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Our Frustration and Our Delight
We must seek both questions and answers, not just answers.
Quote of the Moment
The paradox is built in and fairly obvious: we seek the reserved, the mysterious, the infinite as at once breaking, speaking through presence and as already withdrawn. But if we think that we have found it, that we have stripped away its veils and seen its secrets, then we have not, in fact, found the reserved or mysterious at all; we have, instead, destroyed it. To seek the mystery, then, must be not only to wonder, but to continue to seek to wonder, to seek to continue to wonder. And that must mean to seek both questions and answers, because the desire to find answers is no small part of what it is to wonder or ask questions in the first place. The answers have the character of never being quite enough, never quite perfect, and this is both our frustration and our delight.
| Karmen MacKendrick, Divine Enticement: Theological Seductions
I have adopted Hypothes.is as part of my research and note-taking, partially because of context-centric annotations through a Chrome plugin, so I can see my comments intertwingled with the original text. I may explore sharing my annotations directly with paid subscribers. On that, more to follow. But I have annotations like those below automatically flowing into my Obsidian vault, making things quicker, too, for my research.
In Getting real about hybrid work, McKinsey’s Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Mihir Mysore, and Angelika Reich debunk the wishful thinking of executives about the ‘back into the office’ delusion. (Their excerpts are italicized and bolded. My comments are preceded by ‘- Note:’.)
- Employers are ready to get back to significant in-person presence. Employees aren’t. The disconnect is deeper than most employers believe, and a spike in attrition and disengagement may be imminent.
- Note: :: the great disconnect?
- Once in a generation (if that), we have the opportunity to reimagine how we work.
- Note: :: demonstrates an inherent conservative worldview. we have the freedom to reimagine work all the time.
- More than three-quarters of C-suite executives recently surveyed by McKinsey report that they expected the typical “core” employee to be back in the office three or more days a week (Exhibit 1). While they realize that the great work-from-home experiment was surprisingly effective, they also believe that it hurt organizational culture and belonging. They are hungry for employees to be back in the office and for a new normal that’s somewhat more flexible but not dramatically different from the one we left behind.
In stark contrast, nearly three-quarters of around 5,000 employees McKinsey queried globally would like to work from home for two or more days per week, and more than half want at least three days of remote work (Exhibit 2). But their message is a bit convoluted. Many employees also report that working from home through the stress of the pandemic has driven fatigue, difficulty in disconnecting from work, deterioration of their social networks, and weakening of their sense of belonging.
When employers have small-group conversations to understand such survey results in greater detail, they discover that neither they nor large swathes of their workforces really know what employees want.
This isn’t surprising. Workers have been through a lot in the past year. Many experienced unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety. They saw life-expectancy rates in their communities decrease. They managed difficult personal situations, from the loss of people close to them to their own physical- and mental-health struggles. Yet the experience wasn’t all negative. Pushed to shelter at home, many rediscovered a connection to their home and family in ways that changed them. Many workers became wealthier (because of the strong global market rebound in share prices, as well as government stimulus), giving them more confidence to reaffirm their paths through life—or choose new ones.
- Note: :: why do executives anticipate a return to the status quo ante?
- Many employers, keen to establish some sense of normalcy quickly, are focused on answering simple logistical questions that give them a sense of control. These questions typically focus on the number of days that employees will be in the office, collaboration tools they will use, and policies on pay levels and norms for meeting behaviors. While the answers to them can help employees who are seeking a measure of pragmatism for what comes next, they are typically accompanied by a message that the “finish line” is in sight and that we will soon enter a period of normalcy that will be the standard for many years to come.
- Note: :: There it is. Executives are thinking superficially, and not looking below the surface to what's going on in the workers' world. Perhaps they don't want to understand, but just to compel.
- The idea that we will cross a finish line and suddenly be done with all the hard stuff seems to exist only in the minds of senior leaders.
At best, the rosy messaging of a grand return to the office is falling flat. At worst, the tone deafness of the messaging may also be accelerating what’s already shaping up to be the “great attrition” of 2021 (and 2022 and even 2023). At companies across the globe, workers are leaving at much higher rates than normal. Recent surveys found that 26 percent of workers in the United States are already preparing to look for new employment opportunities and 40 percent of workers globally are considering leaving their current employers by the end of the year.
- Note: :: Snap! #the-myth-of-the-great-return
- Instead of directing a rah-rah return to the office, leaders would be wise to focus on deeper listening and meeting their workforces where they are today.
- the lessons learned during the pandemic only go so far in helping leaders address the next great experiment: hybrid working. A hybrid model is more complicated than is a fully remote one. At scale, using it will be an unprecedented event in which all kinds of norms that have been accepted practice for decades will be put to the test. Leaders are a long way from knowing how it will work.
- The question of how many days in office per week are best is the most obvious one to answer, but it isn’t the only question, and it may not even be the right one to answer first. There will likely be a bevy of questions to address: What work is better done in person than virtually, and vice versa? How will meetings work best? How can influence and experience be balanced between those who work on site and those who don’t? How can you avoid a two-tier system in which people working in the office are valued and rewarded more than are those working more from home? Should teams physically gather in a single place while tackling a project, and if so, how often? Can leadership communication to off-site workers be as effective as it is to workers in the office?
- Note: :: Good questions. Underlying this should be the realization that things were not wonderful in the prepandemic world of business, and it therefore shouldn't be held up as some golden age, or an ideal. The foundational question of 'how should we organize ourselves for work?' was not settled before, and we should acknowledge that.
- By joining employees’ search for why, leaders can begin to assemble the building blocks of a shared and nimble future-oriented culture.
- Meeting employees where they are means signaling awareness that there is a deeper undercurrent of beliefs that will take time to surface and understand, accompanied by a clear commitment that the organization will continue to listen for, process, and act on those signals.
- Note: :: by 'organization' the authors mean 'management', because the larger organization -- the one that includes all workers -- is already 'acting on those signals'.
- As companies move from the chaos of the pandemic to the uncertainty of the return to the office, listening to employees will continue to be more critical than ever.
- Note: :: again, the implication is that 'the return to the office' is the desired state.
- the design of office space
- Note: :: the authors’ discussion of office space is very backward-looking. if increased interaction is the goal of back-into-the-office, then getting rid of individual workspaces (as they propose) is dumb, because 80% of interactions took place deskside, not in meeting rooms or at the water cooler. just as one example of jumping ahead of finding out what the people think.
- the norms surrounding meetings are ripe for refreshing.
- Note: :: why do the authors not cite any research into making meetings more effective, like nothing has been done, and all experimentation has to happen in the future?
- Embracing a test-and-learn culture will entail a real mindset shift for some leaders. The big answers may not emerge for years.
- Right now, a lot of wishful thinking is guiding the return from remote working. With notable and heartbreaking exceptions, many leaders were insulated from the COVID-19 pandemic. They think it’s both easy and desirable for companies to move on quickly. But their people aren’t begging to disagree. They are voting with their feet.
- Note: :: denied true voice, employees leave. this is classic albert hirshman (see Exit strategies | Daniel Akst)
- If leaders don’t accept the fact that they don’t know the shape of the future of hybrid working, their talent will keep walking out the door. But leaders can make a choice. They can continue to believe that they will deliver in the future because they have always delivered in the past. Or they can embrace this singular opportunity for change and work with their people—closely and transparently, with curiosity, respect, and a willingness to learn together instead of mandating—to discover a new and better way to work.
- Note: :: They always delivered in the past? Nice close, though. I hope 'leaders' will read this, and buy it.
A final comment: the authors never mention autonomy or surveillance: working from home allows people to manage their own time and how they perform their work, free from the surveillance built into office life. It would be worthwhile to complement the focus of this piece with a deeper dive into what workers say they want.
In When Autonomy Helps Team Performance — and When It Doesn’t, Viktoria Boss and her colleagues ask ‘how much autonomy is too much?’:
How much autonomy is too much autonomy? While some companies take a rigid approach to assigning tasks, it’s become increasingly popular to allow employees a greater degree of freedom in determining what they work on, and with whom. Companies such as Spotify, GitHub, and Google have publicized their policies allowing employees to self-select the projects and teams they work with, arguing that by spurring higher levels of ownership and creativity, this strategy leads to better, more innovative ideas.
This may seem intuitive, but our recent research suggests that it’s possible to take autonomy too far.
The experiment involved teams producing ‘pitch decks’ evaluated by VCs, entrepreneurs, and others.
Interestingly, our analysis suggested that some — but not total — autonomy yielded the best results. The teams that weren’t allowed to choose either their ideas or their teammates performed the worst, but those with full autonomy performed only marginally better: They were rated as less than 1% more likely to succeed than the teams with no autonomy.
Conversely, the teams that were given some autonomy significantly outperformed both those with full autonomy and those with no autonomy: Teams that could choose either their ideas or their teammates (but not both) were rated as 50% more likely to succeed than those with no autonomy, and 49% more likely to succeed than those with full autonomy. They also received 82% more of the fictional investment budget than those with no autonomy, and 23% more of the budget than those with full autonomy. Overall, the top performing teams were those who were assigned their teammates but allowed autonomy over their ideas, closely followed by those who were assigned ideas and allowed to choose their teams.
The reason? Full autonomy — which in this experiment meant being able to chose both team members and ideas for the pitch — led to overconfidence, perhaps. While those with limited autonomy — for example being assigned ideas — could select team members that had some experience or special knowledge about the subject area, and conversely, when assigned team members they could react by picking ideas that matched.
The question to ask is not whether you should give teams autonomy, but what kind of autonomy you should give them. Autonomy is neither all-good nor all-bad. In our research, we explored how a more nuanced understanding of autonomy along the dimensions of team composition and idea generation could boost performance. And these are just two — there are likely many other types of autonomy that managers could consider. While full autonomy seldom pays off, managers can experiment to gain clarity around which kinds of decisions benefit from more guidance, and which are better left to employees’ discretion.
I am don’t think that this experiment proves conclusively that ‘full autonomy seldom pays off’.
I like their second takeaway much more:
Our work illustrates the power of randomness. One of the most surprising components of our findings was that when teams chose their own ideas, those whose members were randomly assigned performed better than teams whose members were deliberately selected by one another. Prior research has shown that people tend to gravitate to their friends or to people who look similar to themselves, and we observed the same kind of pattern in teams that chose their own members. This didn’t directly account for why these teams performed poorly, but indirectly, this meant that teams with complete autonomy got stuck in echo chambers, which falsely inflated their confidence in their pitch decks and ultimately harmed performance. While we are not suggesting that all teams should be formed randomly, our results do indicate that introducing an element of randomness into how teams are assigned may improve performance in some contexts.
Groupthink squeezes out diversity of thought, once again.
Kara Swisher interviewed Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, the authors of Out of Office, and they touched on autonomy:
Swisher: What are the pros of being out of the office? What are the cons?
Petersen: Pros: Not having to expend the energy to make yourself “professional” in whatever capacity (generally a lot more work for women; also a lot of work and discomfort for nonbinary people when dress for their industry is often really gender-conforming). Commuting when it’s most convenient. The ability to segment your day to better accommodate child-care pickups and drop-offs, elder-care responsibilities, therapy appointments, just general life. Less office generally means less white-male-office-monoculture, so a lot fewer microaggressions. Just to start.
Warzel: Cons: If your organization isn’t intentional about building real, codified remote policies, you’re basically being set up to fail. If remote work is lorded over people as some perk, instead of a new way to work, then they’ll be forced into situations where they are expected to work all the time to justify it. They’ll roll out of bed and instead of getting ready or having a commute, they’ll be plunged into the workday in bed and somehow still feel guilty. If onboarding and mentorship isn’t figured out, younger employees starting out will get left behind, they’ll miss a lot of that secret knowledge that gets passed down via office gossip.
The Better.com C.E.O. Says He’s ‘Deeply Sorry’ for Firing Workers Over Zoom. Vishal Garg is a name that will live in infamy. [Update 2021-12-11: Better.com’s board of directors announced Garg is ‘taking time off’ after the debacle.]