“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes in order to determine the proper questions to ask.” Albert Einstein
Have you read about the questions people are asking about returning to the office? Should we be working virtually? Do you want to go back to the office? Should we have a hybrid work model? These are interesting questions AND these are the wrong questions- or at the very least, insufficient.
Since the pandemic arrived across the globe, organizations have been adjusting to the needs of keeping people safe while also trying to get business done. Not everyone had the option of working virtually, but those of us who traditionally worked in an office environment, as well as classrooms and other like settings, were able to shift from meeting face to face, to meeting “computer face to computer face.” We were trying to keep the world safe from a virus that was unfamiliar to us and impacting people’s lives both physically, fiscally and mentally. In the beginning, the general response was frustration with trying to work in this manner, and, like most things, the world adjusted.
We Are Not Great With Change: the Change Curve On Display
As the world opened back up for in person activities such as going to restaurants, the movies, airline travel, school and football games, the one place that still has not shifted back into the former gear is the office setting. I wonder how much our dislike for change is coming into play in this discussion. When we were all sent home to work virtually, I remember hearing the frustration, annoyance and impatience with trying to work virtually. “We” hated it, resisted and then we adjusted. Now I wonder how much of the natural change curve is playing out again but this time in reverse. We have adjusted and we do not want to change again, which is all normal behavior that surrounds change. Change involves pain and until it becomes more painful to stay the same than it is to change, then changing is not attractive to us.We just don’t really enjoy change do we? We shifted from “we don’t want to work virtually” to “I don’t ever want to go back to the office”.
Will the world go back to working in an office? I certainly don’t know. My intention in this article is to invite you the leader, to consider how to determine the right answer for you. The questions that you ask will lead you to an answer AND I propose that we are asking the wrong questions and getting incomplete answers.
We Are Asking the Wrong Questions
Do you want to go back to the office? Many people say no but lets examine this question further. The first thing we imagine when asked that question is a series of negative events. We imagine getting up earlier, putting on real clothes and shoes, even pants and then sitting in our cars for a stressful and long commute. Maybe we are rushing to manage childcare and pet sitting too or waiting for a bus that is crowded and often late. Who is thinking “sign me up for all of those!” Nobody. We are trying to determine if people want to return to the office but people are not thinking about the office. They instead are thinking about the difficulties that are required to get to the office. Therefore, the question is set up for failure.
There are a variety of reasons why people are saying “no” to going back to the office. Yes for some it is the commute and for others it is harassment and microaggressions that people experience in the office or just a general sense of unease or lack of safety. To those points I invite companies to address the issue of harassment and microaggressions! If you have people happy that choose working virtually in order to avoid being subjected to disrespectful behavior, then perhaps you have a culture issue. If you have a culture issue, then those issues will still appear in the virtual world, even if slightly less. Great organizations will deal with these issues regardless of the work setting. So, the question of “do you want to go back to the office” gets you information but still doesn’t give you the full picture.
What Will Give Us the Best Outcome?
I would like to invite you as leaders to think about the questions that you are asking. The first question may help you discover how people feel about your office culture and the general hassle of commuting. Those are important things to understand. However, there’s another side to this coin. Consider this question. What meeting setting will allow you to produce the best product and create the best intended outcome? Do you do better work, create a better product, increase efficiency through working virtually or through in person? Of course, this answer depends a lot on the individual, their own personal make up and the work that they do. This question will also depend on the intended outcome. Is the intended outcome simple and transactional or is there emphasis on connection, participation and creativity? A transactional meeting may be fine in a virtual setting. Maybe a meeting is not required at all. Perhaps something can be done with a phone call? What is the intended outcome? What will provide the best result? This question can help inform what the best meeting choice should be.
Introverts, Extroverts, Microaggressions and Culture
Some folks on the more introverted side may report enjoying being solo and some individual contributors may rarely need to attend a meeting. Also, the culture of your organization may need addressing if people do not want to come to the office for fear of microaggressions and other forms of harassment. If folks are avoiding the office because of abuse, (obvious or covert) then you need to ask about your culture instead of “protecting” people from the broken culture. But back to the question- where do you produce better outcomes, better work and create a better product? For complex business issues, consider the benefits of meeting in person, (assuming it is safe to do so). The amount of extra energy it takes to conduct business virtually and the effectiveness is without question an issue and there are many reasons.
Hidden Challenges and Tolls of Virtual Meetings
There are several small slow burning fires of virtual work that can impact our energy. Here are a few:
- Multi-tasking: virtual meetings allow people to phone it in in terms of effort. We can’t tell if you’re looking at the meeting members or your email when we are virtual. When in person, we can see if someone is engaged more easily. Our brains can’t be in two places at once and it shows when questions are asked or the sidebars of chats show that attention went elsewhere.
- Screen energy drain: looking at a screen is energy draining. For one, we are staring at a screen and giving energy specifically to focusing on a screen. Screens are not life giving. They’re tiring. Also, we don’t get the same cues from a screen. Our bodies, minds and hearts do not feel the same way with a screen than we do from in person. We don’t make eye contact. We don’t receive eye contact. When was the last time you shook someone’s hand? It’s an energy exchange and so many of our communication needs are non verbal. It is also very difficult to give the appearance of paying attention. We have to keep a stare on the screen and again, it’s draining.
- We don’t feel the same level of support virtually: This point is real. A virtual meeting can contribute to feelings of anxiety and isolation instead of feelings of connection and support. Our brains and bodies do not process a virtual meeting the same way as a physical one.
- Recall is less efficient: When we are in person, we have many aspects that are environment that can help create a memory and help us retain our memories. Where was I sitting? Who was next to me? Was there music? Was there a nice lunch? Where was everyone else sitting? What room were we sharing? All of these factors can couple with the event and help us with recall. But when we’re virtual, it’s the same environment over and over. There’s no distinction and therefore less memory help.
- Physical Energy: We aren’t moving when we are meeting on line. Our bodies tend to go into this “freeze”. But when we’re in person, we fidget shift and move around in a way that contributes to circulation, brings in oxygen and helps brain function.
- Modeling Hypocrisy: I heard so many parents complaining about their children trying to learn virtually during early pandemic days and how it was almost useless going to school virtually in many cases. The children struggled to learn and anxiety levels were on the rise. Interesting that we see the impact of the virtual learning world on our children but somehow think that as adults we can escape the same impact. We are not escaping the impact. Our mental health as a society is suffering and trying to get help through a mental health professional is especially difficult these days as the industry tries to keep up with our communities needs for help and support.
I am inviting you to consider your questions and see if your questions can lead you to better results. As much as I don’t miss getting on airplanes or sitting in my car, I am aware of how much less effective I am virtually for much of my work. Of course there are exceptions. I’m not debating what’s better in an absolute way. But if you’re thinking that asking your employees, “what do you want?” then consider what it is that you want to know and if you are asking the right question.
What are the right questions when determining in person vs virtual? Here are a few to consider:
- What will produce the best outcome for the team? (meeting in person or virtually?)
- What is most effective for our goal?
- What about the culture do you miss?
- What in our culture needs needs improvement so that everyone feels safe and behaves appropriately to all?
The questions above direct us to outcomes and problem solving rather than avoidance of our determined obstacles.
Our Call As Leaders
Isn’t our call as leaders to do our best work? To create the best outcomes? Manifest amazing results? Inspire our colleagues, employees and partners at work and in life? If a culture needs fixing, then address the culture. Perhaps flexibility can help with commute times. I don’t claim to have the answers for you. I do believe, however, that our questions must best direct us to answers that allow us to lead and not just to avoid.
What you as leaders choose is up to you. Make choices and ask questions that help you get to the best outcomes with the greatest culture to create inspiring results.
Thank you for reading and for sharing this article. I truly hope that you found this article to be useful to you. I always welcome your thoughts and comments.
I am sending you all lots of positive and supportive energy!
Your coach, fan, and friend,
Larysa Slobodian, MA
Principal Consultant and Executive Coach