“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.”
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
“I’m going to work.”
In 2019, those four words drew images of jumping in a car, fighting traffic, and pulling into the company parking lot — a daily ritual for millions of professionals.
Work is not a place. It never has been. It’s what it always was — something we do.
If your mind’s eye sees work as an office, it’s time for an update. Hybrid work will mean different things to different people. You need to understand how to make those differences work for your team and your business.
It’s time to grapple with some inconvenient truths.
Truth #1. Offices were palaces for extraverts.
In the command and control structure of the 20th and early 21st century, offices were palaces for extraverts. Places where, if you were good on your feet, or in a room, you got promoted.
If you struggled with small talk, you might be lacking “executive presence.”
For hundreds of years, offices gave extraverts a leg-up on everyone else. Introverts had coping strategies. Big ear-muff headphones in open offices or secluded corners they could work quietly in.
Remote work suits introverts. They feel comfortable — more in control of their destiny. Extraverts are climbing the walls because they can’t walk the halls of their palaces anymore.
Everyone has had this experience: walking down the hall at high school with your friend, one of you asks the other, “what’s the homework assignment for English class?”
The asker used their social network to solve problems and navigate the world. The person that answered didn’t. Instead, they found a way to solve problems and navigate without leaning (as much) on that social network.
The worm has turned.
Truth #2. Surprise. Autonomy is a really good thing.
The grand remote work experiment of 2020-22 has proven that autonomy is a good thing. People like agency. They want to be in control of their own destiny. Gartner research points out that nearly two-thirds of employees are rethinking the place work should have in their life.
One source of productivity gains, “I don’t have to spend an hour each way commuting in my car anymore.” But a lot of them can be attributed to, “you can’t micromanage people through a webcam.”
People on your team have, by necessity, become more self-reliant. The people who can do that, are wired that way, are given the liberty to work that way, love the agency. They feel way more productive.
Agency is a good thing.
Truth #3. We must learn how to set the clock.
If you look at the grand march of progress, and you look at GDP per capita, how productive people, businesses, and countries are over time — that line moves up and to the right. That’s driven by technology. Better technology and automation, drives productivity, efficiency, and process improvement.
Some of you will remember the days of Blockbuster.
Fridays meant a trip to the video store to rent movies, and a big chunky VCR sitting under your TV. Chances are the timer light, or clock on your VCR were flashing. Because it was a piece of technology, and like most technology, we only ever learn how to use a fraction of what it can do. In this case, I can rent a movie, and press play. Setting the clock, or pre-programming it to record a show?
You’re kidding, right?
Like it or not, we live in a technology-enabled world. At work, technology helps us communicate, be more productive, and create.
Except we only know a fraction of what that technology can do.
Think — of all the technology that you use — office software, your calendar, spreadsheets, whatever — how much do you actually know how to use? How much are you a wizard at? 10%; 20%; 30%…? How much more productive, efficient, collaborative we could be if everyone could nudge that score up a little bit. What would that add to the bottom line?
Worse, all the B.S. that IT organizations have, “we provide tier 1 technical support” — is not true and it never has been. The real ‘tier 1 support’ was the colleague three desks down, when you asked, “how do I write that excel formula, or how do I change the setting in that software.”
As software moves to the cloud, it’s always on, and continually improving. This means more features are added, which naturally makes it only more overwhelming for the novice.
Now is the time to learn.
Truth #4. Offices are not bastions of culture, people are.
Look at an empty office. Soulless.
“If we can’t bring people back to the office, we will lose our culture.” Not true.
Here’s the point that is missed: culture isn’t a place. It never was. People make your culture, not your office, or your happy hours. Manchester United has 1.1 billion fans. Those fans know the team, the players, their lore, and their history. Cut them and they bleed red. But most have never been to Old Trafford. Old Trafford seats 76,000, meaning that, on any given day, less than 0.0007% of those fans are in the “office.”
Leaders have grown up leading in an office. And let’s be honest, culture has always been an afterthought. An offsite might have 8 hours of meetings, and 1 happy hour. One moment to build social connection; put in the agenda at the end of a long day.
Leaders throughout the organization have to step up and learn a new skill. It’s something akin to EQ at scale, remotely, while juggling everything else they have to do. It isn’t easy. It’s shaping culture.
Sadly, there is no LinkedIn learning course for this because no one has figured it out for hybrid work.
Truth #5. The biggest driver of the great quit — “My boss.”
They’re what Todd Cherches calls “bossholes.”
“Increasingly, as people’s work routines have been upended by the pandemic, they’ve begun to question the thrum of unpleasantness and accumulation of indignities they used to shrug off as part of the office deal. Some are saying: no more working for jerks.
But it is not illegal to be a jerk, which introduces a hiccup into that mean-colleague reckoning. The definition of a bully is often in the eye of the coffee-fetcher.”
A return to office can’t be a return to command and control.
It’s a chance, according to Stephanie Creary, assistant professor of management at the Wharton School, to focus on making work matter, and to “create a more fair, inclusive, and equitable workplace.”
A toxic corporate culture is the biggest driver of the great resignation. According to MIT research, it’s 10.4 times more likely to cause someone to quit, than compensation.
That toxic corporate culture is shaped by leaders*. Bossholes. “I don’t like the way my boss treats me.”
Yes I want more flexible work, yes I want more autonomy, yes I want to have a sense of belonging, yes, I need to feel productive, I want everything else, but it’s still about leadership.
And leaders are struggling because they don’t know how to manage people remotely. They don’t know how — yet — to build and sustain a culture in a hybrid world.
Most of those leaders grew up in an office, where they could see everybody.
They’re in a strange new world.
Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience.
Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic.
Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.