Hybrid work is a symptom of a much bigger problem


Whether your organisation should or should not take up work-from-home, return-to-office or hybrid working fails to address bigger systemic issues that, once solved, will make matters of where your team works far less relevant than why they work.

If you’re not having a conversation with your team about how you intend to integrate work-from-home (WFH), return-to-office or hybrid workspaces, then you’re probably falling behind.

For largely white-collar workers, these discussions have centred around whether the office is still a pragmatic answer to their business. Office environments have been the status quo for many for the last century, driven in part by technological limitations, the social gains of sharing a physical space with our colleagues, the bosses’ need to keep eyes on their salaried employees, and the historic value that having a branded office represents to the world. Walk any street in any main city and you’ll see office after office, bodies at desks, undertaking the same rituals that have worked for generations.

But whether the office is still a valid way for your business to achieve its goals is a question that’s seriously worth considering, even if it means putting aside some preconceptions about what makes your business work, and how you can achieve your best.

"Phoning it in..."

Two leaders have made waves recently with regard to their WFH/office policies.

The first is the oft-quoted financier Elon Musk, with a memo sent to his executive Tesla staff in June. In it, he said that remote working was an option for his employees – but only after they’d completed a minimum forty hour working week in the office. If his people didn’t want to work 40+ hours in the office for Tesla, then “They should pretend to work somewhere else,” he tweeted on June 1. In an email to Tesla staff, he is quoted as saying: "Tesla has and will create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth. This will not happen by phoning it in.”

“Moreover,” he explained, “the office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo office. If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.”

Why Musk is turning back to old work (i.e. pre-pandemic habits) is difficult to know. Tesla have earned a relatively strong position over the last decade, thanks to some clever marketing (and stunts such as sending a Roadster into space), Musk’s much-publicised overseeing of SpaceX and The Boring Company, and a cultural recalibration during the pandemic that’s seen more people turn towards sustainable living. One suggestion is that this strong position may have cultivated a comfortable complacency at Tesla, undermining the scrappy hard-won efforts that have got them this far. This is speculation.

But the calculus of Musk’s decision seems clear enough: if I want more out of my people, I should hold them to account and drive the outputs of the leaner start-up period. Musk is not generally regarded as a ‘people person’, and instead has his eye on profit and impact. And we can only speculate about Musk’s logic, naturally. But his ‘first 40+ hours in the office’ approach has made him unpopular with swathes of workers and public opinion. Not because he is asking more of his workers, but because he is demanding more of his workers, and his inflexible attitude has not earned much respect. You can only gamble what you’re prepared to lose – and in June 2022, Musk threw his people into the pool.

The limitations of a commuting radius

We’ve spoken before about the urgent need to re-establish workplace cultures after two years of shaky connectedness during the pandemic. Even now, with our day-to-day restrictions largely gone, workplace cultures have suffered a setback. That’s led some to feel that a return-to-office is the only solution because in-person work guarantees that some kind of culture forms. Whether that culture is intentional and enables your best work and most meaningful impact is worth addressing.

The second leader, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky, sits in the opposite corner to Musk. At the end of April 2022, he released a public letter that said that employees now had the ability to work and live anywhere, with flexibility to allow international work for up to three months a year. Critically, however, he reinforced that they will continue to work in a highly coordinated way to continue to deliver on their customer promises.

“The right solution,” Chesky wrote, “should combine the best of the digital world and the best of the physical world. It should have the efficiency of Zoom, while providing the meaningful human connection that only happens when people come together.”

Further, Chesky argued that hired and retained talent should not be limited to a commuting radius to their offices. “The best people live everywhere, not concentrated in one area. And by recruiting from a diverse set of communities, we will become a more diverse company.”

Chesky’s letter supporting work-from-anywhere (WFA) – an extension of WFH – was met with far less media attention than Musk’s, and not only because it was less controversial. Airbnb’s business model relies on travel. That’s taken a hammering in the last 30 months, and undoubtedly so has the viability of their model. In order to save on expenses, they largely shed expensive office real estate and freed up a significant part of their balance sheets.

Additionally, their position was familiar to plenty of businesses. What organisation that isn’t already overwhelmingly digital or digital-able didn’t have to turn to – or lean more aggressively into – WFH (or WFA) during those first uncertain months of 2020?

Airbnb’s approach is not to be shrugged off. They’ve codified and embraced a way of working that helps them deliver on their goals.. The pandemic has been a shock to the system that we’ve needed to shake us out of complacency, and Chesky’s letter – worth reading in full – highlights the fundamental need to (re)build modern organisations in the 21st century.

The case for flexible work

If you want more productivity, then WFH and hybrid approaches are worth testing. A Stanford study on remote work followed 16,000 workers over nine months and noted a performance increase of 13% once they’d adopted flexible WFH options. The Remote Collaborative Worker Survey, published by the Society for Human Resource Management, found that 77% of those surveyed reported greater productivity while working remotely.

Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index tells us that the majority of tech companies are embracing full-time remote or hybrid work in 2022. The great re-think that started in 2020 has encouraged us at Advisory.Works to take a similar path, adopting new strategies and solutions.

Let’s be clear. To suggest that either WFH/WFA or return-to-office or a hybrid approach is the right solution for every organisation is lunacy. It’s not realistic for front-line workers, blue collar workers, and retailers, for instance. In reality, some version of flexible work between office-led and remote-led is the most pragmatic for the vast majority of organisations.

Jobs that are computer-led needn’t be limited to one geographic location – certainly not in an age of cloud computing, where everyone can sync the same data anywhere there’s an internet connection. Shedding the office removes rent and all the associated costs of tenanted real estate or building ownership, freeing up that money to invest in people and processes. You can give your people back multiple hours a day by cutting their commutes, allowing them more time with their families and friends as a result. And it comes at virtually no cost – expect perhaps some minor WFH set-up and some extra cybersecurity training.

Like all leadership conversations, discussing how you work should be as transparent and objective as determining your strategic objectives or the kinds of products you sell. Remember, Because that’s the way we’ve always done it is the most expensive sentence in the English language.

A foundation for the 21st century

The fact of whether or not you are all together in the office is almost irrelevant if your culture is broken.

The controversy of Musk’s letter to his people is not in asking 40 office hours of his executive team – something he fairly points out is asked of his factory workers anyway. The issue that many are taking is in his language and tone, which betrays an inflexibility that is difficult to justify today.

It’s true that offices have strong capital for an organisation, allowing you to cultivate a brand experience, and giving clients a chance to speak with you on your home turf. Those who have spent big on real estate and fit-outs will be keen to see their investments reclaimed. Plus, offices are a way for bosses to keep an eye on their people and their productivity – something Musk alludes to by suggesting that remote workers are “pretending to work.”

Our leadership conversations since the beginning of 2020 have focused with startling urgency on creating meaningful work for our people. A sense of strong values has long been strong for our SMBs, and organisations that have powerful missions get more from their people. But with Covid at the door, not only how we’re working but also what for have been central to conversations for workers at all levels. Anxiety around these issues has fed into The Great Resignation, with employees walking away from companies that either don’t reward them meaningfully enough (e.g. through pay, development opportunities etc), don’t speak to the same values, or don’t get the best kind of work from them as individuals. That’s widening the supply-demand gap in a way that favours quality work and workers, and it’s leading towards the biggest movement of human talent in our lifetime.

But values alignment, while significant, is only one part of the puzzle. The other is highlighted in the stark difference between the letters from Chesky and Musk: trust.

Chesky points out that trust is key to Airbnb’s new WFA approach. “Now, I understand the anxiety of not seeing people in an office,” he writes. “[H]ow do you know if your employees are doing their jobs when you can’t see them? For me, it’s simple: I trust you, and flexibility only works when you trust the people on your team.”

Those who are familiar with Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002) will know that trust cultivates productive conflict, which in turn generates commitment, accountability, and in turn, results. Trust is critical to a successful organisation, and not least of all because it represents a culture where your team share the same vision for your future. When your people are on the same journey, fighting for shared values, and you are confident in their ability to deliver, then the need to micromanage disappears.

For Airbnb, WFA isn’t just a pragmatic answer to reducing overheads; it’s an ability to attract and retain diverse talent that shares their values, regardless of geographic limitations. How you work is less relevant than what you do. That the senior leadership team trusts its people to achieve their shared goals is vital to their success as a business. It’s also key to their ability to work anywhere – whether in an office, hotdesking, or travelling. In contrast, Musk’s letter betrays a culture failing at the first hurdle: trust.

Today, the fact of returning to the office is almost irrelevant. If your organisation has clearly defined values with strong buy-in, and a culture of trust that enables results, where you’re working comes second. What’s more important is that you hire by shared values, upskill to help you achieve the changes you want to make, and cultivate a workforce that intentionally shapes the future you want. The familiar might be safe, but if it’s not enabling your best work and helping your organisation achieve its goals, then it may be time to change.

Again, this is not to say that WFH/WFA, hybrid or office are going to work for every organisation or indeed every person in your team. Each situation requires a case-by-case analysis that explores its merits; this is true of all leadership activities. That is what we need to fundamentally understand about the situation that’s been accelerated by the pandemic.

We’ve spoken about the importance of developing a meaningful culture for your work: that there’s values alignment, that you and your people are excited about the journey they’re on and are prepared to fight for it. Innovation is key to the Kiwi way of problem solving, and it will determine how we shape the next generation of business.

We have all learned this the hard way through Covid, and it’s taught us all a lot about the need to look at what we do – and why we do it – with fresh eyes, and build our businesses into the kinds of organisations that are worth fighting for. We decide the rules, and the future of work is entirely up to us.

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