Every single survey rolled out since mid-2020 in one form or the other asked respondents – ‘How many days would you like to work from an office?’ No wonder, we’ve been brainwashed into believing that the number of days in the office matter more than the purpose of bringing employees back. When the focus is misplaced, one shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that employers around the world are still figuring out when and why should employees be in an office. It has taken a fair few months for the conversation to switch from the number of days to focusing on why we want employees in an office. It is heart-warming to watch articles like the one on ‘When do we actually need to meet in person’ published in the HBR being widely circulated vs research reports stating that employees on average want to work from an office 3 days a week. I had truly believed that HR & business leaders had turned a corner and accepted the fact that the focus on days that matter was pointless until 48 hours ago, I spotted yet another 3-question survey rolled out with the first question being, you guessed it, ‘how many days would you like to work from an office’?
There are many reasons why this is a preferred question. Imagine you were involved in space planning. Having to focus on the moments that matter i.e. the meetings, activities and events that employees come together for and then work backwards to figure space planning is a tedious task. It is far easier to focus on the number of days and then fit everything else around it. Second, we’ve been primed by the conversation on 5-day and 4-day week into thinking of work as days and hours. It takes a completely different mindset to take apart that reasoning and get into the roots of when to bring people together. It’s not something we’ve done before. Lastly, everyone else is doing the same. No organization has come out and said – these are the events that we’re going to come together for but many have mentioned the number of days they’re expecting employees to work from an office. Yet, none of these reasons hold valid. It is harder to sell the number of days to an employee than the moments that matter. One can argue why two days a week is better than three. It is harder to argue the case that brainstorming via video calls is more effective than gathering around a whiteboard.
So, the question remains – when do we bring employees into an office and how do we figure how many days a week that translates into?
One approach is to begin by asking employees why they’d like to work from an office? These responses usually fall into three categories: (a) they lack the infrastructure at home to work effectively i.e. desk, space, lack of distractions, (b) they miss the spontaneous unplanned conversations i.e. coffee chats, lunches and run-ins or (b) they have identified meetings, events and occasions that are more effective in person vs online. While the first piece is useful for space planning, it is the other two that allow us to plan for the longer term. Shape your questions to draw out what those moments that matter are. From research, articles and conversations, the moments that matter are usually hallway conversations (difficult to plan for), unstructured meetings and team bonding moments. Most individuals agree that unstructured meetings like brainstorming is more effective in person via online if only because in-person allows for more than one person to talk at a time which is impossible via video calls. The other common emergent theme is team bonding. Once you have these ‘moments that matter’ in place for the team, figure how many hours a week that amounts to on an average and then begin the negotiation process to land at which meetings should the team come together for and how to schedule them through the week or month.
While at this, also spend time discussing which of the other meetings should absolutely stay online and which should transition to asynchronous conversations. Once you have these discussions down, planning return to office becomes much easier.
One parting note – it is tempting to collect employee preference via a survey, however important conversations such as these deserve a dialogue and not a survey. Not only does a dialogue allow you to parse through surface level responses and get to the root of why your team is saying what they are, it also shows that you as a manager take their opinion seriously. If you must, have managers input the information gathered from these conversations into a survey but there is absolutely no reason why managers should not have this conversation via a meeting.
If you do take my advice and refuse to send out any surveys, below is one way you could structure the conversation. Feel free to restructure based on where your organization is at. I don’t know what the future looks like or if these conversations will help land a solution, but I can promise to share everything I learn here and hope to learn from your journey too.
Set the scene
- Share the purpose of the conversation: It is to collect input and share perspectives. These inputs may or may not feed into the decision the team/organization takes. Or if the organization has decided, it is to help understand how to best support them.
- If applicable, re-iterate that things may change as the organization learns more.
- Start by checking if people have clarifying questions.
Ask open questions
- The objective here is to make sure people have a chance to share their perspective. It may also help to share how you’re thinking about the topic. In doing so, both will need to recognize that there will be other perspectives amongst your peers, senior leaders and others that may challenge your thinking and other decisions may be made.
- Consider these questions:
- Learnings about working from home
- What were your positive surprises about working from home?
- What did you find most challenging?
- Where work is done in future
- Have you thought about what your preference is for where you work in future?
- What will make the return to the office easier for you?
- What would your ideal work week look like?
- Are there any personal circumstances you’re willing to share that would make a return to the office difficult for you?
- Types of work
- What types of work would you prefer to do from the office — for example, large staff meetings, new team meetings, brainstorming sessions, etc.?
- What types of work would you prefer to do from home?
- Learnings about working from home
Agree any actions or follow ups
- There are many topics for which you may not have answers yet
- Check if there are specific gaps in understanding and close loop on any open questions.
Remember: It is likely that you will discuss this topic several times. Personal and business circumstances can change. Each of us will also experience different levels of comfort working in person over time, with any initial return likely to be strange at first.