Tackling the “Return to Office” Debate — with a Balanced Perspective


 

My challenge to everyone: Take the time to develop a BALANCED PERSPECTIVE on all topics. For today, I will apply it to the debate raging around whether and how employees should return to their offices (RTO) after the pandemic, and in my next post, I will tackle the gun control debate. Yes, I’m in a feisty mood! 😀

My Kellogg students know I strongly encourage them to develop a BALANCED PERSPECTIVE, which is the second of my four principles required to become a values-based leader.

I truly believe one of the main reasons that our country has become so polarized on so many topics is the lack of people willing to take the time to develop a BALANCED PERSPECTIVE. Very often they have THEIR perspective, opinion, or belief, but they have no understanding of the perspectives, opinions, or beliefs of others. This is a serious issue that results in very little getting accomplished. As my grandfather used to tell me when I was a young fellow during our long walks, “Harry, life is much simpler when you only understand your side of the story.”

I have taken my grandfather’s wisdom to heart. I always try to take the time to understand multiple perspectives and practice what St. Francis preached, “I seek to understand before I am understood.” I actually do this for three reasons:

  1. I believe it is the respectful way to treat others.
  2. By taking the time to understand the perspectives of others, I can increase my knowledge and maybe realize that the other person’s perspective is better than mine (remember that the goal is not to be right, but rather to do the right thing….hard to figure out what the right thing is if I only live in my own echo chamber).
  3. By being respectful and listening to others, maybe they will then take the time to listen to me, and I can convince them of the merits of my perspective.

I have disciplined myself to try to avoid saying, “I don’t understand where you are coming from” because I believe that is ignorant. If I take the time I may gain the ability to understand the other person’s perspective (why they have that perspective or belief), and then I can decide whether I agree or disagree — and maybe we can find some middle ground.

Here’s an interesting thought. I realized that when someone says “I don’t understand where you are coming from,” they usually have no interest in understanding. They are just letting you know they disagree. So, after a little self-reflection, I decided that when I am in a meeting and someone says, “I don’t understand where you are coming from,” I ask a very simple question, “Would you like to understand???” If they do, I will explain my perspective to them, and then they can decide whether they agree or disagree.

Okay, so let’s apply the BALANCED PERSPECTIVE principle to: Whether and how should employees return to the office after the pandemic? People have very strong views on this topic. One perspective, most recently presented by Elon Musk is that employees must “spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week.” Jamie Dimon has expressed a similar sentiment. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, even offered to get down on his knees and pleaded with workers to return to the office.

Okay, so rather than saying, “I don’t understand where you are coming from,” let’s understand some of the logic of this perspective:

  • Is it possible to develop a culture and build teams if people don’t spend time together physically? Can “virtual meetings” realistically accomplish the same thing? How important is stopping by one another’s work areas and just chatting, or sharing a coffee break?
  • Can we develop managers and leaders and assess their ability to lead large teams if we have only interacted with them “virtually?”
  • Can people really be as productive operating remotely? Is it really possible to increase productivity remotely?
  • Is there an issue of “fairness” if some folks in a company are allowed to do work remotely and others are not?

Okay, so those are some points to consider as to why some leaders believe people should get back to the office. Then there are other companies such as Twitter who have made work from home (WFH) a permanent option (at least before the Elon Musk saga):

Let’s consider this perspective:

  • “Virtual” has worked well for many workers the past several years, and it appears that productivity has not been adversely impacted. So why force people to return to work physically in an office?
  • Isn’t the idea of commuting to an office an idea that no longer makes sense? Isn’t it a waste of time and energy? Won’t it be harder to retain employees if we force them to return to the office?
  • Also, companies have the opportunity to minimize/eliminate office space and reduce operating expenses (possibly using the savings for investment opportunities). Shouldn’t we encourage companies to increase investment opportunities?

Okay, so what’s the correct answer? My opinion (recall I always say I have few answers but many opinions) is a balanced perspective since one size rarely if ever fits all. I would look at all alternatives and figure out a middle ground that would enable each organization to find the optimal solution for them.

For example, IF — and I stress IF — an organization feels that they can operate efficiently and productively with people working remotely several days a week, and it is perceived as a benefit to those workers, then it may make sense to offer a remote option. However, I do believe it is difficult to develop a culture, build strong teams, and assess leadership potential if people are not together. So what would a reasonable balance look like? One idea is having workers in the office two or three days a week, and working remotely the other days. And by the way, in order to get the benefit of “working together,” I assume people would be in the office the same days. If Joe comes in on Monday and Tuesday, and Mary comes in on Thursday and Friday, it’s not obvious how that would be conducive to developing culture and building strong teams.

In summary, seek to understand multiple perspectives quickly before you make the decision that works best for you.

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