Why Mandating 'X‘ Days a Week in the Office is a Stupid Idea
As the pandemic eases, increasing numbers of companies and employees are running out of health-related reasons why everyone who can work from home needs to do so.
And yet employees have gotten used to skipping the daily commute, have proven that they can remain productive in their pajamas, and are often struggling to find good reasons why they need to return to their pre-pandemic office hours – or even some semi-reasonably mandated hybrid schedule.
One high-profile example of the rebellion brewing is Ian Goodfellow, Apple’s director of machine learning, who recently announced his departure from this bastion of high-tech due to its return-to-work policy.
I understand the tension. There are many reasons why companies want their employees toiling away in their offices – some of them good, and some of them bad. And there are many reasons why employees might want to work from home – most of them good and, in a few cases, some not quite so good.
And so, when occupants of the C-suite ask themselves, “How many days each week must our employees come into the office?”, it is understandably a hard question, and there’s no one answer that is going to please everyone. But that’s why they make the big bucks, right?
Apple execs should remind themselves of the time when Steve Jobs came back from a visit with Sony in Japan, all fired up with a great idea for Apple employees: they should all come to work everyday wearing the same slick corporate vests. Jobs later recalled “Oh man, did I get booed off the stage. Everybody hated the idea.”
But if execs cannot mandate the same corporate attire for everyone, what makes them think that mandating a certain number of days per week in the office is a good thing?
The same flaw lurks in both approaches: every employee is not the same. Every situation is not the same. Every team is not the same.
And so, Jobs realized that the idea of having a corporate uniform was not really a good idea. Instead, it was best to let each employee decide how to dress each day. In other words, it was best to grant each employee autonomy in regards to their own attire.
Announcing a return-to-work policy mandating a certain number of days per week in the office is a simple thing to do.
Too simple, really.
Certainly too simple-minded for the big brains hauling down the huge salaries while sitting in their corner offices.
The problem is that this sort of decision is treated as an HR issue, with the tacit assumption that working from home is an employee benefit, and so must be rationed and administered in the same way as other benefits, like vacation days and salaries, letting everyone have just the right amount, but not letting anyone have too much.
But working from home is not like that.
Unlike real employee benefits, working from home is not a simple transactional affair of withdrawing a certain amount of money from the corporate coffers, and transferring it (in one way or another) to the accounts of employees.
Instead, working from home has the following characteristics:
Reduces the waste (for everyone – employees, workers and communities) required for the commute between home and office;
Makes workers more productive, in many cases;
Costs the company nothing.
And so, clearly, the right number of days to work from home, and the right number to work in the office, is different for different employees – and, more importantly, for different teams.
Ian Goodfellow alluded to this element of the problem in the departure note he wrote to staff, saying “I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team.”
And so, by not allowing flexibility on this issue – autonomy, if you will – what are corporate bosses saying about their employees?
We can’t trust our employees, our teams, or our team leaders to make responsible decisions about when to work from home, and when to come into the office.
We think our employees are lazy people who will goof off if not closely supervised in person.
We think our team leaders are spineless wretches who won’t stand up to their employees when needed, to make decisions that are right for their teams.
We want our employees in close proximity so that we can physically intimidate them when needed.
Maybe they don’t mean to imply all of these things. But even if they are only thinking some of them, which of these do they imagine will go down well with employees? And if they simply issue a general corporate mandate for a minimum number of days per week in the office, aren’t they leaving it up to employees to supply their own interpretations of the rationale? Or do they really think that employees will swallow the notion that every employee, every job, and every team will benefit equally from the “irreplaceable benefits of in-person collaboration” to exactly the same degree, and with exactly the same number of days together in the office?
Yes, I get it that Apple was built from a ton of face-to-face collaboration. And I understand that they only recently completed work on what might be the most expensive corporate-offices-that-look-like-a-spaceship in the known universe. And I understand how easy it is to issue a corporate memo announcing a new policy, instead of standing up on a stage in front of your employees to tell them what you are thinking.
But there is a reason why local autonomy was one of the eight Core Design Principles for Effective Teams, as documented by Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize for her work.
And there’s a reason why the notion of scaling this principle of autonomy as organizations grow to form teams of teams was another of these eight core design principles.
And it’s for the same reason that one of the twelve principles behind the Agile Manifesto stated:
Build projects around motivated individuals; give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
Times and conditions change. Working from home, once viewed as a luxury, or a temporary aberration, has become a new normal, and many of our best knowledge workers have adapted to these evolving conditions, and found ways to make them work as well or better than the old ways: for themselves, for their teams, for their families, for their communities and, yes, for their corporate overlords.
Now, of course, some face-to-face work is still important.
But the best way to stress this importance is not through a corporate mandate levied mindlessly on all employees.
It was a famous hockey player who said he always liked to skate to where the puck was going to be, but this was an ambition famously emulated by Steve Jobs as well.
I think the puck has moved on.
Time for CEOs and other corporate execs to catch up.
May 11, 2022