All the business leaders I talk with these days are struggling with the same issue: Whether and how to bring their employees back into the office.

Some are firmly convinced that everyone needs to come back full-time right now. Others are equally convinced that employees should be granted total flexibility — come in when you want and as much or as little as you want. Many are somewhere in between these two extremes. And almost everyone is feeling confused and uncertain about what is best.

Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. In each company, it takes a unique set of circumstances to retain your best people while maximizing the good work you get out of them. Still, there are a few guidelines to keep front-of-mind.

What to consider in a remote-work policy

  • Productivity is high on the list. Which approach leads to the highest quality and quantity of work produced, work-from-home vs. office?
  • Company culture is also an issue. Do you want to be an authoritarian, top-down organization or a free-wheeling, everyone-has-a-say company? 
  • There are concerns about fairness and equity. Will the people who work from home be penalized when it is time for promotions and raises? Will a hybrid environment exacerbate the gender gap?
  • Talent attraction and retention are big concerns. Many companies right now are experiencing a talent drain as some of their best people exit for other opportunities. For many employees, flexibility is an important factor in their choice of where to work.

There is no business leader alive who has dealt with this issue at this scale before, generating a comprehensive work-from-home policy almost overnight for every employee. It is important to recognize that we are all doing experiments. Leaders shouldn’t expect themselves to come up with the final answer immediately, and they should communicate an expectation of change to their people. The circumstances and the data are changing every day, and anyone smart will take an iterative approach.

Does a flexible work-from-home policy create more harm?

A recent article from Harvard Business explored one specific aspect of working from home. If a company decides to allow some employees to continue working from home, should each person have the choice of how many days and which days he/she comes in? Should employees be expected to commit to a regular schedule or have the freedom to come and go as they choose? 

The author, Nicholas Bloom, reports that 70% of firms plan to move to some form of hybrid work schedule. Among workers, 80% would prefer to work from home at least one day a week. Bloom recognizes this reality, but argues strongly that the manager, not the employees, should determine which days people are expected to be in the office. 

The disadvantages of WFH

One reason for mandating consistent days off is the problem of hybrid meetings. I remember the bad old pre-Zoom days of conference calls. There would be eight people around a conference table and two on those odd-shaped black phones in the middle of the table. There was no way the people on the phone were able to participate equally. The people in the room could read each other’s body language, exchange glances, pass notes, etc. We often forgot about the people on the phone and they rarely managed get a word in edgewise. The people in the room could stop and chat with each other once the formal meeting was over. As a result, the in-room participants almost always contributed much more. Bloom argues that much of the same inequality occurs on hybrid Zoom meetings. 

Bloom’s second concern is diversity. He cites data that among college graduates with young children, women choose full-time WFH almost 50% more often than men do. Meanwhile, other data suggest that WFH can be very damaging to one’s career. In one study, WFH employees had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months, compared with their in-office colleagues. Do the math — this means women are going to get promoted less than men. 

A work-from-home solution that works for everyone

Bloom’s advice? Managers should decide which days their teams will be in the office. He also suggests that new hires should be required to be in the office more than their more senior colleagues, so they have a chance to bond with each other and with the firm. Because of space limitations, the company may choose to bring in different teams on different days. Even then, it will be important to ensure that different teams who collaborate a lot are in the office on overlapping days. 

One thing is for sure in this uncertain environment. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But I think business leaders will do well to pay careful attention to Bloom’s counsel as they begin their experimentation process.   

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