Why did we go to the office?

By Larry Wigger

We humans love to argue; how we could have better navigated the exit from Afghanistan, to what degree the Mayor is succeeding in his personal campaign against potholes, whether the Kansas City Chief’s offensive line is now sufficiently deep to protect our precious Patrick Mahomes. In a different time, the debate du jour would be conducted around the office water cooler. But today, when enough of us gather together, discussion inevitably turns to one of today’s great debates; will employers compel their workers to return to the office, will remote workers be compensated equally to office workers, what will the future of work resemble?

We’re still not back…

While the US has accomplished much to counter the pandemic, new variants have arisen frustrating any desires for return to the normalcy of 2019. Kansas City’s H&R Block announced they will further delay a return to the office for their 2,000 downtown workers. Tiffany Monroe, chief people and culture officer, shared the news with the Kansas City Business Journal, “citing low vaccination rates, high infection rates and the company’s success with remote work… With their return plans delayed, Monroe said the company is focusing on communication to ensure that interactions are happening and that the company culture survives. We want to make sure people are connecting to leaders and each other.” (James Dornbrook, Kansas City Business Journal, August 27, 2021)

Idiosyncratic shocks, like Covid-19 has been to our society, are undoubtedly disruptive. Yet they can also provide a long-overdue catalyst for thoughtful change. As organizational leaders, it is incumbent upon us to view this pandemic as an opportunity to take stock of our institutional designs. Careful analysis may reveal we were on the right track and are right to grind our way back there. But we may instead find, that the “old way” had far outlived its original purpose, that a “new normal” is rightly called for.

The office as we know, at least pre-pandemic, was a ghost in the machine, a vestige of the industrial revolution. Thoughtful reflection tells the story of individual craftsmen moving from their own shops, farms, and homes, to larger collectives of workers. Workers specialized, with division of labor for mass production, achieving economies of scale. But these organizational behaviors were not in the name of worker morale, office lunches, collaborative innovation, or water cooler conversation. The driving force was the increasing scale and complexity of goods and services involved. It was no longer feasible for an individual craftsman to afford the facilities, power supply, machines and tooling, raw materials, and various specialized labor, all now required to efficiently produce high volumes of lower cost goods.

Watch for organizations to flatten.

While reading this, you may not be personally familiar with those factory floors, but they were the genesis of your office of today. Those same capital investments occurred again in the shift to white collar, knowledge-based work. Electric lighting, typewriters, filing systems, telephones, switchboards, and computers, each bringing with them typists, clerks, secretaries, switchboard and punched card operators. Yet now those very same tasks you accomplish yourself, likely with the device upon which you are reading this. So why do we cling to offices which housed all of this common workplace activity not so long ago? As leaders, we must each consider best for our respective organizations, so rather than an answer, I’ll offer a couple of other interesting points to consider as you query for yourself.

Richard Etienne opines, “While extroverts are celebrated for being outgoing, action-oriented and enthusiastic, introverts bring analytical thought and empathy…During the pandemic, those (latter) skills immediately became incredibly sought after. Introverts are reliable; people who take one project at a time and do it thoroughly. They’re good at deep thought and forming personal connection. That was really important during the period when companies were trying to hold onto clients…” He continues later, “The workplace was created by extroverts, for extroverts,” which likely explains a fair bit of the tension we’re seeing build right now over reverting to traditional offices. It’s worth examining to what degree the built environment has shaped the personalities of those typically promoted into your leadership. Your middle management extroverts’ cravings for constant interaction should not be allowed to constrain the productivity of your remote line worker introverts. (Kate Morgan, BBC, July 16, 2021)

Unfortunately, even with 18 months of evidence of successful remote work, there is still a stigma to working from home. But it has evolved. The prior resistance that productivity and efficiency would falter has been disproven. Now the resistance comes from individual fears, whether conscious or not. Organizations are human constructs and like all institutions are comprised of the habits of their members. A particular category of members, middle management, has lost their sense of purpose. Without tangible daily interaction with subordinates, Covid-19 has pulled back the wizard’s curtain and the emperor has no clothes! With no line of sight to direct reports, how are they to ensure TPS reports get the new cover sheets, Peter works on the weekend, and Milton stays in his closet with his stapler?

With remote workers, it quickly becomes obvious how little value middle management typically offers. Organizations are realizing business still gets done and most of those that relied on remote workers pre-pandemic are relatively flat, with less hierarchy/stratification (bloat).

And a quick tactical tip to boot!

I was recently asked, “How can we make meetings better?” especially in light of increased remote work during the pandemic. I’ll stick with the old management rule of “half as long and half as often.” Literally, if you used to schedule an hour, make it 30 minutes. If it used to be weekly, make it semi-monthly. Humans are good at filling a vacuum. Especially when we’re talking. Trust me, it will all still get done. If you find you’re not getting to urgent agenda items, then you can expand the next meeting. And speaking of the agenda, don’t go to a meeting without receiving one in advance and always issue minutes afterwards. I can’t prioritize your meeting if I don’t know why you’ve called it. And we can’t hold each other accountable, if we haven’t documented it.

About the Author:
Larry Wigger currently serves UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management as Assistant Teaching Professor of Supply Chain and Operations Management. Larry is in the latter stages of his PhD in Economics at UMKC where he holds a Master of Arts in Economics. He also holds both a Master of Science in Supply Chain Management and a general MBA from Elmhurst University and a BA in Business Administration from William Jewell College. Larry’s six years of graduate and undergrad teaching follow over twenty years of progressive and varied management experience, including the full range of supply chain management activities, strategic leadership in multiple business start-ups, as well as operations, project and program management. Larry’s doctoral research areas include supply chain transparency, automation impacts to unemployment, monetary theory, industrial organization, and public policy.

Photo 1 – Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash
Photo 2 – Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash
Photo 3 – Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash
Photo 4 – Photo by Roland Samuel on Unsplash

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