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back to the office? stay away? Do you want a hybrid?

Illustrated by Otto Steininger (The Harvard Gazette.)

Christina Pazzanese
Harvard Staff Writer/Harvard Gazette

Since the deployment of the COVID vaccine, many businesses have returned workers to full-time. However, many workplaces remain remote or have a hybrid model, with staff coming in some days and working from home some days. This recent “back to the office” push has met with fierce resistance from employees, with some turning to leaving rather than returning to their old desks.

Ethan S. BernsteinAssociate Professor of Business Administration, Edward W. Connard University Harvard Business Schoolis an organizational behavior expert who has studied how the workplace has changed since the pandemic began. He told The Gazette about why returning to the office is taxing many workplaces and how employers and employees can work together to find arrangements that work for everyone. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Gusset: Many employers want their employees back in the office, but face pushback from those who want to continue working remotely. What makes this situation so complex and elusive?

Bernstein: Doesn’t it seem ridiculous that in a critical moment during a pandemic, we all figured out how to continue working productively without these conversations and discussions? I have, but what makes this difficult is the choice.

There are two answers.Many of us, including my esteemed colleagues at HBS, Tsedar Neelyhas spent a lot of time on this topic, calling the modern office just another management tool. Looking at it like that, [as I do,] And part of the tension is that there are different views and different preferences on how that tool should be used. I have never had a conversation like this before. Yes, some organizations do not have offices. Others have long had virtual employees. But as hybrid work becomes more prevalent, so do options for where and how you work. It’s not just personal choice. How one person works affects how teams and organizations work. So for the first time we are faced with the dilemma of whose preferences matter and who does not. We might hope that the data and evidence will show the way, but currently the data are sparse, the methodologies are incomplete, and the results supporting one type of study over another indicate a superior choice. or just haven’t had enough time to make the alternatives more viable.

my job open office We have shown that when we use our intuition, it is not always correct. We thought that open offices solved collaboration and cost problems, but in reality they solved only cost problems. Similarly, when leaders bring people back to the office because they “know” they can’t do x or y virtually, they use unproven assumptions with limited or no relevant evidence. I think you’re justifying your preferences.

The second reason this conversation is so difficult is because the pandemic has changed the labor market. Many employees now know what it’s like to choose and experiment with different ways of working. People who love having options don’t want to give it up and are willing to walk when it’s taken away from them. And there is a labor market that supports them.

Gusset: Prior to the pandemic, concerns about lost productivity were the main reason employers resisted remote work. Two-and-a-half years later, and data shows that worry is unfounded, employers are still pressing for remote work cutbacks and a return to pre-pandemic offices. increase. Is this just a power struggle between management and employees?

Bernstein: Generally speaking, I don’t think people fight because they want to express their power. They are fighting for what they truly believe is right. I’ve never met a leader or manager in an organization who doesn’t feel like he’s trying to do what he thinks is right. However, they base their judgments on what is “right” based on their own preferences and experience. And different generations, different roles, different people – all the differences and diversity we celebrate – make this a tough problem to solve. There are many diverse (and strongly supported) opinions.

It’s helpful to start by asking what you’re optimizing for, and then bring your mind together to solve it. Some organizations now seem to be stuck in the consensus trap. We don’t know what to do, so let’s find a compromise and let him spend a couple of days in the office. However, these organizations are beginning to realize that this approach produces nothing more than a suboptimal consensus. Certain types of collaboration can be improved when all collaborators are in the office at the same time. No. Will that solve my productivity problems? No, I don’t see any productivity problems. Will it solve mental health issues?Probably not unless we find a way to integrate it with activities that make people happier [working] at the office, not at home.

So if consensus is not the solution, how can we reach a common understanding? I wish the experiments were a little more balanced and the diverse perspectives were a little more inclusive, but more than that, experiments that allow us to learn are good experiments at this early stage. A tight labor market is forcing experimentation that would not occur naturally. There is no one size fits her solution. In fact, looking back, it’s incredible what I thought I would have when I was used to working in an office.

With that in mind, organizational leaders are encouraged to try conflicting solutions rather than upholding their own preferences and instincts. Instead of assuming that what they think is best for the organization, be more intentional and intentional and open up to as many different views (and experiments) as possible. That’s the hybrid promise and worth the cost. Everyone says the solution is “hybrid”, but that word means something a little different. The way we progress is by trying all the different meanings until we find a version that works for us.

Gusset: Is there still data to show whether hybrid work is improving or degrading business performance?

Bernstein: I wanted to We know how to make office work work, and because of the pandemic, we know how to make virtual work work. It takes time to understand it. However, those who do will be ahead of the game. That’s why it’s good that we’re doing this now. It could very well become a competitive advantage in the near future.

Gusset: What approach should an organization take if it is truly trying to identify a solution that meets the needs of both management and employees?

Bernstein: Suppose one of my students asks, “How can we come to an agreement on how we do our work?” The first answer looks like this: Decide what is important. Different groups, teams, functions, etc. need different things, so it can’t always be done across the organization. So let’s solve this on that level. Then once we agree on what we’re trying to solve, let’s track it down and see if we can solve it using people’s preferences. [those] role.that’s not all [about] Individual. This is the problem. Your decision to go to the office influences my decision to stay home and vice versa. And when you decide to be somewhere other than where I am, it can affect my productivity metrics as much as yours. I need an approach.

HR is supposed to help manage these things, and smart, strategic HR does exactly this: What are you trying to solve? How are you going to track it? How well are we doing it? And what changes should you experiment with to make it better? Only when you really fail to prove that your preferred way of working works do you raise your arms and admit to yourself should. It’s good for the team, so I need to spend more time in the office than necessary” or “Maybe this isn’t the right role for me. [it] Because of the way this job is done, you have to be in the office. Instead of starting with the view that hybrid work is very different from other types of work, it helps to start with the basic principles. My own view is that if you do that, you’ll never get to wave a white flag and be asked to “return” to the office. I think in 10 years from 5 years he’ll be shocked that he thought it was true.

Gusset: Beyond Zoom, can technology solve some of the challenges posed by hybrid work?

Bernstein: absolutely. It should be remembered that the technology that enables virtual work is relatively new. The smartphone was invented only 15 years ago. Imagine what technologies will emerge in the next 15 years to enable hybrid work more effectively. That said, we can’t just focus this problem on technology companies. We need to be more explicit about what problems we need to solve and, more importantly, be more open to using the new technologies that are becoming available. Many organizations already have the technology to solve some of these problems, but administrators simply choose not to use it.

Gusset: How can employers and employees negotiate deals that work for everyone?

Bernstein: I really hope this doesn’t have to be a negotiation all the time. There are many things we don’t know and we can learn together before we negotiate. How can we do better learning? I have. Surveys are great for getting average perspectives from a broad sample, but this should be an ongoing conversation. A good conversation begins with a desire to understand. Try to understand the sources of tension and the assumptions behind them, and test those assumptions. No one is completely satisfied with the way things are right now, so let’s try to understand, surface, and test the areas where everyone wants to improve. I’ll save negotiation tactics and sub-optimal sub-optimal consensus for later.

Gusset: The type of “consensus” where everyone gets a little bit of what they want, but no one is happy.

Bernstein: Then someone says, “Well, I think the experiment failed, so the answer is to put everyone back in the office.” It’s too simple. You can do better.

(Reprinted with permission from the secretariat. Harvard Gazette.)


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