Almost Emergent

Accepting shared uncertainty instead of imposing ideology.

Quote of the Moment

Our moods do not believe in each other.

| Ralph Waldo Emerson


Emerson’s quote — our moods do not believe in each other — is a fair approximation of the divergence between many CEOs and their workers on the question of working from home.

In How to avoid a disconnect with employees on return-to-work plan, Dave Dinesen doesn’t quote Emerson, but he might have. But he does point out the extremes on the return-to-work dialogue that management and workers are grappling with. And in the end, he finally lands about as close to the emergent viewpoint that transcends the endpoints, and he frames this tension well.

Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke made headlines last year when he announced most of his employees would never return to a physical workplace, tweeting “Office centricity is over” just three months into the pandemic. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill turned heads this May for penning an op-ed in the Washington Post where she mused about withdrawing benefits from Washingtonian employees who didn’t want to return to the office, turning them into contractors.

Both of these responses represent a critical misstep executives are making around the world as circumstances improve from the pandemic: You can’t ignore the fact your employees may feel differently than you, or even each other, about the future of work.

As a CEO, this is the time to consider how your experience may differ from that of your team. To make a sweeping decision for everyone at your company glosses over the reality that each and every one of us endured the pandemic in our own way, and we all figured out the set-up that worked best for us.

What’s clear is that our employees have been through a huge event. As their boss, it would be a mistake not to take a measured break and gather the lessons learned over the last momentous year.

A good place for CEOs to start is to ask how employees feel, rather than unilaterally dictating a sweeping policy, certainly, but that doesn’t go far enough, despite being more enlightened than simply announcing either end of the spectrum is ‘the answer’.

He offers up some surveys plot employee sentiment:

A Stanford study of 16,000 workers found those working from home were 13% more productive and their attrition rate was cut in half. When the experiment ended, the people who chose to stay home saw their productivity shoot up even higher. Other, smaller surveys have suggested as many as 77% of remote workers felt more productive while working offsite.


Throughout the pandemic, data showed an even spread of people who preferred to be at home or in the office. The research showed that a majority of workers preferred some sort of blended approach. Further, extensive research by Gallup has shown that the most engaged employees are ones who spend three to four days a week working remotely. Those same employees are also more likely to feel like someone at work cares about them.

And then he states, explicitly, that this is not an either/or issue. But he doesn’t turn the argument to the real question: who gets to decide how often an individual should come into the office? He argues, sensibly, for flexibility:

Be flexible and be real. The way forward isn’t an either/or. As of now, we haven’t set a required number of days to come into work, but there is a shared understanding that some activities—from team building events to onboarding—are better done in person. And, of course, the people who have to be on site understand it’s just the nature of their job and we can do that safely.

When I look at the future of work, it seems clear we’ve been stuck in a rut for decades because we relied on tradition and didn’t listen to what people really wanted. It’s taken this global upheaval for us all to thoroughly examine our past approach. I don’t just want to go back now because we’ve had two vaccinations, and I don’t want people to stay remote just because it saves office space. The future of work is more about communication and compassion, rather than rigidly dictating where and how people do their jobs.

Dinesen is almost there. He just doesn't take the final step. He says that at his firm 'we haven’t set a required number of days to come into work', but he doesn't go all in and say 'we will let each person decide for themself how much they need to come into work'.

As I wrote recently in Emergence versus Coercion,

In what I call emergent organizations -- where individuals have high levels of autonomy and leaders trust workers to find a balance between what is best for the company and for themselves -- this discussion would not be structured as a unitary decision to be made by senior leadership. Instead, we would see a network of decisions spread out across the organization, and the results would emerge, individual by individual, rather than being imposed from on high.

Letting each decide for themself is the fully emergent option.

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