Week one: not how I imagined
Welcome to week one of Undisruptable in Advice Column mode! I’m doing this to free up time to focus on an exciting creative side-project, so I was imagining short snappy questions and answers.
But this week I’m focused on having COVID so I have time for long-form answers to complex questions. Keep the questions coming folks, send them to this address.
No recorded version until my voice comes back, sorry.
HOW DO I GET STAFF TO CROSS A BRIDGE?
“We are in a permanent office, in North Sydney and our office rent contract expires in January 2023 and our (Head Office) CFO directed us to downsize (currently 240 square metres for 18 Sydney staff – need to go to 160-180 square metres). Half the staff live north and half live south. Many (mostly those living south) come to the office, at most, once a week. (Due, in part, to their role and partly still not breaking COVID WFH habits.)
We could move into one of those (soulless) flexible offices or we could look for another permanent office.
As staff retention is especially critical at the moment, I want the decision to be one made by the team and to be the most beneficial and practical for the team. If i simply ask everyone south of the bridge “how many times a week would you come to the office if the office was in the city?” the answer would, very predictably, be “more”. Converse for the northerners.
How do you suggest I go about the decision process/what are the best questions to pose so as to get the best answer?”
A giant pit of snakes
What is it about a bridge that presents such a deep psychological barrier? Is it the ancient fear of trolls, hardwired in our temporal lobes to this day?
I grew up in the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia’s bridgephobia capital. Forget the harbour, they don’t even want to cross their local bridge. Everyone I knew still lives and mostly works there because bridges. And ask someone in the eastern suburbs if they’ve ever crossed the Harbour Bridge and their response will be: why would I?
Ask people to commute ten kilometres and they’re cool with that. Include a bridge as part of that distance, and now you might as well ask them to pole vault a pit of snakes.
When you’re dealing with this kind of deep-seated instinct, logic has no part to play. As you correctly point out, if you do it via an obvious survey or vote there will be clear winners and losers.
Plus people will tell you what they intend to do, then they will not do that thing. It’s like the focus group responses that killed Shoes Of Prey.
I’m going to assume you’re not wedded to North Sydney.
And staff retention seems more important to you than a particular office space outcome. That’s the big one for us all right now. We have companies in our field offering fat cash bounties to anyone bringing in fresh employee meat.
Take the opportunity for wider change
Approaching this as a pure real estate decision might not solve the bigger issues. And sometimes the bigger issues can be solved by lateral thinking and a smaller budget. If you haven’t read it, Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy is invaluable on reframing problems to find simpler, cheaper answers.
Let’s start by pointing out I don’t know your staff or what they do, and there’s a world of variables here. I don’t want to be one of those “the office is dead” or “WFH is over” one-size-fits-all certainty hucksters.
You can’t order the reluctant ones back to the office or they’ll just leave. Yet if you make it 100% optional, you end up with a shrinking circle of people in a tumbleweed office.
Maybe consider treating this as a chance to change more than your address. Bring your people together and have a big-picture chat about work life and where it’s all going.
“We have an opportunity to redesign the business in this new era, so we can all do the best work we can and give everyone a better life. It’s all up for discussion. I’d appreciate if you could all help me out. What’s on your mind?”
People respond to being asked for help and advice. Eighteen staff is a manageable number to do this with. If it were say 200, it would get taken over by the loudest factional warlords and spin out of control.
Just as moving house is a good way to get rid of years of hoarded crap, moving your business can be a good time to clear out old practices and processes that are a barrier to your staff.
And skills shortages are a great time for persuading head offices to let you change things.
What if they were in charge?
Don’t worry about your people demanding daily foot massages or an open absinthe bar. Staff end up being more conservative than you when you hand them the keys.
I’m hoping your people mostly like each other. That’s a really strong indicator of good culture. After that initial discussion, get them working together on the topic. Your deadline is tight but that’s good, it adds urgency and excitement.
What do they like in a work environment? How do they commute and does it have to be at peak hour? Where do they imagine the company will be in five years? What do they like about working for your company? Which bits suck? What do they like or dislike about remote work? If they had to return to the office for a certain number of days a week, how would they structure that to get the best out of it? How can you help them get more work done and feel more supported? What would excite them about returning to the office more often? Spoiler alert it’s usually “can we have fewer aimless meetings please”.
It’s a wide, driftnet fishing expedition but the answers will be interesting and useful. And not just for office leasing decisions.
It’s a question for much later in the process, but it’s fair to ask them:
“If you were in charge, how would you manage the different preferences of north vs south side people to get the best out of it for everyone?”
Learning: a major motivator and not just for the learners
Ask them about learning. I think it’s a massive motivator for good staff, and they’re going to learn less working from home. They’re preserved in amber out there with their 2019 skills and contacts. How can you use learning as bait to get them back to the office?
Yes, I know there’s online learning. But there are myriad intangible benefits to personal contact with experts and role models inside your own business.
Not just for the people learning, but for the self-worth of people you’ve now elevated to role model status. New staff become their proteges, so they look out for them. It builds a matrix of support that will make the business so much stronger.
Giving them the choice puts you ahead of most
Making this a project rather than a one-meeting deal means they’re more likely to commit to it. They’ll want to make all their effort count for something, and time gives the quieter ones a chance to get their thoughts heard. I’m assuming you’re OK with most options if it solves your staff retention dramas. And that you have the skills and cunning to steer things a little bit without looking like you’re interfering.
The fact that you’re so open to getting the team to make the decision puts you ahead of most bosses, so that’s a good sign that you’ll find a successful option..
I’d avoid the flexible space idea, purely for your personal self-interest. If you sign a new lease, that takes it off Head Office CFO’s radar for years. Go to flexible space and that CFO will want to micro-manage your office footprint because they know it’s an option.
HOW DO I ESCAPE THE FREE ADVICE VORTEX?
“Dear Dr Ian
Like you, I write a weekly advice column, mine being for those in the corporate world intent on climbing the greasy pole. Sometimes the questioner will email me once my reply is published, to say “Yes, but what’s your advice for ME?” Being too polite to say “that was for you, buddy, and yes you’re going to have to change” I get sucked into a free advice vortex. What’s your advice for unsucking myself?
Yours in agony (aunthood) “
Give me the confidence of a mediocre … etc
Ah straight outta the Dunning-Kruger heartland! And as an advice columnist of zero weeks’ experience, great to hear from someone else in the game.
Your reply guys have the swaggering certainty to know your advice doesn’t apply to them. Why would it? Because they’re too thick for a moment’s doubt. And the true horror is that it might not slow their progress up that corporate pole. In fact, it might accelerate it.
In jobs where performance goals and bonus structures are set up to reward short-term targets, a swaggering, confident fool will outperform the smarter, quieter person who would do the actual thinking and work required for long-term success. The D-K executive creates a sense of momentum purely with vocal tone, eye contact and firm handshakes. They’ll be there two or three years, then out of there before the full damage of their work hits home.
The board will probably give them good references just to make sure they get the hell out of there as fast as possible. And the whole cycle starts anew. Will they ever change? I doubt it.
Anyway to your question about unsucking from the free advice vortex: start charging at that point. Experienced, non-Dunning-Kruger business people are so kind about providing free advice. It’s a nice thing to do, I find it very rewarding myself. Yet I can’t think of anyone in any other respected profession – medicine, law, plumbing, tattoo removal – who is so happy to provide the benefit of decades of experience in exchange for $4-$5 in coffee.
After the second email question, it’s time for a polite reminder that this is what you do for a living. If they want to take it further, they can send you money. Your price might factor in their Undesirable Client Rating. Either way it’s highly unlikely they’ll pay but at least it’ll free up your inbox for more deserving souls.
GOT ISSUES? LET DR IAN HELP SORT YOUR SHIT OUT. EMAIL NOW.
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