WFH, hybrid or back at your desk?

I spoke recently at the annual leadership conference of a well known pharmaceutical company. They were a sparky, charismatic and ambitious crowd. Afterwards over coffees, often the place for the most interesting questions, a senior executive collared me.

‘This stuff about culture is great,’ he said, ‘but the problem I’ve got is I cannot get people back into the office to make any of it happen. What do you suggest?’

I am essentially an optimist: the seismic changes to how we work over the past three years have on balance been a good thing. Though the technology was already in place, it is impossible to imagine such a revolution without the pandemic. Much of how we worked were habits so ingrained they went unquestioned. And lo and behold, we discovered many could be dispensed with overnight. What has become known as hybrid working has the potential to be a win-win for both employers and employees, from reducing office overheads to being able to spend more time with the kids and less on trains. 

Yet many employers are still struggling to find the right balance. Last week Jeremy Hunt, speaking at the British Chambers of Commerce said he believed the default should be to work from the office. To which my response is, maybe. Though just the fact that he feels the need to say it is a sign of how much has changed. Presentee-ism is a draining waste of time and energy – getting promoted because you stayed late is not the meritocracy effective organisations should aspire to. However, being in the office with your team the majority of the time is crucial to building a strong an enduring culture – even if people’s days and hours are more flexible than they ever were before. Allowing many more people to interweave work and personal time together in a pattern that suits them and their employer has the potential to lead to better outcomes for both.

Culture is not some soft squishy thing; it’s not Pilates at lunchtime and free fruit, it is the environment a leader creates in order for their team to out-perform. It is the defining experience for everybody in all organisations, big and small. It often goes unacknowledged, but everybody feels its power – for good or bad. An effective culture enables people to achieve things that would not otherwise have been possible. However, cultures are only as strong as their weakest link and the sustenance and development of an effective culture is all but impossible by zoom.

The easiest way to understand culture is that it is the behaviour of the leader. Not what they say, but what they do. Though it is common for bosses to complain about absent staff, in my experience many of those with the fanciest job titles are privately among the most keen on working from home. Not least because they are more likely to have nicer houses and live in nicer areas. I remember well the battles I had with CEOs who were extremely reluctant to return to the office and who were very good at manufacturing spurious excuses. The situation was even more extreme in New York – many having decamped from the city altogether.

Ultimately great cultures are carefully constructed often over long periods of time, founded upon clarity of ambition and shared behaviours. This cannot be done by Zoom. Some people, senior and junior may fail to appreciate this, but for an ambitious team or organisation all of the people at least some of the time must be together. Failure to ensure this is the case is a mistake – one that ultimately will be felt in staff retention, development, team cohesion and ultimately the bottom line. 

Well-run organisations should aim to find ways of working that allow an alignment of individual and collective ambitions. Ultimately, my answer to the coffee time question was you have to lead by example and ultimately it is imperative that people are in the office the majority of the time. In a period of such uncertainty and change there’s no other way to ensure you keep up, never mind get ahead. It might make some leaders uncomfortable to insist, but that ultimately may be the only way. Nobody said it was going to be easy, and if you don’t your competitors will.