We’ve spent a lot of time recently worrying about what our post Covid workplace will be like. We’ve wrestled with much flexibility we should offer, should we change our contracts, should we go for set days at home or offer personal choice and how our office layout might need to change. Just when we thought we were getting somewhere, there’s a new dilemma on the horizon, how do we reduce proximity bias?
Now, as anyone who doesn’t work in Head Office knows already, proximity bias is an actual THING. If you are someone who has frequent contact with the leaders and spends more time in the office being ‘seen’, chances are, you will receive preferential treatment when it comes to promotion and are likely to be seen as a higher performing employee.
If we are serious about continuing to offer genuine flexibility around where and when people work – and why wouldn’t we be – then we need to tackle proximity bias. If we don’t, then you know exactly what will happen. For all of our commitment statements about offering flexible working, our leaders in the office will become a kind of siren, gradually drawing people back there with them.
So how to tackle this issue of proximity bias. First up, the basics. It’s worth thinking about how you can create the same experience for your people, regardless of where they are based. One way of levelling the playing field is the approach that the company Coinbase take where they commit to there being no explicit or implicit disadvantages to working from any location and conduct all team meetings as if everyone were working remotely – including colleagues in the office who connect from their desks. Or have a think about how you reward and recognise your people and make sure that the celebrations aren’t always office based.
Next, help managers to manage through outcomes and results, rather than task supervision. One technique that might help is the so-called ‘tight-loose-tight’ management approach. This is where really tight and clear outcomes are identified up front – then the manager is encouraged to back off and loosen up around exactly HOW these outcomes are delivered – followed by getting tight again around accountability. The idea is to give managers the assurance they need that results will be delivered without them needing to observe the work being done.
Thirdly, we can challenge proximity bias at the point where a manager might be about to choose someone who they see everyday, over someone who works remotely. EY have implemented something they call ‘PTR’. This involves leaders checking with each other whether their choice is ‘a Preference, a Tradition or a Requirement’, ie: ‘did you pick this person because it’s your personal preference, or because the person traditionally in this role has always been based near to you, or because they genuinely meet the requirements for the role?’ It might not eliminate proximity bias, but it at least makes them pause and think.
And finally, the most significant thing you can do to reduce the bias of proximity – make sure your leaders are working flexibly too. If leaders are always in then we will continue to imply ‘BUT, THE IMPORTANT WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ then all of your brilliant flexible working plans will gradually fade away. Employees will know without being told that to be valued, to be recognised and to get on, then they have to be seen. You could adapt PepsiCo’s mantra of ‘Leaders Leave Loudly’. Leaders there make a point of letting their teams know that they are working from home or leaving the office early to pick up their kids or go to the gym. If our leaders role model the new hybrid, it will happen.
Right now, management teams all over the world are debating what they should do with the future workplace. Some, like DropBox are getting rid of offices for individual working completely. At the other end of the spectrum, some, like Goldman Sachs, seem to be denying that the last 18 months even happened and are urging everyone to get back to normal as soon as possible.
Most leaders though are taking a more progressive and rational approach and opting for a hybrid workplace. Whether that’s a 2/3 day split like at BP or even better – like O2, Mondelez, Standard Chartered – allowing for personal choice about where we want to work.
But what does this mean for managers who are trying to get the work done, keep customers and team members happy and still provide this level of individual choice? How can you make the future workplace – work?!
Got to work for all
As managers trying to juggle different – and sometimes conflicting needs and wants within a team – and still deliver – it’s tempting to look for some rule or policy that we can use to give us the answer. But the smarter leaders know that a prescriptive policy is NEVER going to cater for every possible situation. The best and really the ONLY way to resolve conflicting needs and wants is to talk it through as a team. If you treat people like grown-ups and share the dilemma – you can work through it together – through conversations. True, not everyone may get everything they want, but you’re treating them like adults and it’s more likely to be resolved amicably without applying a big one-size-fits-all approach.
Level the playing field
If you’re really going to make the future ways of working happen effectively, then it’s worth thinking about how you can create the same experience for your people, regardless of where they are based. It’s well-known that human beings tend to show bias towards the people we see more regularly and that remote workers can feel less valued as a result. One way of levelling the playing field is the approach that the company Coinbase take where they commit to there being no explicit or implicit disadvantages to working from any location and conduct all team meetings as if everyone were working remotely – including colleagues in the office who connect from their desks. Or have a think about how you reward and recognise your people and make sure that the celebrations aren’t always office based.
Retaining your culture
Managers I meet are worrying about how they can continue to retain their culture if more of their team aren’t in the office regularly – and I think this is a valid concern. What we see companies doing is being really clear on the key interactions with your team members that are best done face to face? – the so-called ‘moments that matter’
Managers at ABN Amro have identified 4 key moments that matter – being recruited, being inducted onboarded, dealing with difficult times and building social relationships. Once you’ve identified the key moments for your people that are best done face to face, then you can co-ordinate the team being together. Maybe have a think about the moments that matter in your area? Or better still, discuss and agree them with your team. Agreeing on the types of activity that play best remotely or face to face, rather than how many days a week tends to be more productive.
And what about you as a leader? How might you need to work differently? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to hopefully help you move to a more hybrid workplace
- Are my meetings always about ‘tasks’ or do I create opportunities for social interaction?
- Am I having enough quick check-ins and chats about career development?
- Am I celebrating enough as a team? How am I recognising individual team members?
- Am I using a range of tools such as WhatsApp or Slack to keep conversations going outside of meetings?
- Do I Work From Anywhere – or am I always in the office? If leaders don’t actively work away from the office then it will be seen as something that in reality is frowned upon.
But more than anything, leaders can make this work by not seeing and framing Working from home as an indulgence. If we continue to imply ‘BUT, THE REAL WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ we’ll be back to packed commuter trains and cubicle-working in no time at all. Offering greater choice about where and when your teams do their work is a fantastic opportunity to provide the flexibility and autonomy we crave whilst providing the social interaction and structure too.
As I sit here in London on yet another dark January lockdown afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that eventually there will be a return to the dilemma of where we work. But it also feels good to dream about a time in the (hopefully) not-to-distant future when our choices about where we work can be expanded.
Certainly, the smart businesses are already planning for it. In a recent survey we asked whether you thought you’d be:
- Back in the office as normal by the summer (41%)
- Using the office for networking only (47%) or
- Cancelling your office lease (12%)
So nearly 60% of you are already making plans for a very different set of working arrangements, recognising that the office as a place where we go to do our work is increasingly outdated.
I find these figures exciting. They show that many of you are recognising the huge opportunity this crisis has given us – to completely re-set our thinking about how, where and when we work. This doesn’t just give us the potential to transform our working lives and to continue to reap the individual and business benefits of increased work/life balance or productivity. It has the potential to dramatically expand our talent pools and business innovation, to transform the communities we live in, and help save money and the planet! But – and it’s a big BUT – this potential can only be realised if we change our thinking, not just our work locations.
We weren’t great at WFH pre-crisis
Over recent years, we have done our best to promote the benefits of working from home occasionally. But let’s be honest, we haven’t really been terribly successful. Managers have clung to their need to see their staff to be reassured that they are actually working. Being allowed to work from home continued to be seen as a perk, almost as if you were taking the day off. Our most senior leaders tended to be in the office and so the important stuff, the big decisions, were things that happened there. Whilst the crisis has changed a lot of this, I do wonder whether the beliefs that under-pinned it have actually moved on all that much? I don’t think we should assume that the lack of trust from managers or old-school leadership will have been eliminated by the virus.
We’re applying old-fashioned thinking to future plans
It’s telling that many companies who are promising a change to their future workplace continue to apply old-style thinking. They are telling their people that the new normal will involve working at home say, three days out of five with the remaining two days being back in the office. Whilst this limited choice will go some way of appeasing our desire for increased flexibility, it doesn’t change the thinking behind it. Working from home is still being framed as a bit of an indulgence and everything about this approach screams ‘BUT, THE REAL WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ If we don’t change the thinking, we’ll be back to packed commuter trains and cubicle-working in no time at all.
Now I know that some aspects of work can be diminished when there’s lack of physical contact, collaboration and creativity for example. And I’ll do a future blog on how companies are ensuring that these can still thrive without being office based. But for this one I’d like to look at three trends and changes in mind-set that are gaining momentum and which have the potential to offer a genuine re-set once the crisis ends.
15 Minute Living
Whilst the idea of ‘15 Minute Living’ idea isn’t new, it is certainly getting some traction since the crisis. This model of urban planning is where all our needs, whether they be work, school, gym, shopping, socialising or healthcare, are no more than a 15 minute walk or cycle from our homes. Instead of long commutes to huge offices in city centres, there is growing trend around the idea of ‘localisation’ – vibrant local communities that cater for all our needs. Companies are already responding to this trend with Google planning to create smaller hubs and satellite offices as alternatives to the big HQs. Similarly, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong recently explained his vision of having ‘one floor of office space in ten cities, rather than ten floors of office in space in one city’. This distributed model of offices has the potential to breakdown the soulless HQs that have burgeoned over recent decades. Moreover, because these hub working spaces will be based around where people actually live rather than where certain departments are based, they shouldn’t automatically re-create the mini fiefdoms we tried hard to get rid of in the first place.
WFA – Working from Anywhere
The old ‘work from home or the office?’ debate is thankfully evolving into the concept of ‘Work from Anywhere’ (WFA). Rather than being constrained by an office with all of the costs and hassle that go with it, companies are expanding their options of where work can happen. Whilst we saw co-working space growth before the crisis, the predictions are that this will shoot up from 5% to 30% of the office market over the next 10 years. The search optimisation agency Novos for example, has recently signed a lease with We Membership and give employees their own monthly budget to spend on booking workspace. Not only does this save the company money, but they are now less reliant on the competitive London market for talent, with recent recruits coming from as a far afield as Poland.
In addition, hotel chains hit hard by lockdowns and travel bans are waking up to the idea that they can provide businesses with flexible space options. Accor and Marriott for example, are both offering ‘work from here’ packages – possibly a more attractive option for people struggling with working from home due to lack of space or young children. Travel company Expedia has even been promoting the idea of changing your four walls during lockdown for a holiday location with their Work From Here campaign and there’s a new platform called Jubel that makes it easy to plan so-called ‘workcations’.
Level Playing Fields
Back when I was in corporate life, I used to find it amusing that the location of the Executive Team would act like a magnet for large numbers of staff who would try and move their own desk closer to the seat of power. If we continue to see the office as where the important work happens, all of these exciting new trends will lose traction. And we will gravitate back to the centres of power like some Elizabethan court! The smarter companies have not only re-set expectations of where work can happen, but have supported these changes with efforts to level the playing fields between office work and elsewhere. Here are just a few examples:
- Pay the same regardless of location: Reddit have promised to set salaries based on the role, not where it’s located – in sharp and welcome contrast to those companies who pay more if you’re back in the office.
- Create the same experience for people, wherever they are: Coinbase, whose CEO has promised that ‘there are no explicit or implicit disadvantages to working from any location’ ensure that everyone dials into video meetings from their laptop at their desk, even if they are in the office – to reduce the risk that you miss out on side conversations and get ignored.
- Help your people create the workspace that meets their needs: Slack is just one of the companies who gives their people an allowance to enable them to create the best working space that works for their individual needs.
The plans we are making now for a post-Covid world offer a genuine opportunity to re-shape our businesses and the lives of our people. If we want to fully realise this opportunity, then we have to re-shape our thinking as well as giving up the lease on our office.