Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Back-to-the-Office Movement

I imagine that what the business world really needs now is a back-to-the-office movement. Malcolm Gladwell despaired over the fact that corporate managers had not been very successful in explaining why workers should be back in the office, but perhaps the younger generation is not susceptible to rational argument. When they made their way through the American academic maelstrom, one thing they did not learn was-- how to think.

Perhaps these Gen Zers can only function when they feel like they are part of a movement, even a mob. Thus, to get them back into the office, what we need is a BTTO movement. 

Now that we have solved that problem, we turn to Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, an important figure in the technoverse.

Schmidt made a valiant effort, on CNBC, to explain why presence in the office was an important thing. He emphasized casual encounters during the workday and efforts to teach young employees the importance of a work ethic-- something that the school system has wrung out of most of them:

"We spent decades having these conversations about people being close together ... the discussion at the coffee table and going to coffee," Schmidt says. "Remember all of that? Was that all wrong?"

Schmidt says it's not just a matter of nostalgia: There are practicalities to working together in person. For example, he says that conversations about professionalism — which might be particularly necessary at companies full of young employees — are much harder to have virtually.

So, Schmidt goes back to 2001, the better to show that there is nothing new under the sun. Immature young workers were the order of the day back then:

When Schmidt started at Google, for example, the company had "an awful lot of college students who were behaving as though the workplace was like college," he says. "And I used to say to them, 'This is not college. This is a professional thing, you can't do that. And, or, it might be illegal. So please stop, now.'"

One would have been happier to know what these overgrown children were doing that might be illegal, but alas.

The more important point is that it is more difficult to manage a younger worker or to teach the younger worker how to manage if he is on remote, How much management involved subtle forms of communication, a wink and a nod, a quick smile or a frown. Surely, these are far better than giving a speech or chewing someone out:

Younger employees, particularly those between the ages of 25 and 35, can also use in-office settings to more effectively develop their management styles, Schmidt says. For him, that includes learning about meeting etiquette, presentation skills, workplace politics and dealing with competitors, both internally and externally.

"In terms of their age, that's when they learn," he says. "If you miss out [on that] because you are sitting at home on the sofa while you're working, I don't know how you build great management. I honestly don't."

Management involves human relationships. If you are on a Zoom call or are crunching data through a spreadsheet, you are not learning how to manage human beings. And if you do not learn it then, you are not going to learn it.

The important thing is that human beings are social beings. About that Schmidt is entirely correct. If you do not socialize with other human beings, you will not feel like you belong. You will not feel like you are part of a larger enterprise. And you will not gain the satisfaction of relating to other people, learning how to be managed and learning how to manage:

Still, Schmidt says, a largescale movement to permanently work remotely would deny at least 30 to 40 years of workplace experience.

"I think there is a lot of evidence that humans are social," he says. "And that the current virtual tools are not the same as the informal networks that occur within a corporation."

Building relationships, creating networks, using the most economical modes of communicatin-- you cannot do it virtually.


Anonymous said...

Well - in my office the failure to use the correct pronoun may be construed as sexual harassment. So I'm kind of glad I don't have to deal with that on a daily basis.

SgtBob said...

Are managers and offices presented with changes in the way things are done and not willing to change because "That's not the way we do things"? Sure, you have 40- and 50-somethings who were trained a certain way, but what impact do different ways have on the mission? Everything I have read on "Back to the office" is from an older manager's point of view, and nothing positive from the "Working in pajamas" crowd.

David Foster said...

It depends on the job and the people. Consider someone whose job involves working with people in many parts of his company, in various parts of the US and other countries, and also with customer executives in the a wide range of places. He travels a lot, as well as frequent video calls. There would not be much point in having him come in to the office--which particular office would he come in to?

With the number of companies that have grown through mergers & acquisitions, and with global scope, the whole idea of 'the office' has often become problematic. Again, *which* office?

On the other hand, I'm thinking of a (business-to-business) telesales organization that reported to me, lots of very young, enthusiastic people. There was indeed a lot of value in having them in the same place, interacting with each other, and sometimes with the engineering people who created and supported the products they were selling. Easy to do quick training on new product features, announce spur-of-the moment sales contests, etc.

Some of the engineers could have worked from home just fine, and really, no problem if they did so a couple of days a week...but if they had *always* worked from home, valuable interaction and organizational spirit would have been lost.

I don't think this is a once-size-fits all kind of thing. The managers & executives responsible for getting the work done at an operational level should determine what makes sense for their pieces of the business; top-down edicts are counterproductive.

David Foster said...

Here's a relevant post from Ben Horowitz, a managing partner of the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz...announcing that "our headquarters will be in the cloud" but that "we will continue to create physical offices globally where needed to support our teams and partners."

Note this point: "As my partner Marc wrote in his 2011 article, “Software Is Eating the World,” every important new company is likely to have a world-class software team at its core. Concentrating all of those companies into one or two geographies cuts off great opportunities from anyone who can contribute, but cannot easily move. Remote work is opening up many new locations for entrepreneurs and technology workers."

It is true, remote work does open up a much broader scope of people that can be attracted and hired...and this isn't just true of software people.

A fairly recent partner at Andreessen, Katherine Boyle, has some thoughts as to how remote work can improve family life for working parents: