By Jonathan Burton
“Back to the office” may well be the most explosive executive decision a CEO can make right now.
More employees are being asked — or forced — to return to their desks after months of working from home. But the surging delta variant of COVID-19 is giving employers second thoughts about how much time workers should spend in the office — or whether they should be there at all. Big technology companies, for example, are taking no chances. Recently Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +3.47% shuttered its newly reopened San Francisco and New York offices while Alphabet’s Google /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +0.24% and Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +1.64% have made coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for their office workers , whenever they return.
Such corporate soul-searching is just fine for many employees, vaccinated or not, who aren’t eager to be confined to their cubicles even when some pre-COVID normalcy returns. The pandemic has given many employees, particularly office workers, greater control over their time and how they use it. For them, working from home eases concerns about COVID or child care or commuting — and can even boost productivity.
Yet what workers want is often in conflict with a company’s motivation to keep employees under one roof, where their informal connections and camaraderie can lead to bigger and better ideas and initiatives. Many managers also are uncomfortable not being able to see and know what workers are doing on company time, even when projects are being accomplished remotely.
Management expert Robert C. Pozen is a veteran executive with a deep understanding of the dynamics between bosses and workers. The pandemic’s impact on the workplace is still in flux and more than a little confusing, which led Pozen to provide informed solutions in a new book, “Remote, Inc.: How to Thrive at Work… Wherever You Are,” (Harper Business, 2021), co-authored with journalist Alexandra Samuel.
In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Pozen offers tips on how to thrive when working remotely by following established performance building habits and tools that can bring satisfaction to you and your boss. Start by seeing yourself now as an independent contractor, a “business of one,” and bring the office to you.
MarketWatch: Employees working from home are more difficult for employers to monitor because they are not working regular hours. Not every manager is comfortable with this change, but in fact it may be for the better. Why is greater autonomy for workers a desirable goal for a company?
Robert C. Pozen: Counting hours in knowledge-based industries isn’t very useful. In a knowledge-based economy, the hours worked are an input, not an output. When most work is remote, the boss can no longer walk around the office and see who’s there. The notion of “face time” — which I think is a destructive notion — was fragile anyway because it’s not a well-functioning system for knowledge workers. It basically falls apart when people are working remotely and it’s no longer possible for the boss to see when exactly they are working. Instead, the boss should be mainly interested in results — the outputs.
Having helped to run two large companies, I understand the boss is reluctant to give up counting hours unless there’s something to replace it. Professionals say, “We really want to focus on results but my boss wants me in the office at certain times,” because the boss wants some system for accountability. If employees are not in the office, what exactly are they doing?
MarketWatch: With greater autonomy comes greater responsibility. Home-based employees must still deliver when it’s even easier to be distracted. A major focus of “Remote Inc.” centers on “success metrics” — performance expectations that managers and workers agree on. Why are these benchmarks even more important for workers who are not in the office?
Pozen: What we’ve tried to develop is a system of accountability based on success metrics for remote workers. Success metrics is an articulation and clarification of a results-oriented system. It says to the boss, you can have accountability but not on the number of hours worked. It says, you’re going to agree with your team on the indicators of success at the end of the week, month, project — whatever is relevant. And you’re going to hold that team accountable to those success metrics.
Any organization that can make that change is going to be a lot more productive and its people are going to be a lot happier for three main reasons:
First, success metrics clarify between the boss and the team what they are trying to achieve. I’ve been in some organizations where they are a little confused about what exactly they are trying to do. Success metrics bring clarification and much better communication between the boss and the team as to what they are trying to accomplish.
Second, once you have the success metrics then the boss doesn’t have to micromanage. She knows what’s going to be expected; people will deliver or they won’t.
Third, success metrics really help the employees. Once they know the success metrics defining those results, it doesn’t matter when or where or how they achieve them, as long as they get them done. So they can then mold their days and weeks to getting those things done. I feel strongly that success metrics is the key to the productivity of an organization and the satisfaction of its people.
Success metrics vary a lot by organization and teams within an organization. Take a financial team that has analysts. What are the success metrics for them? If they’re picking stocks and bonds that are outperforming a benchmark, that’s the success metric. If they come to work at 3 a.m. and leave at 5 a.m. or come at midnight or 10 p.m., it doesn’t matter. What matters is what their stock picks are relative to a benchmark and their ability to communicate them to the rest of the organization.
That same organization could have a technology team where the success metrics are quite different — for example, whether they’re getting data to the investment people in a form that’s usable for the portfolio managers who are overwhelmed with information.
MarketWatch: Responsibility goes hand-in-hand with accountability, which is a second major theme of the book that you call “the business of one.” Being able to do your job without coming into the office is a significant benefit that should not be taken for granted . How does a “business of one” approach help remote workers develop an appropriate mindset, which in turn can raise their job satisfaction and performance?
Pozen: As a remote employee, you’ve got to change the way you think about your work. You’re not an employee taking direction and orders. You’re running your own small business with your own skills, time and resources.
You basically treat your boss as your client. Working remotely, you want the benefits of being at home — control of your time and how you go about your life. In order to have that control, the surveys and data show that the key to people’s productivity and satisfaction is the degree of autonomy you have. How do you get that? By changing your mindset and thinking of yourself as running your own small business. You have to satisfy the objectives and success metrics of your client, but your client doesn’t have the right to tell you how to use every minute of your time. That’s the big difference.
That shift is key for people to stop thinking of themselves as an employee, taking detailed directions from their boss. That is a very different perspective, and it implies that you have control over your time management and hours as long as you’re getting the success metrics done. That degree of autonomy lets you work when it’s most efficient for you to work and also to meet your personal and family obligations.
MarketWatch: These efforts to build trust between managers and workers and to maintain corporate culture sound great but in reality many CEOs and team leaders are not thinking proactively. They simply aren’t willing to change even if their staff wants it.
Pozen: The company has to support employees working remotely. That’s why we say in the book and I strongly believe in this: in remote situations managers have to be much more proactive. Initially, we saw lots of people complaining during the pandemic that they were working 24/7 because they didn’t know what the expectations were for them. They felt they were on call all the time.
So the first thing managers of these teams have to do is set ground rules, such as you don’t have to answer your email at midnight and you don’t have to be on call on the weekends. Second, we urge managers to have forward-looking weekly meetings. There are a lot of meetings where people just report “last week I did this.” Those are pretty useless. What you’re really interested in is what people are going to do in the coming week and how you can get input from the rest of the team as to how to help them do better.
Third, managers need to have one-on-one conversations with their direct reports every week. People working remotely feel isolated, out of joint with what’s going on in the company. They really need that TLC.
Fourth, get away from annual performance reviews, which are formalistic and don’t have much utility, and get into what we call regular feedback. Remote employees need feedback on a more frequent basis, so you want to feed back to them how they’re doing at the end of every project or the end of every quarter.
MarketWatch : Too often managers believe that more messages and meetings with the team are better, and in fact double-down on this when employees aren’t in the office. How can employees respond effectively?
Pozen: In our book , we address the two biggest constraints on people’s time management — meetings and messages. Keep meetings to 30- or 40 minutes. Don’t schedule back-to-back meetings. Give yourself an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon for free time and thinking and contingencies. These are the tactical things to do so that meetings do not eat up your life, which a lot of people tell us is what’s happening with remote work.
With messages, set up filters to ignore 50% to 70% of your messages because they’re worthless. If you have an important message from an important person, answer that message right then and there. Do not put it into a holding pattern. That’s what we call the principle of “OHIO” — Only Handle It Once.
MarketWatch : The pandemic will end eventually, but the changes it has brought will have a lasting effect on how and where we work. How do you see the post-pandemic office operating — back to five-days-a-week or more of a hybrid?
Pozen: I believe that most organizations will go hybrid. People will go back to the office even for a few days a week or one week a month. To be an effective team player you have to see people in person from time to time. And you’ve got to have a good team leader.
What do we mean by team player? In order to have the brainstorming you’ve got to develop personal bonds and relationships, and people have got to have this informal, non-scheduled time with each other. But it clearly doesn’t have to be five days a week.
What happens in person is really important and provides a basis for remote communications. If you know someone and have been with them in the office, then it’s easier to understand by video where the person is at.
A lot of very senior executives are concerned that if people don’t come back to the office the company’s culture will be lost. That’s a valid concern. Culture is hard to grab onto. To know what the culture is, people have to be with the leaders and others to see how they act. Mission statements don’t tell you very much. You have to watch what people are doing.
You want to design your hybrid team to reach what we call the “Goldilocks Plan” — not too much and not too little remote work. The team is the appropriate unit within a business to make the decision of what the optimal combination is between office and home work.
MarketWatch : Old habits die hard. But COVID-19 is giving companies an opportunity to grow as an organization, to accommodate a workforce that values autonomy and can deliver greater value to the business because of it. As workers return to the office, it will be telling to see which companies make the most of this opportunity and which ones squander it.
Pozen: Everybody come back into the office for four days a week doesn’t make sense. Most of the work in a knowledge-based economy is team-based, and teams are doing such different things.
That optimal configuration will differ from team to team. We want to recognize individual preferences but in the end it’s what’s best for the team. If the team decides people need to be in the office on Tuesday and Thursday, you can’t decide to come in on Wednesday and Friday.
In the coming months, there will be a lot of experimentation , with a lot of back and forth. There will be organizations that stay totally remote and a few that will force all in-person, but most will try to figure out a hybrid. They will probably try out various combinations before getting to what will be their Goldilocks Plan.