woods

Expensify’s experiment to use craft coffees and a free cocktail bar to lure employees back to the office failed spectacularly:

If the best office in the entire planet can't compete with the local coffee shop, the tightly-closed Pandora's box of "work from anywhere" has burst open, and will never be resealed. No amount of begging or coercion is going to work in the long run: the businesses that demand it are fighting a losing war of attrition against an infinite universal energy. You heard it here folks: the office is dead.

This isn’t where every company has ended up on this issue. Most large tech companies in particular are demanding a return to the office, for a few reasons.

The first, although not the main reason, is that a lot of very large companies have real estate portfolios that are now sitting mostly-empty, which will drive down prices when leases come up for renewal, in turn jeopardizing the value of commercial real estate holdings. (Boo hoo.)

The second is a belief — more religious than fact-based — that workers are more productive in the office than if they work from home. (Research tends to show the opposite.)

And the third is ostensibly about company culture:

In a 2022 Korn Ferry survey of 15,000 global executives, two-thirds agreed that corporate culture accounts for more than 30% of their company’s market value. Many leaders, the report notes, believe that a strong culture can only be established and maintained “if everyone is — at least some of the time — occupying the same workplace.”

Culture is important — the core issue on most teams — and I’ll come back to that issue. There’s a subtext here, too, about power. The essential flip is between an employer-controlled environment and a worker-controlled environment. In the former, employees can be observed and their behavior influenced. In the latter, not so much.

This balance of power, at least for knowledge workers, is what has flipped forever. Nobody’s willingly going back to an environment of predominant employer control — at least not without significant concessions.

I wrote a flippant post on Mastodon:

You really want to get people back to the office? Forget free cocktails. Think free daycare, six month parental leave, 25 days vacation + holidays, extensive carer benefits for those who need them, the expectation that you’ll stay home and rest rather than work if you’re sick, flexible hours, further help with the enormous cost of living in the cities you operate in.

Oh, and test and require vaccination proof for everyone.

The response was really strong. Americans overwhelmingly responded with, “Yes! And also retrofit offices to have better ventilation.” Europeans, meanwhile, overwhelmingly responded with, “This would actually be an erosion of my rights; aim higher.” — a good reminder that the working conditions Americans are used to are not the norm virtually anywhere else in the world.

The crux of what I was trying to say is that the balance of power has been in favor of employers; working from home has been much-needed freedom for employees (albeit granted by necessity rather than benevolence). It’s still not truly in balance, and the benefits I discussed should be provided regardless of whether a workforce works from home or from the office — but if a full return to office is on the table, worker benefits, rights, and protections should be too.

And that’s the crux of changes to company culture, too. When employers say “culture” they often mean “norms”: when people show up for work, how they dress, notions of professed work ethic, and so on. These are all cultural elements that benefit the office. But there are also “softer” cultural elements that are a hard requirement for functioning well as a community in any context, that are even more important when workers are not in constant contact with each other.

In a remote environment, communication skills, inclusion, empathy, feeling supported, and connectedness all become vital. It’s easy to feel isolated or unsupported when you’re working from your kitchen table and conversations need to be scheduled video calls. It’s easy to not know what’s happening, understand the team’s goals, or not realize that your colleague is having a hard time this week and isn’t able to be fully present. Many of these things were implicit and unspoken when everyone was in the same room. Not addressing them explicitly was already to the detriment of a company’s culture; it was never optional. But now that everyone is distributed, its importance is amplified.

It turns out that very few employers know how to adapt to that.

It’s worth considering ideas of formal and informal communication in work contexts. Everyone knows that the real benefits at work-related conferences aren’t the sessions, but the hallway track: the conversations people informally have on the side. In my early-career work in higher education, I used to argue that learning was dependent on friendship and study groups that are formed at colleges: the informal spaces where people learn and share knowledge together.

Relationships and ambient information are built in workplaces in the same way. Building a company culture is a lot like building any community. Everyone needs to feel supported, through both hard actions (providing inclusive benefits, tools, processes, policies) and soft gestures (trust, openness, vulnerability, transparency, empathy). There need to be spaces for reflection, and there has to be room for being messily human. Everyone has to feel valued because they are valued, both in word and action. And in turn, it turns out that having increased power, agency, connectedness, support, and trust will make them happier and more productive.

There are tools for this, but they’re different tools. I believe strongly in journaling inside a company, for example: a way of modeling transparent communication, quiet reflection, and vulnerability. The best place I’ve seen this work is Medium, which has a private version of its site (called Hatch) run as an intranet for employees. It’s a beautiful space that runs the gamut from engineering specs to personal introductions and introspection. As Marcin Wishary wrote a few years ago:

It’s so good it feels like a perk. It forces us to be thoughtful about our product and about our company. It makes everyone a better writer/explainer/storyteller. It keeps the relevant ideas and thoughts afloat, as they don’t just die in individual mailboxes.

It’s not a surprise that when the then-CTO of Medium moved on, it was to found Range, a sort of operating system for team communication.

These are hundreds of similar ideas — some of them formal tools, some of them informal practices — that can help with building a strong remote team culture. It’s completely possible, if employers can bring themselves to understand that they have to do the work, and to internalize Expensify’s finding that the previous status quo is never coming back.

No matter which way you cut it or which tools you use, remote work does depend on trust in your employees, more devolved power and distributed equity, high transparency, and great, bi-directional communication. If those are challenging to an organization, there just might be deeper problems that need to be addressed.

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