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Stop Over-Indexing The Issue Of Remote Vs. In-Person Work

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Leaders can better drive performance by focusing on why and how work takes place, rather than where it happens.

In C-suites all throughout the country, leaders are actively deliberating on their remote work policies. They’re still dedicating significant attention to the issue of exactly how much in-person time to mandate and when—efforts that, unfortunately, are unlikely to help strengthen or grow their businesses.

Though the matter is not inconsequential, the issue of remote versus in-person work has become greatly over-indexed and distracting, a “red herring” pulling critical focus from other priority areas. It points to the need for leaders to interrogate the rationale behind their considerations and acknowledge the reality that where work takes place is far less important than how and why it happens—a perspective being publicly tested by companies like Goldman Sachs, Starbucks and Tesla.

What is Really Motivating the Latest “Future of Work” Trends?

Many organizations that maintained flexible work policies during last year’s healthier business environment have been requiring much more face time amidst today’s lingering uncertainty. This timing signals that, for many organizations, return-to-office mandates are not rooted in well-formed strategy, but rather come from a place of fear and mistrust.

Specifically, the labor market-induced power dynamics that have largely shifted back in employers’ favor have given organizations leverage to require more in-person time, alleviating leaders’ concerns about employee productivity outside the office. What’s more, the persistently soft market has driven organizations to simply do “something” action-oriented, making it easy for them to embrace the concrete and easily measurable nature of in-office mandates.

Leaders who are able to recognize such thinking as part of their motivations behind return-to-office mandates can best understand the limitations of such actions. They are prioritizing geography over management quality, sidestepping the issue that in order to function at their best, teams need to be engaged, motivated, and held accountable, regardless of where people are based. 

Optimizing Management to Drive Performance… from Anywhere.

To truly optimize performance, leaders need to de-prioritize the remote versus in-office work debate, and instead, focus on the larger purpose of their organizations and the behaviors that will best help them reach their goals. The foundations of such efforts near-always rest upon:

1. Ensuring employees understand and believe in their organization’s mission.

Studies overwhelmingly show that employees perform better when they’re motivated by a desire to contribute to something larger than themselves. Leaders can tap into this admirable human instinct, but only if they truly get their people on board. This requires organizations to approach the development of their mission, vision, and values from a place of authenticity—best achieved by inviting employees at all levels into conversations about organizations’ larger purpose.

To illustrate, our team was once engaged by a company that built custom, high-end fireplaces for high-net-worth individuals. We convened employees—individuals highly skeptical about the exercise—and engaged them in conversations about the deeper meaning of their contributions. Through the dialogue, we helped the employees recognize that their work literally forged the hearth of people’s homes, a traditional place of coming together and warmth that serves as an antidote to many of our over-scheduled, digitally driven lives.

Once organizations establish or refresh their mission, vision and values, they need to clearly communicate them, reinforce them on an ongoing basis, and ensure they are front and center in everything they do.

2. Creating a culture of autonomy and accountability.

Individuals and teams that deliver strong results with a high degree of self-sufficiency are essential for maximizing productivity and growth. Leaders can build this strength within their workplaces by encouraging, modeling, and incentivizing such best practices as:

• setting clear objectives

• checking in frequently

• offering constructive feedback

• removing obstacles for employees

• elevating concerns

• offering visibility into big-picture organizational matters

• evaluating progress based on concrete metrics and performance milestones

These behaviors are especially important among companies in high-stakes situations, like private equity-backed firms tasked with meeting aggressive timelines. Savvy organizations within this space commit to processes designed to regularly assess and recalibrate individual’s and teams’ contributions with the specific intent of keeping performance on track. The insights generated allow for greater autonomy and accountability because they provide a real window into employee progress and quality, freeing leaders from highly imperfect indicators, like how often their people are at their desks.

3. Enabling the right mechanisms to support alignment and communication.

Among leaders’ primary concerns about fully virtual work is the fear that employees will miss out on the alignment and communication that can result from “water cooler” collaboration or the ability to pop into someone’s office for a quick conversation. While it’s true that such interactions can be incredibly valuable, they are not guaranteed to happen, or be productive, even in five-day-a-week office environments. This is illustrated by the large number of organizations challenged by a persistent lack of communication and collaboration before the pandemic accelerated the flexible work trend.

Ensuring that organizations achieve and maintain the alignment and communication necessary to drive performance requires that they implement mechanisms that allow for and support connectivity wherever work takes place. These can include regularly scheduled check-ins as well as digital platforms like Asana, Trello and Slack, which can facilitate spontaneous interactions even among remote teams. Ironically, these tools have become equally pervasive within in-office environments, further suggesting that few organizations can rely on the possibility of chance interactions alone. What’s more, the platforms need to be used properly, with intention, so they enhance teams’ collective efforts without becoming distractions.

Mechanisms that support alignment and communication ensure mission- and culture-building efforts permeate organizations instead of becoming one-off exercises quickly forgotten.

Bucking the Back-to-Office Trend with Overwhelming Success

While an increasing number of organizations are mandating more in-person time, some companies continue to go “all in” on remote work. These include Airbnb, which announced its Live and Work Anywhere policy early last year and states that the business has never done better. In 2022, the company reported that revenue grew 40% year over year.

Of course, there’s some self-interest behind Airbnb’s policy given they’re a business that encourages travel and it’s been strengthened by pent-up consumer demand. That said, other metrics tell a larger story: their attrition rate is near an all-time low and falling, and they’ve recruited more women and under-represented minorities — populations that tend to favor telecommuting compared with other groups.

Still, Airbnb doesn’t consider itself a “remote first” company. The company brings people together for regular in-person time and considers these gatherings essential. According to their CFO, they’ve been highly intentional when they meet face-to-face. “It’s not a random three days a week where you hope to run into people at a water cooler,” as the executive shared with NPR.

While Airbnb’s model might not be right for every organization, the strategy behind the model is on point. It’s tied to the company’s mission, vision, and values, and structured with intention.

Today’s business environment requires leaders’ highest level of focus. They must position their organizations to endure the remaining stretch of uncertainty ahead while preparing to take advantage of opportunities once the market recovers. Leaders who opt out of today’s endless remote versus in-person work debate can put their time and attention to better use, ensuring the intentions and behaviors of their people align with and support their business strategy, and can help drive profitability, growth and value creation.


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