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quentinmillington

Marble Brook

Adviser, Consultant, Executive Coach

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Home, office or hybrid? You’re asking the wrong question

It seems there is no correct answer to which type of working is optimal. So, how can managers navigate a seemingly ever-changing landscape and position their teams and organisations for success?
silhouette of two arrows

The difficulty of agreeing a policy for working from home or office reveals the weakness of management bureaucracy. 

Think beyond task and process, toward people and value, to see how productivity sits alongside wellbeing and to avoid the strife of return-to-office mandates.

As the world emerged from lockdown, boardrooms sought to build on emergency measures introduced during the pandemic. 

People’s diverse experiences lent the debate on working from home versus in the office a religious fervour: ‘I am right, my boss is wrong, and the CEO does not have a clue.’

A high stakes situation

When the grip of emotion relaxes, most people see the merit in working from the office and, where a job allows, also from home. But stakes run high and many managers have yet to find a solution.

‘Return-to-office’ mandates are in the news. Organisations are grappling with policies that balance perceived employee and business needs: how many days at home per week, for which teams or roles, how often, and with what exceptions?

But balance often means compromise, and compromise disappoints most people most of the time.

Stakes run high and many managers have yet to find a solution

Home or office, which makes sense?

An employee or her manager must answer myriad and often unspoken questions to judge whether it is optimal to work from home or in the office.

What is Charlotte’s role? What fire-fighting will she do this week? How experienced are her team members? What damage will John cause if he runs that client meeting? Does Andrew still harass her in the canteen? Will her deputy spend the day consumed with his divorce?

How does Charlotte thrive on face-to-face contact? Can she postpone a visit to the dentist? Will her daughter amuse the baby whilst she takes a sales call? What childcare is available in the village? How long before Charlotte’s husband finally drives her around the bend?

Weakness of policies

Where Charlotte should work today depends also on what is happening across and outside the organisation and with her colleagues, who also wrestle with similar questions. 

Whilst the outcome is simple – home or office – the route taken can easily satisfy next to no one.

Policies and guidelines fall short because they are decided in advance and cannot account for today’s complexity or the questions that matter, now, to people. A rule-book as thick as the Bible would yield an answer yet may not allow people to be heard.

Whilst the outcome is simple – home or office – the route taken can easily satisfy next to no one

Manager styles, a decisive factor

Management culture causes further problems. Managers who rely on formal authority rather than personal influence may be champions of office work, for this makes surveillance easier. 

Disengaged, laissez-faire managers may be vocal in wanting their employees or themselves at home – tucked away from scrutiny.

Anyone working for bureaucratic or lazy managers may crave the solace of colleagues in the office; or they may prefer to sit on the sofa and send out CVs. Either way, management competence and other occasional factors skew perspectives on home versus office.

Management competence and other occasional factors skew perspectives on home versus office

Making sense of office versus home

We spend too much time thinking about task and process and not enough about people and value. 

On the question of home versus office, the risk is that we bolster rigid practices that console us with an answer, yet which serve the interests of neither people nor organisation.

Below, I outline six recommendations behind an approach that is both strategic and practical. A departure from management norms is required: there is no quick fix, but we can enable a shift in direction that will yield lasting benefit.

A departure from management norms is required: there is no quick fix

1. Abandon the ‘X or Y’ compromise

Any solution that pits business or organisational interests against those of employees will fail.

Good managers are creative enough to think beyond ‘X or Y’ to the crucial question: What practices serve both people and mission?

2. Let go of the crutch of bureaucracy

In a world of complex work, employee wellbeing and relentless change, red tape causes more problems than it solves. 

Managers must develop confidence to influence through relationships rather than control with rules.

3. Understand value

Managers should understand, then make choices to maximise, the value they are paid to create. 

Employees are the first beneficiaries: customer and business outcomes follow. There is no shortcut.

Humans and the social world are complex and this means that no one size ever fits all

4. See people as individuals

Bureaucratic systems apply rules across the board, often justified in the name of ‘fairness’. 

Humans and the social world are complex and this means that no one size ever fits all: managers must treat team members as individuals.

5. Make an investment

A desirable workplace will yield benefits in performance and retention. 

But an investment is required: in time, technology, leadership, development, give-and-take. If you believe this to be a luxury, then sooner or later you will fail.

6. Introduce guiding structure

As a culture of people and value emerges, you can introduce thoughtful standards to help with everyday decisions. People’s values remain the primary guide: good choices follow more effortlessly than they do from coercive rules.

Flexible working is just one, albeit high-profile, call to shift from managing via bureaucracy and rules to leading through culture and relationships. 

The imperatives above answer today’s concerns and position managers to enjoy surer grip on the future.

If you enjoyed this, read: Hybrid working: Is two days in the office the magic number?

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quentinmillington

Adviser, Consultant, Executive Coach

Read more from quentinmillington
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