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Faculty Viewpoints

How to Go Back to a Better Office 

The transition from remote to hybrid and full-time office work has already begun for many. While office workers may be returning to familiar desks and corridors, both work and life have changed since the start of the pandemic. Heidi Brooks, who teaches leadership at Yale SOM and advises companies on everyday leadership and organizational culture, talks about how managers can approach this moment of transition with empathy—and have a meaningful impact at an important time.

Key ideas

  • Work is changing. Approach the transition with curiosity and empathy.
  • Aim for sustainable productivity, instead of near-term reactivity.
  • Be aware that people have had widely varied experiences of the pandemic, perhaps related to demographics.
  • Craft return policies and practices that incorporate equity, belonging, and thriving, empowering each person to do their job well in their circumstances.
  • Emphasize communication throughout the leadership hierarchy.
  • Anchor around a vision of where you want your organizational culture to be in 10 years, as well as in 10 months and 10 days. Create tomorrow in everyday actions today.

How should we approach this new phase of working?

First of all, a couple of things are going on. There is a moment of transition back into the office and there is the larger picture of transitioning into the hybrid approach to work—more of a movement that will change the face of work. We have to consider both the moment and the movement.

I think there is also the larger context to consider of how we have been thinking about the important issue of productivity. We’ve been doing a pretty good job for the past couple of decades of ramping up productivity, and I think we are now over-indexing on hyper-productivity. Productivity is important, of course, but we seem to have lost a sense of boundaries on the time and tasks. During this work from home period, where the work boundaries of time and space were removed, what have we learned about sustainability?

Because we are so focused on a near-term, quarterly mindset, our idea of sustainability is often, can we make it for three months? Of course, people can make a special effort for three months, but then when it has to happen again the next quarter and then the next, that kind of push becomes the norm, not a special event. So it makes sense that a lot of the questions employees and team leaders are asking as they return to the office are about redefining productivity. I hope that we are in a period of upgrade, of learning about productivity. And I would add an adjective—we need to learn about sustainable productivity.

“What does it mean for us to craft a concept of society that includes work and also respects people’s ability to sleep and be well, and to contribute to their families and to other communities that they’re part of?”

We can think more broadly about the experience and impact of over-indexing on hyper-productivity, from the perspective of multiple stakeholders: productivity at a meso level, productivity for the individual, for your relationships, for your teams, for the organization. And then there’s sustainable productivity for society. What does it mean for us to craft a concept of society that includes work and also respects people’s ability to sleep and be well, and to contribute to their families and to other communities that they’re part of? To be whole people with whole lives? There’s so much that’s pushed us in the direction of productivity at all costs and at all times of day. That’s coming into question, and it’s become a central question of this transition back to the office.

It’s particularly important from a leadership perspective. Wisdom is fueled by thinking about things outside immediate demands. We need leaders with the wisdom to be able to make hearty, healthy decisions for today and tomorrow. Over-indexing on hyper-productivity puts us at real risk of planning in service of today and abandoning tomorrow at a cost.

What’s the opportunity here to look at our organizations and make those changes?

Recently, a number of people across roles in different companies have told me, “After a while, it feels like the company is just a screen.” How much of the attrition that we are hearing about is related not just to hybrid work agreements, but more to feelings of disconnection and lack of meaningful belonging? I think this is an important time to understand the role of everyday leadership in creating a meaningful experience of and at work.

We’ve had a transformational experience. It reminds me of what happens for kids when they go away to college and then come back home for the first holiday—that might be Thanksgiving in the U.S. You go off perhaps at age 18 and come back at age 18 and a quarter. It’s only been three months, and yet your whole world is transformed. Why? Nothing has changed about home; you were changed.

I think that’s part of the question that we’re facing. We’ve been out in the world; we are changed. We’re not sure if the world has changed. There is a lot of uncertainty about how much of a changed world we are facing.

Some of the questions that I’ve heard people ask are of a technical nature, like “What is the best kind of work to do from home, and what is the best kind of work to do from the office?” I’m pretty sure we’re going to figure that out pretty quickly, if we don’t know the answer already. Those are not what I consider the hard questions. They’re the urgent questions, because we’re trying to plan around them.

The hard questions are more like, who are we now? Do we trust each other? Can we create environments where we don’t have as much micromanaging and oversight, and yet believe that people are committed and get things done? An even harder question is, can we become people who manage by creating environments of trust and empathy and reciprocity and accountability? Are we safe enough to know about each other’s lives while we see each other? We’ve had this whole year of viewing each other’s home backgrounds, so we know we have a different vantage point on each other. Do we want to know each other’s lives?

It’s intimate and vulnerable work, a learning process together. We’re not used to that. And that’s the kind of work I do all the time with organizations that are interested in learning, because it needs some structure and invitation and, to some extent, facilitation. We’re not typically great in conventional organizations—individually or collectively—at learning from experience.

We now have lots of experience—the pandemic has been rich with new experiences around virtual work and racial equity. But…we don’t learn from experience itself. We learn from reflecting on experience, from sense-making, from engaging with each other, from asking curious and perhaps difficult questions—who are we now? What matters? How can we thrive?

Can we learn from our experience? Theoretically, yes. Are we set up to do that? No.

How should employers think about whether to allow more flexibility in having to leave the office for, say, a doctor’s appointment or a sick kid?

OK, that’s a good use case for living into our values. I might ask questions related to norms: What were the norms pre-pandemic? How much flexibility and trust? Within the norm, you don’t have to explain yourself. This is why this transition is such a big deal; the norms are changing, and we’re not quite sure how we’re going to negotiate that, what the new rules will be.

We all know that we all have things that we have to take care of in life. Are we allowed to name those now? Can they happen during work hours? Because you know that you could actually do the thing. Can you have a doctor’s appointment without taking time off now, because you can catch up at night? We’re still confused, but now people have had a taste of flexibility, in most cases without a ding to productivity. There is no going back, no unlearning this experience of combining life and work.

These small things may seem insignificant on some level, but these are the kind of moments that make an impact in the lived experience of the organization and its values. It matters how people feel about work and working and workplaces—so how do we both make room for sustainable lives and accountability for high-quality results? These are the kind of negotiations that shine the light on some of the tensions and opportunities that we have at this moment.

What can managers do between now and when they have people returning to work?

Now, I know that there are companies who never stopped going to the office and others that are fully returning to the office out of a belief in familiarity or sense of management control. I’ll be interested to see how that plays out. I’m interested in organizations that are framing this transition around voice and transparency. They’re intentionally going out and asking for stakeholder perspectives. They’re offering as much information as possible and trying to be transparent. They’re getting opinions about what people think they want. All positive, if there is allowance to learn from our experience. We’re going to have to survey people again, after they have some experience experimenting with the new way. And then they might have to do it again after we calm down into it.

I’ve talked with an organization that did a good job transitioning into remote work, and now is trying to do a good job at transitioning back to the office and into a hybrid mode. They’ve been doing surveys and working to maintain communication across levels.

At the beginning of the pandemic, they heard the younger segment of the workforce saying, “We miss the social part. We seeing people. This is where our lives happen.” And then a year later when they went back to the office, it was different than what people thought it was going to be. Not because anything was actually different. The coffee maker was still in the same place. Not a lot has happened. The organizations have not changed, but it feels different to be there, in different ways.

The first two weeks back were social and fun. And then the fun ran out. People got used to seeing each other and adjusted to the new normal, and then an interesting thing happened at about the six-week mark: Some of the people who had voted for a hybrid model were changing their minds and saying, “Actually, now that I see what it’s like, I actually want to work in the office. I’m getting a lot out of the informal exchanges. It creates a clean opening and closing to my day. I enter, I work, I exit, I work less. Whereas on the days when I’m remote, it just starts as soon as I wake up and it ends when I go to sleep.” Others were saying, “Wow, I voted for mostly in office because I love my group but now I see that we can all be here on Tuesday and Wednesday and virtual other days and it kinda works.”

We have to learn from experience. We’ve never experienced this. So we can’t use data that we’ve had before. It’s inaccurate. And our forecasting is not very well informed. We’re filling in for a world from before, and it’s not a very good guide for now.

“We need to ask the tactical questions, like how often I go to the office, as well as the harder questions—how we are going to live into our values and create the kind of organization that really makes sense for who we are now.”

We each have the agency and choice and chance to craft what we want in our understanding of work. We need to ask the right questions, and the right questions include the tactical questions—how often I go to the office, which kinds of work belong where—and the harder questions—how we are going to live into our values and create the kind of organization that really makes sense for who we are now. We just need to able to learn and adjust as we go.

The pandemic has exposed a lot of inequities. Is it important to consider that in returning to in-person work?

Absolutely. One of the hard but important questions is, what do we do about questions of unfairness and differential impact about different people in the organizational setting who have different kinds of choices? There are some essential workers who are not in this conversation of choice. You and I both have knowledge-worker jobs. We can ask, “Oh, what do I need to navigate if I feel like working from the beach?” That’s a very different conversation compared to the choices available to a surgeon or construction worker.

I think our concepts of fairness are primarily based in concepts of equality—in other words, doing the same thing for everyone. And we might be challenged to shift to a concept of equity, where instead we’re giving people access to what they need to be able to do their job well. It might be that companies need to have a little more individualized consideration to create the conditions where each employee can thrive.

We might need to think about who can and cannot afford to work remotely, for instance. And we’re not used to those conversations. We need to think about them as work conversations, I think, rather than personal conversations. What are the conditions under which someone can thrive and really do their job well?

Who do you have that conversation with? Is an ordinary manager now going to be thinking about that?

This is why this whole thing is going to be so hard for middle managers, because they are neither creating the policies nor necessarily in agreement with them, but they are the front line of offense and defense. So it’s a pretty tough role in this moment. Middle managers are hugely important in this conversation.

I hope companies will look out for those folks in the middle. They are incredibly important to transmitting a healthy version of organizational culture, to making large places feel personal and to making meaning in a time of complexity and ambiguity. They probably need some social support for a heavy lift into new work and a good dose of acknowledgement for the role they play in helping people perform and thrive.

That’s a great point. So how can executive leadership set middle managers up for success in this transition?

In the context of this kind of complexity and ambiguity and uncertainty, different leadership skills come to the fore. The well-developed problem-solving capacity may not be as helpful as it is when situations are complicated and challenging but fixable. In the context of complexity and ambiguity that we cannot problem-solve away, it may help to lead from a place of curiosity and empathy and exchanging as much information as possible in a transparent way. And very importantly, give middle managers a voice. Encourage them to talk about what they are learning. Because they’re going to be the translation conduit.

We need to support those middle managers by giving them a chance to have access to some of the conversation. To raise some of their concerns and questions. To be an advance audience. There will be some of them who are innovative and early adopters and right on board. For some of them, it takes them a little bit more evidence that there’s something here—a little bit more conversation and time to play with it.

A company that I was talking with earlier today was talking about how they were just starting to realize that as they’re going back, the middle managers are squeezed. It’s not possible, necessarily, in all sizes of organizations, but this company has organized middle and senior manager meetings around this question into places for exchange. They are asking, “What are you learning? What’s happening? Help us understand from both sides.” Almost open-format meetings, but with a targeted purpose, to be able to discuss what we are learning from this. “What can we predict? What are you anticipating? What patterns are you seeing? What are the rumblings?” An open conduit, organized around hearing and responding to voice of different stakeholders.

Whether people are coming back next week or in January, it sounds like you’re suggesting that conversation is critical.

Work is changing. A lot is going to get negotiated in the return to office about who you are as an organization. Who you are as a leader and a manager. How responsive, curious, interested, capable, calm, forgiving, interested, empathic you are. So this is not just a matter of, read the HR manual and the new policy—here’s the link. We actually have to learn how to learn. We have to learn something new and we’re going to learn how to do it.

We have to ask all these hard questions, and then we have to step back and reflect on the answers. Give yourself time, preferably both by yourself and collectively, to actually notice how hard this change is. “Wow, that was really exhausting because I’m doing new things and I don’t know how to do them. People don’t know the answer and they’re anxious.” Let yourself and others have feelings and don’t try to get rid of them.

There’s also what we have literally lost—not in terms of work productivity, or togetherness, or office culture, but truly lost, like loss of life—to COVID. Long-haul COVID is a disability. Some people probably got divorced, or had to move, or were lonely. How do we talk about that?

Here’s where we have very different pictures. We did not all go through the pandemic in the same way. In my family, not only did we all have very bad COVID, but my husband was hospitalized and barely made it through. But we were lucky; he’s fine, unscathed—no negative health consequences that we can decipher. I have a friend who has tinnitus after COVID. It’s been months now. Another dear friend lost his wife to COVID and we have lost people in the extended family. And I cannot help but notice that these stories are disproportionately happening to people in my life who are of color, to people who are Latinx or Black. There’s been disproportionate impact in terms of COVID’s effect on people’s lives. I think that’s worth acknowledging.

There are also differences by age in terms of pandemic experience. I’m happily married, ensconced in a new pandemic home and neighborhood with my husband. This is enough social life for me. That is not true for other people. I sometimes have flashes of what it would have been like with young children at home and really feel for the caregivers.

So when we talk about the return to the office and hybrid work, it sounds like an equalizer. But the experiences of the past year have been different family by family, employee by employee, country by country, with some demographic skew by race, gender, and class.

You’ve talked before about managers showing more of their own vulnerability. Should managers also open up to their employees and say, “Look, I’m learning as I go here”? Or should they maintain a facade of control?

Some managers feel like, because they’ve been so trained through social norms, they need to present confidence at all times. That old-school convention does not guide us well when we don’t know the answer.

So if you know the answer, you can be confident about that. Where people really get stuck is when they feel unsure and they try to rely on confidence, because those are the rules of the road. People who are receiving that kind of leadership find them inauthentic, unapproachable, lacking empathy. I’m worried about this. I’m worried about our default of “Never let them see you sweat.”

“This is a time when we have to tolerate ambiguity. Tolerating it well means remaining open rather than defensive and self-protective, not going into fight or flight. Because ambiguity isn’t in itself threatening; it’s just unclear.”

Can you be a manager who can actually guide, and lead, and provide some holding and containment in a time of ambiguity? In psychology, we have a term called negative capacity, which is basically about being able to tolerate ambiguity without falling apart yourself. This is a time when we have to tolerate ambiguity. Tolerating it well means remaining open rather than defensive and self-protective, not going into fight or flight. Because ambiguity isn’t in itself threatening; it’s just unclear. Negative capability is highly relevant to leading during uncertain times. And these are uncertain times.

Right next to that is positive capability. Can you create a sense of optimism and hope for the future? Can you buffer the people from the negative enough for us to create positivity and aspirations, to be able to step forward into the future with some sense of hope and confidence and agency?

Everybody knows that we don’t know. Everybody knows we’ve never been here before, so it’s not a secret—you don’t have to act as though it’s resolved. It’s important to co-create our way forward here. It is possible to lead in ambiguity; in fact, it’s essential to the future of work.

How can a manager know if they’re succeeding?

It’s a good time to ask that question. What does success look like? What does thriving look like? What would small wins look like along the way?

People will be encouraged by the small wins. This is the classic change process that John Kotter identified. It’s key to think about what we are attached to, what the values are to which we want to hold ourselves accountable as an organization and as individual leaders. And then connect that set of values to aspirations. How do we connect today to tomorrow? I call that a telescoping between today and tomorrow.

Create and communicate small visible signs of progression and forward momentum. Perhaps it looks like celebrating the first successful days in hybrid or coordinating team days in office or finding new ways to connect and have shared meaning/shared purpose. Tsedal Neeley has great practical advice on the central importance of regular (re)launch events to create shared goals, understanding, and norms. It’s a fundamental, everyday leadership skill to be able to take care of tomorrow by taking care of today in an aligned fashion. And the thing to align with is our values and our aspirations for what tomorrow will look like.

How can managers go about that if they don’t have MBAs and didn’t take your class?

I’m a big fan of facilitated learning at key junctures. I think that in order to bring humanity to work, we all sometimes need outside nudges and a facilitated holding space and some guidance to stepping into our best self.

I think anything that helps you to do that is beneficial—articles, ideas, colleagues who elevate you and help you to evolve into the person that you want to be. It’s a good time for some social accountability that brings out the best of who you are. It’s a really important time for senior people to really be intentional about creating the culture that they want, to create those conversations in a way that opens possibility rather than narrows it. It’s a basic paradigm choice: are you going to be a place of hope or a place of fear? If you go through this moment as a risk-management exercise, you’ll probably miss a precious opportunity to impact what could be.

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