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Returning to work…Why?

The global pandemic has created a heated debate about the future of work.  A central point of discussion is around the ideal work environment – in-person, remote or some hybrid of the two.  Like all things involving people, there are multiple layers of complexity and an unending set of apparent trade-offs at play.  Undoubtedly, an organization’s industry, history and culture will play an important role in the determination of the forward path.  Regardless of a company’s decision, the only certainty is that the decision will not be satisfactory in everyone’s eyes.  Strangely, the decision of what to do is actually one of the easier decisions – precedent and industry practice will provide an initial safe harbor for decision making.

The harder question is “why” did you choose your approach.  Your decision is not simply a procedural one.  It speaks, knowingly or unknowingly, to your values, priorities and collective purpose.  The historical corporate speak of “it is what we have always done” or “if it ain’t broke…” will land with your people like a lead balloon.  As a consequence, your people not only want to know the “why”; they expect to know it and for it to be connected to a larger “why”.

Next comes the hardest question, “Are you living up to your why?” In my conversations, I have heard leaders support an “in person” approach as necessary for innovation, strategy or collaboration.  The question that needs to be asked is whether your people are spending their time innovating, strategizing or collaborating when they are in the office.  What percent of their time is being spent supporting the why?  On the other side, I have heard the “remote” approach trumpeted as providing better work life balance or creating more equity by leveling the playing field.  The question is whether work life balance has improved or have your people just exchanged a commute for a few more hours of video conferences?

Ultimately, the quality of your decision will be driven more significantly by the clarity of your why and your success in bringing it to life for your people.