“What will our office of the future look like — assuming we even have one?”
As this summer continues, there is — at least for the moment — a general sense that COVID-19 is waning. Restaurants are lively; people are filling sports stadiums, and social distancing and masks are largely a thing of the past. People are also returning to the office, even though many organizations are still feeling their way forward with return to office (RTO) policies.
There is a healthy skepticism on the part of many office workers. Before the pandemic, the office, broadly speaking, was not a great place to work. In fact, it was an inefficient hive of distraction. Working from home wasn't great for everyone, but it was less bad than the office. Plus, there was no commute! At this very moment, organizations are grappling with the question, "What will our office of the future look like — assuming we even have one?"
The grim reality of office drawbacks were known before the pandemic, but over a century of people slogging into the office five days a week kept the default as in-person work. Still, plenty of research was devoted to the office worker's experience, especially concerning factors such as motivation and productivity. One 2015 NY Times Best Seller, Primed to Perform, by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, is suddenly very relevant to business leaders responsible for their team's RTO strategy.
"Primed to Perform" focuses on building high-performance cultures through understanding the underlying science of motivation. Their work examines six key sources that lead workers to produce at a high level. What I find interesting is that of the six factors driving performance, three of these factors are positive (Play, Purpose, and Potential). At the same time, three are negative (Emotional Pressure, Economic Pressure, and Inertia). It is worth examining these factors individually regarding their overall impact on the office worker's experience across physical space, technology-enabled moments, and person-to-person interactions.
The highest source of motivation identified by Doshi and McGregor is Play. For many knowledge workers, play is the core activity that you were excited enough about that you made it into your career. If you are an architect, it's designing; if you are a software engineer, it's coding; if you are a writer, it's writing. It is the work itself in its purest form. Incidentally, it's also where workers create the most value for their companies and derive the most personal satisfaction. Everything else about your job — meeting, filling out tax forms, hearing about office drama — distracts from that core activity. Sadly, the physical office has become more associated with these secondary distractions than the primary source of knowledge creation. As people return to the office, business leaders should focus on creating environments that safeguard focus and promote creativity.
The second-leading source of motivation is Purpose. One step removed from the work itself, purpose is the answer to the question, "Why does my job matter?" How connected does one feel to the outcome or impact of their labor? If you feel a high level of purpose, you are likely strongly bonded to your company. If you don't see the purpose and are working more to collect a paycheck, then you probably switched jobs during the Great Resignation in order to get a pay bump. When thinking about return to work, office leaders should be focused on using the physical environment and their digital channels to communicate stories about how the company makes the world a better place and how important they are as individuals to enabling those stories.
The third positive attribute is potential. A sacrifice or investment of energy now for some future payoff. In the minds of many workers, the office experience they left behind was fraught. The key question is, "How can we make the office experience commute-worthy?" If they are coming in for collaboration, create dedicated spaces for collaboration that trigger high levels of creativity and trust. If they come in for focused work, create environments and processes that shield them from distraction. Create an environment that fulfills whatever your employees cannot achieve at home.
Emotional Pressure is the leading factor that yields productivity at the cost of being a net negative on an employee's psyche. This is when a boss, co-worker, or family member coerces performance from someone through the use of emotions like disappointment, shame, fear, or guilt. Leaders who make decisions whose motives are not transparent sew discontent and suspicion. The best way to create an RTO policy that doesn't alienate your workers is to study their experiences throughout the pandemic and understand at a persona level what your people are actually dealing with personally and professionally. Communicate those research outcomes to your workers in concert with your RTO policy and whatever changes you make to the office. If you do, your team will be confident that leadership is responsive to their lived reality while creating strong business outcomes.
The second-leading negative factor driving performance is Economic Pressure. Here, leaders across nearly every industry are on pins and needles. Few companies can say "return to the office or quit your job" because their workers can easily switch to a job that suits their lifestyle preference. Creating an office culture that turns economic pressure into an advantage is tricky. Each company has to find an approach that fits its culture. That may mean making every employee feel like an owner. That may mean being very incentive-driven. That may mean neutralizing this factor through complete financial transparency. In any of these cases, creating a workplace where people feel high levels of Play, Purpose, and Potential will have the natural effect of defusing Economic Pressure.
The final negative factor that drives performance is Inertia. This is the pattern of people continuing to show up at a job even though they forgot "why" they were working long ago. The inertia that kept people trekking into the office daily was so enormous that nothing short of a global pandemic could shatter it. Indeed, the pendulum has now swung the other way, and the inertia is now in favor of working from home. Bringing people back to the office, either full-time or in a hybrid fashion, has to be done for a compelling reason that is clearly communicated. Create an office experience that is so great that people will want to come back without being forced.
This framework outlined by Doshi and McGregor is an intriguing set of rough guidelines for leaders crafting their RTO strategy. Additionally, the authors introduce a set of related terms worth applying to your post-COVID planning: Tactical Performance (executing against a pre-set plan) versus Adaptive Performance (adjusting creatively when conditions change). The contemporary workplace is entering uncharted waters, and tactical performance will only take your company so far. Building compelling employee experiences will require a plan, then rigorous and honest monitoring and optimization of that plan. The rigid and demonstrative leaders will suffer. The agile and humble leaders will flourish despite many small failures.
David Dewane is geniant's Chief Experience Officer of Physical Space
David Dewane recommends checking out Primed to Perform for excellent summer reading and contacting geniant to develop your own return to office plan.
You can connect with him on linkedin and follow him on twitter
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