Why Do So Many People Want Us Back In The Office?

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work in March – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

Four months ago I wrote that – surprisingly- there was no fightback from technophobe hold-outs barricading themselves into their offices. They simply packed up their laptop and went home with the rest of us. How premature I was.

If you thought that 2020 couldn’t get any crazier – it seems some people really are suggesting that businesses should alter their workplace strategies in order to save…sandwich shops.

OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. But there really has been a hand brake applied to the move to remote/hybrid working , or my favoured term, minimum office in recent weeks.

An article in the Daily Telegraph suggested that employees who continue to work at home will be more vulnerable to redundancy, with bosses finding it far easier get rid of people they don’t physically see.

Kirstie Allsopp led the anti-remote work charge on Twitter, suggesting that if your job can be done from home, it can be done from anywhere in the world. Who would have thought that a couple of months of working in shorts and a T-Shirt has made us more susceptible to being replaced by less expensive folk in India, Myanmar and China?

A debate that is framed around saving sandwich shops and an already dying high street isn’t helpful or progressive. Cynically I might suggest the real subtext here is about propping up commercial property investment portfolios. Realistically though, we won’t see anything like a return to the same number of offices, and although few will shed tears for commercial real estate investors many small businesses will suffer a big hit and go out of business unless they can pivot very rapidly.

Clearly there are two groups emerging, those who are desperate for the pandemic to be viewed as a temporary event before everything returns to ‘normal’ and those embracing the true long term disruption that is occurring.

Thank heavens then for more balanced thinkers like Tom Cheesewright who has an uncanny ability to pan back and take the long view. Writing on his website about the current over-confidence in the possibilities for remote working he says:

“There is something different about being there, in person, with all of your senses engaged. It’s what I called a few years ago, ‘the unbeatable bandwidth of being there‘. What gets transmitted and received through the screen and headset, mediated by a million miles of fibre optic cable, is not the full experience of meeting. Nor does it allow for all the things that happen around those meetings. I’ve talked at length about the need for peer support, the subtler parts of staff training, and the mutual inspiration that happens when you’re sharing a physical space.”

I’m a remote working, or at least a minimum office, enthusiast. I’ve written on this site for years about the worst aspects of office life and the most popular post on here applauds its impending doom. Six years on though I’d admit it’s a deeply flawed argument. The idea that constant interruptions and back to back meetings were a symptom of being in a corporate building has been well and truly busted by…Microsoft Teams.

In truth the problem with work is not the tools or the physical location, but the obsession with leadership , an undue focus on work about work, an overbearing hierarchy and the lack of true digitisation of the enterprise. Deeper, more complex problems.

It’s ironic that it has taken a pandemic to reveal what was good about the office. “The things that happen between meetings” that Tom writes about reveal our innate desire for human contact – the need to get our senses fully engaged. Wasteful? Quite often. But we dismiss this at our peril. It may seem logical that workplace chatter stifles productivity, but studies show the opposite to be true.

A narrow focus on efficiency in the workplace and a flawed view of what makes people productive is similarly regressive and likely to drag people back to the old normal. As Stowe Boyd writes the backlash against minimum office is in full flow , as detailed in Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All, as executives want to get people back in the office:

An increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, he adds, because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.”

Perhaps it’s simply we haven’t yet matched our colleagues roles, and their specific work preferences, within our existing organisational design never mind considered a future state. Working from home (managed and supported appropriately) can be more productive than going into the office.

A HBR study published in August contrasted surveys of knowledge workers from 2013 and 2020, found that remote working was in fact helping address long-held frustrations about the rhythm of office work.

  1. Lockdown helps us focus on the work that really matters. We are spending 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners.
  2. Lockdown helps us take responsibility for our own schedules. We do 50% more activities through personal choice — because we see them as important — and half as many because someone else asked us to.
  3. During lockdown, we view our work as more worthwhile.  We rate the things we do as valuable to our employer and to ourselves. The number of tasks rated as tiresome drops from 27% to 12%, and the number we could readily offload to others drops from 41% to 27%.

The key phrase here is: managed and supported appropriately. Certainly managers need to reinvent themselves as mentors to this style of working and then – forgive me – get the hell out of the way.

The office as the default way of working is dead. But the office itself isn’t dead. With working from home, what we gain in work-life balance we might lose in innovation and creativity. There are people who could directly challenge that sentence but I suspect they will come from highly mature companies who have fully mastered the remote working learning curve. Many of us are still at the stage of doing what we did in the office , just remotely. The timorous amongst us may use the lack of productivity net gains as a reason to regress rather than push through the ‘pain barrier’ as Matt Mullenweg describes it.

We can do so much better, for ourselves, our customers and society if we stop being so frightened or so certain of the future.

We are going to have fewer offices and spend more time at home.

Our efforts would be a lot better spent improving the experience and outcomes of both rather than arguing about preserving a status quo whose time has truly run out.

The office versus remote work? It’s not a binary choice we need to make.

The best thing you can do in any period of change is to bet on neither black or white. The future will be made up instead of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.


Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes

I don’t buy into the idea that humans intrinsically hate change. I just think that by the time we’re in our 30s or 40s, lots of our experience of change – particularly in the workplace – has been more negative than positive. Instinctively rejecting it is a learned response – Tom Cheesewright

People , we hear, are tired of change. They have change fatigue.

We are sometimes told that people will resist our ‘change efforts’ or even need to be assessed for their ‘change readiness’. Change readiness, in case you’ve not had the pleasure, is the “ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

Failing your change readiness assessment could be seriously career threatening. 

Despite this so-called change resistance all the evidence shows that people want change on a scale like never seen before , both in our wider society and the workplace.

What is to blame for this apparent ‘change paradox’?

My contention is that there are some similarities with how change – or rather the lack of meaningful change that make people’s lives better or easier – manifests itself in our communities and in our offices.

Simply put, people’s experience of the delivery of change is often far from what they have been promised.  This is put even more simply by Peter Vander Auwera – “people don’t resist change, they resist bullshit”.

The Big Problem With Change Programmes

The birth of the management change movement dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

The philosophy proposed that there’s always a better version of you out there in the future and by following a series of best practices, toolkits and templates that version of you can be easily realised.

However change is not just about going from one point to another, reaching a mythical ‘to be’ state and stopping there. The most important thing is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next – and that will almost never be what you predicted or what it says on a Gantt chart. None of us can predict the future and nobody can possibly know the butterfly effect when you begin to change things.

That’s why large-scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met. They simply cannot deliver on what was promised. So what’s the point of doing them?

We Need Trojan Mice, Not Trojan Horses

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Image courtesy of @whatsthepont

Chris Bolton has written an excellent series of posts (links in here) on the concept of Trojan Mice. Trojan Mice is a phrase Euan Semple used in his blog about ten ways to create knowledge ecology .  Unleash Trojan Mice. Don’t do big things or spend loads of money. Set small, nimble things running and see where they head.”

For Trojan Mice think of small safe to fail tests and learning exercises rather than big change. Trojan Mice are small, well focused changes that address a problem but are introduced in an inconspicuous way. without the fanfare of transformation. They are small enough to be understood and owned by all concerned.

This is grassroots change rather than top down. And because the change is being made by people close to the problem they don’t resist it – they lead it. 

Many organisations don’t like this approach though because it is , by definition, unpredictable.  Trojan Mice will eventually deliver rewards; but you may not get what you were expecting.

I’d argue that big change never gives you what you were expecting anyway – so you may as well embrace a bit of uncertainty and release the mice. It’ll cost you a lot less money – that’s for sure.

Towards A Community For Change

Change does not always happen where, when or how we want. Organisations are just collections of people but we often forget that and make it more complicated than it needs to be.

I don’t know how change happens where you live but where I am people just connect with each other over shared interests and they try things out. There aren’t any spreadsheets that I know of.

The problem with employing lots of Change and Transformation people is that they often start changing and transforming lots of things that never asked or needed to be changed or transformed in the first place.

Grass-roots change presents senior managers with a paradox because it means directing an approach to change without insisting on or even approving specific solutions.

However , if we are to bridge the gap between the appetite for change and the experience of change delivery, we need fundamentally new approaches.

People hate change?

No, they don’t. They hate to get changed by other people.

Nine Ways To Unlock Creativity In Your Organisation

Inside Housing Deck

Some organisations are obsessive about finding the silver bullet—the one-shot wonder that solves everything. In an effort to strengthen performance, we’ll often make disproportionate investments in a single initiative to invoke change.

Others are fixed on generating ideas – jumping towards uncontrolled creativity as the solution.

However most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having. 

As David Burkus has said – it’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem. And it’s not always about creativity either.

Creativity is not innovation. Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems.

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

When you’ve nailed the right problems – that’s the time to go looking for ideas.

This on its own though – isn’t enough.

Many of our organisations , without realising it, act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place — often for very good reasons — that preserve the status quo. Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms — ‘the way we do things around here’ designed to protect the business from failure.

The discipline of innovation, and it is a discipline, takes commitment, resources, and the right skills set to challenge these norms.

Inside Housing Deck (1)

Your innovation approach won’t last long unless senior leadership has a deep investment in it. Innovation dies from the top.

At Bromford we’ve tried to focus on problems — those incomprehensibly complex and messy issues that need to be understood and defined before they can be incorporated into organisational strategy.

Once we’ve done that we involve colleagues formed from a horizontal slice of people from around the business – and grouped around non-siloed themesThey are a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning a wider cultural transformation.

We also link up with our Data and Insight colleagues to make sure every concept is supported by sound evidence. One of the big challenges of fostering an evidence-based culture is that it requires a shift in thinking. It’s not easy for people who are used to making instinctive gut decisions to transition to a world in which the smart decisions are data-driven.

How do you unlock creativity?

  1. You find space – mentally and physically to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisations overall strategy
  2. You bring people together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before
  3. You nurture bright ideas and protect them from the established practices (and the people) they threaten
  4. You open up internal and external channels and become a conduit with organisations, individuals, and ideas outside
  5. You act as a pressure chamber that allows these external influences into your organisation in a safe and controlled way
  6. You use a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions
  7. You don’t talk yourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex
  8. You build a culture around evidence and inquiry
  9. You constantly strive to ask better questions

Do that and you’ll always get better answers


This is an extract from a talk I’m doing on 29th October on Unlocking Creativity

Photos from Pexels by Jonas Svidras  David McEachan 

How To Avoid Innovation Theatre

Consistent investment, dedicated teams, proper evidencing of decisions, alignment with strategy. A simple but critical recipe for innovation in future-ready organisations – Tom Cheesewright

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is“How do you define innovation?”

This week I’ve been asked it several times so here’s a short post to recap my thoughts.

Innovation is executing new ideas to create value. The mistake a lot of people are making at the moment, and hence the overuse of the word, is that they are forgetting two things:

  1. Creativity is not innovation.
  2. Continuous improvement is not innovation.

Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

  • You can bring someone in to give an “inspirational talk” on innovation 
  • You can hold a one-day workshop to get your company to be more creative
  • You can get a cool space with loads of beanbags and motivational posters 
  • You can have a hack day

That’s not innovation. That’s what Steve Blank termed innovation theatre. Just for show, with no real outcome.

Innovation theatre can be of value as it can excite people and show them the possibilities. It’s fun, and fun is important. Let’s not confuse it with innovation though.

pasted image 0Innovation consists of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

Innovation Slide

To be innovative, we need to be good at both idea generation and idea execution.

A new idea is usually rejected or resisted by the prevailing system. Therefore ideas that are new and that could complicate or even threaten the existing way of working means creating space where we can protect them.

It also needs protection from the organisational desire to complete things quickly. All the talk about agility is somewhat misplaced. If you work in innovation or design you’ll always see a time lag from inception to implementation. Even in the best organisations, it will take months, sometimes years, for new concepts to be assimilated into the everyday culture. Many (most) never make it.

That’s why there are always questions about how innovation teams spend their time and whether it’s worthwhile. When you’re working two years into the future it’s really hard to demonstrate outcomes that fit conventional performance frameworks.

Six ways to avoid innovation theatre

  • Have a consistent way to define and measure innovation, so that it’s unambiguous in your company
  • Look for good problems rather than great ideas
  • Periodically assess the areas of your business so that you know where each stands in terms of innovation capability and capacity
  • Get senior leaders to identify and sponsor specific initiatives designed to address the key problems
  • Assemble smalls teams to work on the challenges. Use disciplined protocols to help these teams succeed.
  • Document, and track progress and share progress internally and externally

To be an innovative organisation you need to be great at defining problems, at generating ideas, at selecting and executing them, and at getting them to spread.

Innovation mostly requires a little curiosity and a lot of persistence.


Thanks to Katie Fletcher for the cool graphic

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