Executive Privilege — and ignorance — is Showing As Offices Reopen

During the pandemic, there has been a lot of self-congratulatory excitement as organizations went ‘virtual.’ People did navigate the transition very quickly by moving meetings online and using team chat spaces to share work. However, depending on who you are, where you work, and your role you likely experienced very different virtual work realities.

We’ve Been Doing More Than Working Remotely; We’ve Been Working Through a Pandemic

It feels like a lot of the conversation about going back to work focuses on the physical presence — and ignores the fact that employees weren’t just working from home. Many people were not even able to work remotely and that includes a lot of partners and spouses of those who could. More than that, people were juggling children, isolation, sick relatives and more — all of which created a lot of challenges on top of remote work.

The other thing that tends to be forgotten is that many, many of the people we rely on to live — retail, hospitality, entertainment, essential workers, educators, and healthcare professionals — were extremely stressed. That collective stress added emotional weight and anxiety even if an individual didn’t work in one of those roles because it is likely many of their friends and family do.

Knowledge workers seem to have gotten off easy because the vast majority of their work happens on a computer or in a meeting, both of which can be done remotely even if it is not ideal. However, if they are parents the work day was full of many more demands and interruptions than normal — and new responsibilities and concerns. If they are not parents, they were likely isolated and stuck on video for hours every day. Yes, their lives were easier than many others but it was far from normal. All is not well.

Reverse Culture Shock

Now that vaccines have been given to a large percentage of the U.S. adult population, everyone is thinking about transitioning again. There are many who are hoping to return to the past and act like nothing has changed.

When I was sixteen, I spent a year abroad living with a host family and going to school in Germany. After a year abroad I was terribly excited to return home but when I got home, things were weird and different — not because home had changed but because I had changed. It was something I was unprepared for and was confusing and unsettling. It’s called reverse culture shock and most people don’t know it exists so no one plans for it.

Watching the conversation about organizations returning to offices strikes me as the same dynamic — and some organizations seem wholely unprepared for it. Instead, they are opening offices and assuming everyone will (or ordering everyone to) return. This position completely ignores that people are exhausted, daycares have closed, and probably most influentially — some people loved having the flexibility and cost savings that working from home offered even if they were working longer hours and missed being together with their colleagues.

Recent posts from Catherine Merrill, the CEO of Washingtonian Media and Sandeep Mathrani, the C.E.O. of WeWork make it clear that some executives are completely out touch and ignorant about how to cultivate a positive culture, how to engage people, and how to effectively use technology. It’s clear that many if not most organizations just lifted and shifted, changing where they worked but now how they worked.

Luis Suarez started a conversation about this on LinkedIn. He hypothesized that the post-pandemic marketplace will be interesting to watch as those organizations that do know — or learned — how to effectively cultivate culture, engage employees, and change they way they work while doing so remotely will surge ahead regardless of where they work post-pandemic.

Failed Experiment or Failure to Change?

There are a lot of people who crave getting back to the office — some because they are extroverted, some because they felt like it gave them the advantage of influence, and many because they felt a lot less connected to each other while remote. Some view the issues, gaps, and challenges of remote work as inevitable aspects of digital-only connections. I’m here to tell you it’s not inevitable — the loss of connection is because people never changed and because they didn’t change, they think robust digital engagement, connection, and collaboration is impossible. It’s not impossible but organization do need to support and reward different behaviors — and change how they manage. It won’t come for free (but that’s OK because organizations have and can save huge capital costs on real estate).

The data from the 2021 State of Community Management revealed that well-managed community programs accelerate digital workplace behaviors. It is behavior change not technology adoption or location that is what changes economics and business models. The digital workplace behaviors that increase the speed and effectiveness of work include asynchronous work, increased engagement between employees and executives, willingness to be more transparent, and agile (iterative) work practices. Technology — whether team chat or community platforms — without those practices is just moving existing behaviors from one channel to another and because it adds channels without changing work, it increases information chaos rather than streamlining information.

Looking at the executive statements from Washingtonian Media and WeWork, executives have changed one thing — they are now openly acknowledging that culture matters and everyone needs to contribute to it in order to be successful. However, instead of taking responsibility for ensuring that happens, they are laying the responsibility on employees to value it, actively contribute, and show up for each other — they are, in effect, telling people to come to the office, stand in the kitchenette, and catch up with colleagues. I am betting that if you looked at the job descriptions for both of those organizations, they do not list that as a requirement or responsibility. Yet executives expect it – likely the same executives who objected to a lot of ‘wasted’ time just a few years ago. And they expect it without any investment on their part to help people understand how to connect and engage effectively, to ensure people are engaged, and that there is guidance and coaching to increase its effectiveness. This demonstrates a complete lack of leadership on the part of these executives. They want something to happen but take no personal responsibility in ensuring that it does — other than to demand people’s presence, which is ironically disengaging. The saddest part, perhaps, is they don’t recognize their own limitations or lack of leadership.

Is it Hybrid — or Flexible and Effective?

Luis points out that even if organizations mix virtual and in-person presence going forward, calling it ‘hybrid’ still puts the focus on the location — not the behavior and not the output. That logic implies that organizations are buying people’s hours, not output (and those using time sheets make that explicit). Hours worked is a poor measurement if the work being done is irregular — and knowledge work is anything but standardized (and in fact why it is called ‘knowledge’ work — the work is theoretically about creating new knowledge and managing exceptions to standardized work). In effect, the pandemic has laid bare and made explicit the structural issues in how knowledge work is managed and how organizations are operated as well as the critical importance of culture.

Why are so many executives seemingly clueless? One big reason is because they are isolated. In too many offices, senior executives are in different spaces, floors, or buildings than the majority of employees. I have been in companies where the executive floors look like gilded European palaces. In those contexts it is physically very, very difficult for executives to interact with others. Moving to a virtual environment this interaction and engagement is even harder — there isn’t even the ride up in the elevator to help them collide with the average employee. They are likely in meetings all day and they don’t know or haven’t set up the digital platforms that would allow them to ‘wander the halls.’ With so little access to employees it is almost impossible to be empathetic, understand what they are thinking, identify challenges, or see innovation. Being remote is quite unsettling if you are a traditional executive – it feels like you are blind, even if you essentially always were.

There is an option. For those organizations that use enterprise social networks and invest in community management, they have that shared space to ‘wander the halls’ — available to everyone. Active ESNs in a large organization typically include hundreds or thousands of communities, span the conversational spectrum from pet photos to collaboration and brainstorming, and makes the knowledge of the organization available to everyone which reduces duplication and accelerates the speed of work. The value is created when employees ask questions, share their thoughts and work, connect around shared interests, and engage with people they have never met but may do similar work. Those behaviors, enabled by a social network, dramatically change the effectiveness, ease, and flexibility of work.

You may not believe it’s possible given your experience — but that only means you have not seen it or cannot imagine it.

Hide or Adapt

Each organization gets to choose whether and how they return to the office. Face-to-face will always still matter but is it needed every day? Strategy, culture, and market dynamics will all play a part in whether companies can survive trying to recreate ‘normal’ but if organizations are smart they will see the COVID pandemic as a test of how prepared they are for the future of work — and learn from it. Working during a pandemic is not a model to replicate but there are very positive things that came out of the experience, things to never repeat, and most of all a new outlook on work.

My exchange year in Germany as a teenager was thrilling, scary, lonely, fun, wondrous, and educational. Coming home forced me to see my life in a different way, knowing how it compared to something else. It reinforced the value of somethings — and allowed me to see some things that I had previously seen as inevitable were actually a choice not a life sentence.

I recently saw an update on LinkedIn from one of my favorite, albeit short-lived bosses, Doug Knopper. He was excellent about integrating humanity and business. He shared that while participating in a board meeting recently, the CEO was interrupted by her 4-year-old. Instead of shooing her child away she stepped away briefly from the meeting to respond. When she came back, the board clapped in support showing that it was not only acceptable but something the board members recognized they needed to actively and publicly reward. As a woman in business I have rarely felt validated and supported in that way and it is an emotional relief to read about – even though I had nothing to do with it. What did that incredible show of support cost the board members? A few minutes of time. What they likely get from it is huge – because I am betting the CEO is much more willing to share authentic perspectives on business opportunities and challenges that will lead to better management decisions. This interaction was virtual but the trust it built was real. They did not need to be ‘in the office’ to do business just as well and in some ways it gave the board the opportunity to show its support in a way that would have been impossible in a board room.

I encourage everyone to think hard about how they want to work and about their own reverse culture shock as the pandemic eases. Use it to evaluate how you want to work and live. Reflect on what the opportunities the working through the pandemic revealed. The experience is a great teacher if you allow it to be.

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Rachel Happe

Rachel Happe

Connector of ideas & people. Fascinated by social dynamics & false truths. Founder of Engaged Organizations and co-Founder of The Community Roundtable.