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Are return-to-office mandates backfiring?

NEW YORK CITY OCTOBER 03 : General views of offices buildings in midtown Manhattan on October 03,2022 in New York City. New York leasing demand has bounced back toward pre-pandemic levels, the corridor has 29% of office space available for tenants, nearly double the amount four years ago and above the city's overall rate of 19%, according to research from brokerage firm Savills. (Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress)
NEW YORK CITY OCTOBER 03 : General views of offices buildings in midtown Manhattan on October 03,2022 in New York City. New York leasing demand has bounced back toward pre-pandemic levels, the corridor has 29% of office space available for tenants, nearly double the amount four years ago and above the city's overall rate of 19%, according to research from brokerage firm Savills. (Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress)

Three years after the pandemic pushed almost every office worker out of the office … employers are trying to pull them back in.

Apple, Meta, Amazon and Disney want workers to be in the office more days per week.

But the pandemic shutdown may have permanently shifted norms and expectations about where employees can and want to work.

How does where we work affect our productivity and office culture?

Today, On Point: Are return-to-office mandates backfiring?

Guests

Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder of the Flex Strategy Group. Her company has helped organizations reimagine how and where work is done for more than 20 years.

Emma Harrington, assistant professor of economics at the University of Virginia.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On May 1, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy stood in the lobby of the company’s Seattle headquarters, fist-bumping employees. In a company video called “Amazon Welcome Day,” You see Jassy surrounded by balloons, smiling greeters dressed in orange company polos and free bananas from Amazon’s community banana stand.

BACKGROUND CROSSTALK: Nice to meet you.

Nice to meet you. (MUSIC)

ANDY JASSY: Well, I’m really excited to have more of my teammates back in the office, and I think we’re pretty convinced that we’re going to invent and collaborate better when we’re in the office more together. I think the riffing that happens is really different. I think the ability to map out ideas and a whiteboard when you’re done with the meeting is different. Those serendipitous meetings happen a lot more when we’re together.

CHAKRABARTI: Amazon’s corporate staffers are now required to be in the office at least three days a week. Meaning employees are in-person, some for the first time since the pandemic, and others for the first time ever. Last month’s official end of the nation’s pandemic emergency declaration kickstarted the latest round of back-to-the-office pushes for many American companies. Apple, Meta and Disney, they all want their workers off Zoom and back to working face to face.

The reason why was best evangelized by Silicon Valley’s creative guru, the late Steve Jobs. He designed Apple’s circular headquarters to force people to walk through the office, leading to unexpected interactions. Same for the design of Pixar’s HQ. Jobs put the bathrooms at [Apple] right in the atrium of the building, so people had to walk through the office, encounter each other. And as Jobs put it, quote, “When people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.” His successor, current Apple CEO Tim Cook, continues to carry that flame. Here he is at the Atlantic Festival back in September 2020.

TIM COOK: Things like creativity and the serendipity that you talk about, these things, you depend on people kind of running into each other over the course of a day. We have designed our entire office such that there are common areas where people congregate and talk about different things, and you can’t schedule those things.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. The back to the office push isn’t just happening in tech. Businesses in almost every sector are thinking, “It’s time to curb remote work.” Banking is another great example. And media, too. Full disclosure, by the way, today, our home station, WBUR, announced its back-to-the-office policy. As of September 2023, all my colleagues will have to be back in our building at least two days per week.

But the promise of more ethereal, creative sparks isn’t enough to convince many workers that they’ll do better in the office. The pandemic profoundly changed employee expectations over the past three years. Less commuting, fewer distractions, less stress, greater focus. These are the gains remote workers say far outweigh immeasurables like creativity. Take Anne, she works in New Jersey and asked us not to use her real name, because she wants to protect her job. Anne told us her employer now requires her back four days a week. They’ve been gradually ramping up the number of days in person after roughly a year and a half of remote work.

ANNE: I miss being able to run outside every day during my lunch break. I miss having my cat around who would jump up in my lap while I was working and who was quite insistent on me finishing at 5 p.m. Now that I’m back in the office, I find myself not stopping work until at least 6 p.m., sometimes later.

And even then, I have an hour-long commute. Because I moved during COVID, because I couldn’t afford to live in the state that I worked in. I am really frustrated, and I think it’s because I now understand we don’t have to work like this. I just, I don’t want to do it. And it’s really making me question if I even want to do this job anymore.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, we don’t like “either, ors” here at On Point. So today we want to talk about whether there’s a balance, a way to maximize the collaborative magic that’s supposed to happen when human beings physically work together. Balance that with the considerable mental and life improvements that remote workers have come to rely on. And yes, we are also going to talk about the folks who never had the chance to leave the factory floor, office or workspace because you are essential to your company. Or remote work was never offered to you.

So let’s dive in. Cali Williams Yost joins us. She’s CEO and founder of the Flex Strategy Group, which has helped companies reimagine how and where work is done for more than 20 years. She’s also author of a couple of books, “Work + Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You” and “Tweak It: Make What Matters Happen Every Day.” And she joins us from New York. Cali, welcome to On Point.

CALI WILLIAMS YOST: Thanks, Meghna. It’s great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, just give us a snapshot of your work situation over the past couple of years.

WILLIAMS YOST: It’s been (LAUGHS) a firehose of interest and opportunity around flexibility, which is wonderful. But I’m kind of confused, only because this isn’t new.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Yeah.

WILLIAMS YOST: Organizations are becoming much more flexible for over 20 years, and the pandemic just accelerated a trend that was already well underway. And so now, how do we optimize it on the other side?

CHAKRABARTI: Right. Well, what I’d like to do is to kind of establish what you personally have experienced, and me, too, so people know where we’re coming from in terms of our work experience over the past couple of years. So have you been able to work remote or were you in whatever office space you had? Where were you physically over the past several years?

WILLIAMS YOST: Well, our organization has always been fully virtual.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

WILLIAMS YOST: We discovered a long time ago that we do most of our work at the client site. Before COVID, obviously. Or we did it virtually. Believe it or not, with Zoom and not Teams, but with Zoom beforehand. And we just didn’t need the space. It wasn’t necessary to enable our work. So it was easy for us to transition. Plus, my workforce is not all in Madison, New Jersey, where our office is.

CHAKRABARTI: Got it.

WILLIAMS YOST: So that was also part of it. So it wasn’t really new for us.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And when you said not Teams, did you mean not Microsoft Teams?

WILLIAMS YOST: Microsoft Teams.

CHAKRABARTI: Because it’s terrible. (LAUGHS)

WILLIAMS YOST: I was going to say Teams, and I realized it wasn’t there.

CHAKRABARTI: Because it’s oddly terrible.

WILLIAMS YOST: I know.

CHAKRABARTI: My personal opinion. AI. (LAUGHS) But okay, so that’s interesting. Because I had the exact opposite experience, right? When the pandemic hit, look, our organization jumped on top of things. And for people’s safety, almost everyone who could moved remote. I chose to actually remain in our building for work. A, because I’ve got two young kids at home and trying to do an hour-long radio show with them around was not going to be possible. And B, it actually for me, there was a lot about being in the building, which I found personally for me as a worker superior to being remote.

However, I have taken advantage of this new mindset, at least at our workplace, of flexibility, which means a lot of different things. So I wanted to put that caveat in. But I have been sitting right here, at this desk in WBUR’s Studio 3, for most of the past three years. Now, how much has the most recent, you know, lifting of that pandemic emergency declaration, how much has that changed, or accelerated or altered the landscape of who’s working remote and who’s not? Because I got the sense, Cali, that a lot of businesses were looking at that as like the final domino that needed to drop before they could say, “Yep, now you got to come back in.”

WILLIAMS YOST: Well, I think there was always a caution to put people in harm’s way, right? So when the COVID emergency lifted at the beginning of last month, I think that last barrier was removed. And there was this drive now to say, “Okay, what are we going to do next?” And I think you brought up two important points. One, the transition driven by COVID to remote work, extreme forms of remote work, was crisis driven. So we didn’t have time to plan this in a very effective way.

So leaders are not wrong when they say, “Okay, so what got lost in the sauce in terms of innovation, talent development, culture?” But on the other side, also, we learned we could work pretty effectively, not the way we did before. So on the other side, you have employees who are rightfully saying, “Well, why am I coming back? Like, what are we doing when we’re together in person?” And I agree. And again, most people who can work remotely and in-person do understand and value being in-person.

There just has to be a purpose to it. So by focusing on these days in the office, it’s just how we’re going about this. The days focus is, I think, misplaced. And is causing a lot of the problems. Because people understand this wasn’t optimal, the way we’ve been doing it for the last three years. How do we make it better?

But by focusing on days in the office, we aren’t actually prioritizing the things we’re trying to get done when we’re together. And we’re also not talking about what we’re going to continue to do when we are not together on those days. And that’s what we should be leading with. We should be leading with the “what” and then talking about the “where.” But we’re not doing that, which is why we’re stuck.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I want you to hold that thought, because we will absolutely come back to it. I want to know what the alternative way of thinking about some kind of new balance between remote and in-office expectations. But one of the first things we hear, and the reason why we led the show with this is that, you know, human beings are social creatures.

And even though digital technology and digital collaboration has come a long way. Nothing replaces, again, that sort of creative spark of even just the accidental encounter in the hallway. That sort of, I would almost call it, cult of creativity and innovation comes with the presumption that that can be maximized only when people are in the same spaces together. I can understand that to a degree. But, you know, let’s focus on creativity for a second. Sometimes the most creative sparks happen when people are absolutely on their own.

WILLIAMS YOST: Yep. In the shower. I’ve had people over the years saying, “Oh, I just had that idea in the shower.” Yeah, you’re right.

CHAKRABARTI: And so why is it that we hear about teamwork, relying on creativity and innovation to succeed, and that that can only best happen when people are together physically?

WILLIAMS YOST: So I think it’s important to also understand we’re not talking about fully remote going forward, in most cases, we’re really not. We’re now talking about possibly being together two to three days a week on site, in most cases, when you can have both. And maybe two to three days a week when we’re not in the same place.

CHAKRABARTI: Got it.

WILLIAMS YOST: So we’re not going to lose that. Whatever those moments are that did happen, they will happen. There’s going to have to just be a greater degree of intentionality. Around prioritizing, again, those things that relate to engagement planning or product development or talent development that could benefit people being in the same place, making sure those are prioritized for those days together.

But then looking at ways we can keep that going when we’re not in the same place. And knowing those moments when we’re together will happen on those two or three days, around that planning. But are there ways that we can continue to leverage and build out on that we learned could possibly do that when we’re not in the same spaces? And, you know, before COVID, we didn’t all sit in the same place, and that’s another piece of this that’s important.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder of the Flex Strategy Group. Hang on for just a second. Got to take a quick break and we’ll be right back. This is On Point.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And today, we’re talking about the latest round of businesses and corporations that are trying to pull their workers back into the office. Those workers who were able to be remote over the course of the COVID pandemic. I’m joined today by Cali Williams Yost. She’s CEO and founder of the Flex Strategy Group.

And, Cali, before the break, you talked about as managers and employers are trying to adjust their remote options, that the focus is on, “How many days should folks be back in the office?” And that sort of mandating days is one of the things that a lot of On Point listeners reacted to, from their own life experience.

For example, here’s Jacqueline in Maryland, and she works for a U.S. government contractor. She’s been remote for the past three years or so, but her company has been pushing to get people back in the office three days a week. And here’s what she said.

JACQUELINE: We work with international offices around the world. These water cooler moments don’t happen naturally. I feel it’s being made by mostly decisions by men who work in closed offices, can shut their door. And maybe have a spouse at home who can take care of everything. Frankly, for me, there’s nothing about working in person that I miss. I’m actually extremely more productive. The time I used to spent commuting, I work out, I exercise, I walk. And I’ve found that I’m yawning less. All this commuting before used to create fatigue and just more burnout.

CHAKRABARTI: So that was Jacqueline in Maryland. Here’s another caller from New York City who wanted to remain anonymous. We got a lot of those, because they’re a little concerned about how their employers might react. And they told us that managers should absolutely not be mandating — not be mandating people come back in-person.

CALLER: I personally used to work in an office which was fluorescent lit and carpeted, and people worked in cubicles. And only senior management, so only senior management had windows. And of course, the senior management mostly were people who took a huge amount of time off and worked very flexibly from wherever they wanted. So their windowed offices were often unoccupied. It’s an insane system. Human beings are not meant to exist that way.

During the pandemic, we were granted this small amount of liberty, and it turns out it is much better. It is much better not to be locked in a windowless cubicle under fluorescent lighting all day. It makes you feel better. It’s better to see your kids a little bit during the day. It’s better to be able to cook your own lunch rather than have to find something affordable or bring something in, deal with the fridge. And many of us have continued to meet every expectation held of us.

CHAKRABARTI: By the way, a little behind the scenes glimpse here. You know, we’ve really touched a nerve with folks when they call us either on our voicemail line, or on our On Point VoxPop app. And their messages go on for a very, very long time. Here’s another one, although this is a shorter, edited version. This is Andy Cagle, who said he actually quit his job at the USDA when he was forced to return to work in person. And he says that mandate actually contradicted his understanding of what Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s position was.

ANDY CAGLE: We were forced to return to essentially an empty office. Because every other program said they had no way to deny their staff the opportunity offered by the Secretary of Agriculture. But the one group I worked for, Plant Protection and Quarantine, decided that they were essentially hostile to Tom Vilsack’s message. And I was one of seven people that quit in a two-month period.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Cali, so just a couple of examples there.

WILLIAMS YOST: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to talk about something that Jacqueline from Maryland brought up. I mean, her sense was that the decisions were being made by managers or employers who had more privileged physical working environments to begin with, closed offices and maybe that parking spot. So they didn’t have to worry about where to put their car. Essentially saying that, like the managers were out of touch with what office reality was, or is, for most workers. What do you think about that?

WILLIAMS YOST: See, I see this as a slightly different issue. I call it a clash of contexts. Okay. So you have a group of senior leaders, even though we’ve worked in a very different way for three years. Their fundamental context around work is in the office.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm hmm.

WILLIAMS YOST: So they see legitimate concerns around developing talent, supporting culture that perhaps are not happening the way they need to for a sustainable organization. And their default context is to go to “in the office.” “We have to get in the office more.” On the other side, and you heard it loud and clear, you now have employees who have a completely different context for how they work. And that has come about over three years of experience. And so they’re clashing. They’re not meeting in the middle and understanding that perhaps there’s another way to do it. And so these mandates, these one-size-fits-all mandates, you’re not going to achieve this through policy. And that’s the problem.

You have to look at the process. You have to go through a consistent process that everybody goes through. So that’s almost like what you mandate, is that we go through this process of looking at what we do and thinking about where that happens most effectively, when it happens most effectively, and how. And what then happens is you pull together the organizational flexibility. So and this is the other piece and you said this at the beginning, Meghna. How do we define this? What are we talking about? So there are two things coming.

And you heard it in their stories. You have the organizational flexibility, which is, “How does an organization function at a high level, working across workplaces, spaces and time?” And then how two individuals flexibly fit their work and life together in a way that works for them in their jobs? And those two things need to come together. And that is what’s missing right now. And that’s what you hear, the frustration. Is there’s no clear “why” going on here. There’s no, “Is butts in seats what we’re going for? Because that’s not necessarily going to get me to be more effective in my job, nor is it necessarily going to get you all these things you’re telling me are required for me to come back in to achieve.” That’s what’s happening here.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I love how you put that, the clash of contexts, right? Because, you know, work isn’t just one thing. It’s not just creativity, it’s not just innovation, or collaboration, or productivity or talent development. It’s all of those things, right, for an organization. But I wonder if, in some aspects, are parts of that clash almost irresolvable when the framework is, “You have to get, you know, in two, three or four days a week.” And I want to just take this down to a level of like everyday life for a moment.

Because from the point of view of a lot of workers, they would argue that, “Okay, productivity is an important part of what we do. It’s not just all about like gathering around the watercooler and having brilliant ideas.” And for all sorts of reasons, they have told us in their messages they’re more productive working remotely. Because, I mentioned some of the reasons, they’re not spending hours of their day commuting. They’re less stressed when they’re working, because of that. You know, they’re able to, as you mentioned, you know, balance the demands of their home and family life with work. And in totality, that makes them more productive. Now, how can that not clash with any mandate, no matter how many days it is, to come back into work?

WILLIAMS YOST: It will clash. Because they’re not wrong either. So there are things that they’re probably doing more productively, because they don’t have the commute. And given the job they have, there’s more focused time. They’re not being interrupted, so they can get things done more efficiently. I mean, so they’re not wrong either. Right? So what aspects of their work can continue to happen on those days, and be prioritized, on those days when they are not in the office? But what can we begin to identify and prioritize for those days we are in the office? Because I’m going to have to say this. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Please do.

WILLIAMS YOST: Okay. Pre-COVID things were not awesome.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. (LAUGHS)

WILLIAMS: Okay. I just, I want everybody to understand. T’here’s kind of this, like, fantasy, like ‘Ahhh!’ There were many things that were not awesome before COVID. Onboarding was not awesome. Manager training was not awesome. We had not optimized the technology that we use. It was all over the place. I mean, there are things that really weren’t. Oh, open office spaces were a disaster.

CHAKRABARTI: Not awesome. (LAUGHS)

WILLIAMS YOST: A disaster before COVID. Okay? People before COVID were setting alarms and doing work like 2 hours before they had to go into the office. So what we’re seeing now is a recognition that we don’t have to do things the way we were doing them. It’s now, we have to shift to, “How can we do them better and more effectively going forward?” And that’s what we are not doing when we’re trying to just set days in the office and call it. Like that’s where this clash and this conflict is coming from.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, you know what? I’m going to reserve sort of the last third of the show to really think through with you and the other guest I’m about to introduce about how, you know, we prioritize what we want to accomplish in the office and what remote workers can accomplish better at home, because that definitely seems to be the way forward. I’m quite excited about that. Also, again, just because I’ve been living this life too, the quietest space that I have in all of WBUR’s offices is right here, where you’re hearing me. In this glass studio.

Where no one can bother me. Because we’re on the air. Otherwise, it’s chaos. But let’s just hear a little bit more from some of our listeners, again, who shared what they feel are the benefits of the opportunities they had to work remotely. And this is Brigid Shea, an elected county commissioner in Austin, Texas. And she says the city of Austin had noticed noticeably less traffic.

BRIGID SHEA: So we adopted a policy that we think is the most ambitious for any local government in the country, and we just won a national award for it. Our goal is to have 75% of our eligible workers telecommute on a permanent basis. An eligible is workers who don’t have to physically be at work to do their job. We’ve documented increased productivity, improved employee morale. We’ve saved over $1 million the first year in utility savings in our buildings, and we’ve pretty significantly reduced our greenhouse gas emissions from our employee commute.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Brigid Shea, an elected county commissioner in Austin, Texas. And here’s Sarah Romero in Aurora, Colorado. She told us she saves around three to four hours a day being remote.

SARAH ROMERO: I started a new job a year ago and I’ve been able to network and build relationships with my new coworkers via Microsoft Chat. I’m also able to stay in contact with former coworkers via texting. I do notice that my level of physical activity has decreased, but attribute this to the recent death of my dog.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, joining us now is Emma Harrington. She’s assistant professor of economics at the University of Virginia. Professor Harrington, welcome to you.

EMMA HARRINGTON: Thanks so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, you know, are there particular things about remote work that actually are measurably less advantageous, not just for the organization but for the worker? I mean, we talked about creativity and collaboration. But are there other things that are important for a person’s career that they may be missing out on if they’re not in the office that often?

HARRINGTON: Yeah. So my collaborators and I have studied mentorship in the context of software engineers at a Fortune 500 firm. And software engineers are kind of unique because the mentorship that they receive, some of it leaves a paper trail, that there is code reviews of software that senior engineers often write for more junior engineers, and that gives us this quantifiable measure of how much mentorship people are getting.

CHAKRABARTI: And what did you find? Yeah, go ahead.

HARRINGTON: Yeah, we see that engineers who are sitting in the same office building as all their teammates receive about 20% more comments on their code, pre-COVID. And those differences go away once everyone’s remote. And that difference is concentrated among younger and more junior colleagues who have more to learn from their more experienced coworkers.

CHAKRABARTI: Wait, so, let me be sure I understand this correctly. So once everyone goes remote, are you saying that you found that everyone was getting the same amount of comments in their code?

HARRINGTON: Yeah. So basically everyone was getting the same amount. And the differences that we saw pre-COVID between engineers who happened to be sitting in the same building as all their teammates, vs. those whose teams were already distributed across the two buildings on the firm’s main campus, those differences go away once everyone’s working at home.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. But the implication is, if I hear you correctly, that the additional mentorship that some workers were getting, particularly women and younger workers, when they were face to face with folks, that is what went away, which is the cause for concern.

HARRINGTON: Yes, definitely.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

HARRINGTON: We do see a flip side of that, that some of those senior engineers write more programs when they’re not sitting near their junior colleagues. So sort of going back to something you were talking about earlier in the hour, there are these sort of intrinsic tradeoffs between the focus time that you get when you’re at home, vs. that more collaborative bump-in time when you’re in the office.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And after, I don’t know if time has been going on long enough to measure this, we might have to wait several more years. But I can’t help but to ask, Professor Harrington, after three years of this, is there an indication that we actually haven’t gotten any better at mentoring, even while people are remote?

HARRINGTON: So, unfortunately, our data specifically doesn’t go that far into the pandemic. And the first six months, we didn’t see much of an improvement. But that’s not that much time to learn how to collaborate online. I think probably the biggest change that is outside the scope of our study is the return to the office, part of the time. And there is a key question about whether hybrid work can achieve the best of both worlds by having some of that collaborative time and some of that focused time.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, as I asked Cali, and disclosed myself in terms of what our individual work experiences have been like over the past several years, Professor Harrington, do you mind if I ask sort of, were you remote? Were you going, you know, into the office at the university or what was it like for the past couple of years for you?

HARRINGTON: So I really enjoy working at home. I think there are some cons, but some substantial pros. I think I’m starting this fall at the University of Virginia and have been at the University of Iowa. And I think starting in a new place, I’m gonna prioritize more going into the office a lot. Because I think that’s really potentially the critical time for learning sort of the way that a new organization does things.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And so then what would you recommend based on your findings about the diminishing of mentorship that has happened when everyone is remote? Is there a way for employees to advocate for more of that, or managers to be more aware?

HARRINGTON: Yeah, I think it’s something that managers can potentially try to orchestrate more and be more intentional about. That we probably relied on the office to help workers make these connections with potential mentors in a more organic way. But there may be ways to supplement that with just more direct policies.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Emma Harrington is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Virginia. She’s done a study on “The power of proximity,” as the study title holds, about office interactions affecting online feedback, especially for women and young workers. Professor Harrington, thank you so much for joining us.

HARRINGTON: Thank you.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we are talking about the domestic issue of returning to the office, and changes in remote work expectations in American companies. And we heard from some folks who said, “It’s about time.” Because they’ve been in the office for the whole pandemic and having to balance or do extra for their colleagues who are working remotely has been very difficult. For example, here is Cale Lively from Spokane, Washington.

CALE LIVELY: I work 100% in office. I can tell you that my job is made more difficult by having individuals that work from home. It’s hard to shadow and see what employees do that may be working or may not be working. It is also hard to get a feel on how our patients are being treated when things like referrals and calls come in and go out.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Cale Lively from Spokane, Washington. Also from Washington, though, Port Townsend instead. Dusty Massey told us that he doesn’t like remote work from the point of view of the customer.

DUSTY MASSEY: I have noticed significant changes in attitudes. And people that are not in the office, that are in their kitchen or living room, or dining room with their dog running around or whatever. They aren’t as accountable, in other words, for customer service. I’ve been hung up on countless times, so I would be happy to see a return to a more regimented office worker type thing.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Cali. So now it’s time to talk about presumptions. Let’s undermine some erroneous presumptions and come up with a better way to think about this. Because, you know, I can imagine that one of the first things that managers in a lot of companies might have been thinking over the past several years is, you know, when workers were remote, it was hard to measure productivity. Or it was more challenging to figure out who was doing what or if they were doing it, and that having butts in seats, as you mentioned, would be an easier way of doing that. How have you responded to folks who’ve said that to you?

WILLIAMS YOST: So here’s another thing that we have to just all acknowledge. We weren’t really doing a great job of measuring productivity before COVID, so that carried into COVID. And I want to just say something about the two comments that were made from your callers. Again, this was crisis-driven flexibility. There’s a lot of things here that are not optimized, and that is really what we have to do next. So all of those things that were brought up, have to be part of the conversation. So if we have to shadow people, and if we have to see how things are working, how do we do that now? Because it’s not happening.

Or if there’s a customer service issue, how do we resolve that? And I will say there are a lot of remote customer service people who do things beautifully, but their systems have been set up to make that effective. So that’s going to be the next iteration of this for that organization. So again, this has all been crisis driven. Now we have to optimize it. And one of the ways to do that is we have to start to look at what is productivity? What is performance? And, you know, there is code. There’s concrete things like code, but there are also things like engagement, like people feeling they’re being developed. So you have to come up with a effective system of metrics that you are measuring towards.

Because before COVID, when I would come in and we’d reimagine the workplace and there would be a degree of additional remote work, managers would come up to me and say, “How do I know they’re working if I can’t see them?” And this was a genuine question. And my answer was, “It’s easy. So how are you doing it now? Just keep doing that.” And it would be a blank stare, consistently. So again, this is an opportunity now to do a lot of the things we should have been doing anyway. And I have seen countless times organizations sit down and ask, “What are we doing? And how, when and where do we do it best?” And unlocking a whole new level of engagement, performance and wellbeing through that process. And that’s what we’re not doing, and that’s what ultimately has to happen.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So you’re really talking about going back to, you know, some fundamentals here. I love the idea of using this as an opportunity to, you know, more tightly and clearly define, like you said, what is productivity, what is performance? Because there are many businesses, I imagine, that those things were never actually clearly defined, to the detriment of managers and the employers themselves. So let’s say that an organization goes through that exercise, though I imagine that can’t be easy, in some of the sort of the creativity-based jobs and industries, Cali?

WILLIAMS YOST: You know, I think that’s what we’re trying to avoid right now. Is I think everybody’s just over. Like they just want it to be dealt with. And I think that’s what’s underlying some of these kind of mandates. Like, I just want to be done with it and I get it. It’s just unfortunately, we went through historic disruption of work. And on the other side, we’re going to have to almost take another disruptive, intentional rethink of work that matches this moment. And I think that’s where you’re hearing the frustration.

And it doesn’t, it’s an investment. It’s an investment in time. It’s an investment in effort, but it’s an investment that really pays off. Because you get beyond this conflict. So, you know, I can share with you an example of what an organization is doing to help you understand what that could look like. But really, at the end of the day, the process can be the same. But the way it’s going to play out in an organization is going to depend on that business.

CHAKRABARTI: Give me an example. I am an examples person.

WILLIAMS YOST: Okay. So we’re working with a professional services firm. This is a 10,000-person national professional services firm. And what we’re doing is we’re setting them up now. So in the fall, each business line within this professional services firm is going to plan against, let’s say, ten different business priorities and activities that are really important to them. So things like developing talent, engagement planning, business development, you know, coordinating now with colleagues who are in India that are taking on some of their work.

And so everybody at the same time, September, October, November, they are going to be prompted to, as teams, think about how, when and where a particular activity that is a business priority is going to happen. So imagine, there are going to be a lot of different ways this could play out in these teams. But everybody’s asking the same question, toward the same priority, at the same time. And then at the end of this process in December, you have parameters.

Everybody has kind of defined the parameters that they’re going to work within. And employees are involved in this process. It’s not just top-down that the leadership is doing this. It is that teams themselves are asking this question of themselves and coming up with the structure that they are going to work with. And see, this is what we’re struggling with now. We don’t have the structure.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah.

WILLIAMS YOST: And that structure is something that’s going to depend on the business. And so what we’re then going to do is in December, the structure’s set, we’re going to roll that back up and say, “What were some of the common best practices that emerged from this around this business priority?” And, “What were some of the things the teams do differently and why?” And from that, this organization is going to start to begin to formulate their high performing, flexible operating model for their business. And the senior leaders of all of the different business lines are the ones that are going to prompt people. They’re involved in this. So that’s the kind of collective effort that has to happen.

CHAKRABARTI: Is this an example of what you were talking about before? It really captured my imagination here, that there needs to be discussion and concrete decision-making about, you know, “What are the priorities and the focuses going to be when people are in the building, right, or in the office? And what are the priorities going to be when on the days that people are remote?” Is that an example of what you were talking?

WILLIAMS YOST: Exactly. Because this is what prompted this whole thing. Is I was in front of the senior leadership of this group, and they’re in an industry that headlines are being made from competitors with their mandates, and they don’t want to do it that way. And I said, “Is it about the days in the office or is it about optimizing what’s happening when you’re in person and what’s happening when you’re not?” And they all raised their hand and said, “It’s the second thing, it’s the second thing.” I’m like, “Okay, well then let’s do that.” Okay, let’s stop doing the mandate. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I want you to repeat that 1,000 times, Cali. Say it to America, again. What is the core question? Go ahead, one more time at the top of your lungs.

WILLIAMS YOST: Because I said, “Is it about days in office or is it about what are we doing when we’re together in person, and what are we doing when we’re not?” And every last one of them raised their hand and I was like, “Okay, so can we stop focusing on days in the office and start with that question?” And, you know, then they wrapped in for themselves, for their business. They’re like, “Yeah, and then we have this team we’re now coordinating with in India, which causes, we have to think about time zone management issues and they’re rolling out all this new technology.”

And they’re like, “And how do we loop this in to thinking about how we leverage our technology to support this different, these different ways of working?” So for them, it then became a much more robust rethinking of work, across a bunch of different dimensions, vs. just being in the office. And people are really responding to it. And that’s what I know is possible, but that takes leadership. And leadership being willing to hold the space for that reimagining to happen.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, and the other thing that I find so sophisticated about this rethinking of what the core question is, is that it acknowledges that some things truly do happen better in the office. Right? And so those are the things that need to be prioritized when people are physically together, rather than just, you know, sometimes I’m a little cheeky about it.

And I was calling it earlier, like the mystical acts of collaboration or the cult of creativity, that was firmly tongue in cheek. But this is more concrete. I can get my head around it. Like, there’s just things that we can do better when we’re together. So let’s focus on those. And there’s things we can do better when we’re not together, so let’s focus on those when we’re out of the office. Okay. So then once that rethinking happens, and you described it as quite a long process, the company you told us about was like a three-month process they were going through?

WILLIAMS YOST: Yeah. And they’re viewing that as almost like a sprint to get started. And just an ongoing, like a consistent ongoing just optimization of how, when and where they’re working. Which we should be doing anyway, honestly. Because look at AI, like that’s a new thing now. Like we have to be able to absorb these changes into just how we think about the way we work. And what’s really interesting about the whole thing, they will probably end up with two or three days a week on average in the office.

But they’re coming at it from the work, so people will know why they’re there. And that’s what’s the difference, because what’s happening now is people are showing up on the two or three days they’re made to be in the office and they’re doing the same things they were doing when they were sitting at home. And so, you know, you’re not optimizing that time together, which really does matter.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So there’s a couple more things I want to ask you, before I run out of time with you, Cali. Another thing about a collective endeavor that most work is, is there’s this idea that there’s a culture that forms. And that culture has been inhibited with remote work. That piece seems to be quite important and real to me. So how does this sort of rethinking of how and when people should work factor into that?

WILLIAMS YOST: You know, culture is an interesting concept. I personally believe culture is an outcome of something. It’s something that comes from how you’re doing things. It’s not something you can lead with necessarily. And I think we didn’t, again, yeah, people showed up in the office, in an office every day, but I’m not sure we did a great job beyond that of really developing what our culture is. So this is an opportunity to reinforce the values of the organization, to think about what matters to us. And build that culture around those dimensions with the workspace as an enabler. It is not

not important. It’s just now it serves a purpose that us coming together and thinking about who we are, what do we do, how and where do we do it? That then becomes our culture. We become a high performing, dynamic, diverse, inclusive, flexible work culture. That’s super appealing to young people, and that requires a level of leadership and management that maybe we have to look at a little bit differently than we have in the past. But the outcome of this process is culture.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. So what are the potential consequences if organizations don’t do the rethink that you’re talking about?

WILLIAMS YOST: You know, I, really, I’ll put a fine point on it. You’re really going to have a hard time attracting and retaining top talent. You just really are. Every single demographic age group. It’s really the same three things they’re looking for. Obviously, money, but opportunity and flexibility. And it was funny.

I was on a panel a couple of weeks ago with directors from boards, and two of them were CHROs of large companies. And I kicked off about the current reality of work, and they were talking about some of the things that people are looking for. But across the board they said flexibility, flexibility. It’s the top thing people want and the thing we need to provide and how do we operationalize it?

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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