Emergence versus Coercion

The debate around getting back to the office is really about something else.

Dealbook asked various work ecologists about the sweet spot in the hybrid office. Robert C. Pozen and Alexandra Samuel offered up FLOCS as a framework:

What is the function of each team member? A team that spends many hours on brainstorming or collaborative tasks needs more time at the workplace. By contrast, teams that do a lot of deep, focused work benefit from the relative quiet of home.

What is the location of each team member? Hiring in a single metropolitan area means you can join your teammates in a nearby office or meet up easily for one-on-one meetings. Conversely, there’s no point in making employees report to the nearest office if everyone they work with is in another city.

What is the structure of the organization? In a comparison of two accounting companies, researchers found that a flatter hierarchy helped facilitate virtual work, because remote workers didn’t feel too far from the center of the organization. Our own research also found a strong correlation between employee autonomy and productivity outside the office.

What is the culture of the company? Companies with an individualistic culture seem to make a smoother transition to virtual work; by contrast, companies that stress “us” over “me” have been slower to adopt online collaboration.

What is each team’s schedule? If schedules are similar and work is interdependent, it’s good to encourage everyone to work roughly at the same time. If employees live in different time zones, it’s better to set a few common windows for real-time communications like videoconferences, and let most other work unfold through email or document sharing.

FLOCS seems to offer a ready model to evaluate options, but is canted toward leaders making these decisions, and never asks what the rank-and-file actually want. My bet is that FLOCS could be easily used by a hard-headed CEO to assert a demand to get everyone back in the office, something like this, which I have concocted:

'Our organization is all about us over we [Culture]. We are actively trying to increase collaboration — which is why we have flattened the organization — and that requires more time in the workplace [Organization and Function]. Yes, we have people in many timezones and different cities, so we have defined meeting hours to accommodate that, but it's best for people to join such meetings in the office they are working from whenever possible [Schedule and Location].'

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Note that Samuel and Pozen imply research with regard to the divergence in perspectives between executives and rank-and-file workers, without citation, however:

Another common dilemma is deciding exactly who will be in the office on which days. This is further complicated by a significant gap between executive and employee perspectives, with most executives feeling that company culture depends on people spending at least three days a week in the office and most employees saying they want to spend at least three days a week working remotely.

My sense is that companies should start by eliminating well-known myths as support for in-office work as a baseline.

For example, brainstorming as it is generally practiced is a crock. Many serious studies have shown that groups writing post-its and moving them around on a whiteboard generate fewer good ideas than individuals do on their own. Just because your company brainstorms frequently doesn't mean a thing, unless it is intended as collaboration theater. Working on ideas in early stages is something that may be done better remotely and asynchronously, and with group discussion and experimentation to follow. And other premises in brainstorming, like avoiding conflict and criticism, are just wrong (see Creativity in Teams: The Truth Hurts).

But the most important research that is left out is this: the most productive and engaged knowledge workers -- as determined prior to the pandemic -- are those that a/ want to work from home as much as possible, and b/ come to the office around 20% of the time (a day a week, or two days every two weeks, for example) to interact with others. (See Paradoxes of Engagement: Remote Isn't.)

However, we know many leaders are not down with minimal time in the office. They have a hard time trusting remote workers (see Paradoxes of Engagement: First Trust, Then Trustworthiness), are generally afraid of communication (see Paradoxes of Engagement: Most Managers Are Afraid To Communicate), and are reluctant to relax their control of the organization (see On Emergent Leadership). Why should we trust their judgment on this?

Pozen and Samuel seem resigned to autocratic decision making, where the senior leaders — or maybe just the CEO — will make this call, and impose it coercively. This might be prettied up by HR or internal comms folks (perhaps employing the rationale from FLOCS), but it’s still an iron hand in a velvet glove.

Alternatively, other sorts of organizations might undertake such a step very differently. In democratic organizations, the rank-and-file would at least get a vote, or be solicited in a survey. They'd have at least some voice.

And 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.

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