I don’t do guests because it’s too time-consuming, but making an exception this week. It’s a 50 minute chat with my friend, massive lawyer brain Fionn Bowd, on the future of office work. She’s done a lot to change the nature of law firms. It’s longer than normal weeks but I think it’s well worth it, walk that dog to it.
There are crossover elements between the audio chat and the story below but lots different so feel free to listen and read.
You can’t just issue orders
If your business is relying on just telling people to come back to the office full time, you could be in trouble.
Last week we spoke of the Great Resignation. Surveys predict 60% of employees plan to leave their horrid jobs within a year.
Leaving employers with a complex balancing act between office vs remote work.
This week, we’re looking at ways you can encourage your staff back to the office in some form or another.
Why not go all-remote?
If your business goes all-virtual, your company will have no culture. No matter what your HR powerpoint deck predicts.
Culture comes from the interactions that happen between the meetings. When they don’t feel like they’re being watched.
It comes from your staff having each other’s backs, and it’s much harder to let people down when you’re face to face with them.
Logical brain says virtual contact is just as good, but your herd-animal brain says: no it isn’t. That’s the part that guides your behaviour.
Two years of tech breakthroughs aren’t going to change primal instincts developed over millennia.
It’s easy for remote-enthusiasts to dismiss all office culture as an outdated remnant of undesirable frat-bro environments, like here.
If that’s all you’ve ever experienced, it makes perfect sense. It’s also a clear sign you’ve never worked somewhere good.
Good places deliver a kinetic buzz that your home laptop is never going to deliver.
I’m not just saying this because we have event businesses, but we’ve forgotten what it’s like to get people together. So when you do that, it’s your job to make sure it’s a positive experience.
This needs more than token gestures
Right now businesses with big office leases are working on genius plans to make offices fun places to be.
As well they should, but so many “fun-office” ideas are tokenistic. Like this quote from this story: “It’s OK to hate your workplace’s corporate wellness policies.”
“My old firm hired an in-house psychologist. His advice to everyone was to eat well and exercise more for peak work performance. The issue wasn’t the 80+ hour weeks, it was that you weren’t taking care of yourself to perform. He gave this advice to a solicitor who, between struggling with anxiety and depression exacerbated by overwork, was also literally a fitness model.
“When COVID hit, the psychologist’s advice was ‘you make yourself vulnerable to the virus by being in less-than-peak physical condition, so make sure you exercise your way through this’, while having to come into the office the whole time, instead of working from home.”
If your culture is one of last one left in the office each night wins, yoga classes, cupcakes and table tennis are band-aids over deeper problems.
With the implication that it’s you who must do better, not your employer.
Because you failed to develop the resilience skills covered in last month’s workshop.
What should you do instead?
For a deep plunge into it, listen to my podcast chat with law firm CEO Fionn Bowd, whose firm is re-shaping how city lawyers work. She’s worked at a senior level in both big law firms and in household-name corporations.
We cover a lot of territory over about 50 minutes on why and how to get people back to the office some of the time. And how that might look and feel.
I’d really encourage you to give it a listen. Fionn is full of thoughts and ideas on how to get better results out of knowledge workers in any field, not just lawyers.
A few pointers:
Fionn believes that successful companies will be the ones who make structural, not cosmetic changes.
She suggests large businesses reduce their office space. But instead of pocketing the cost reductions, invest it in making working life better for office and remote workers.
The legacy of decades of cost-cutting has turned most offices into joyless spaces where everything is DIY. And dirty kitchens filled with passive-aggressive notes about how your mother doesn’t work here.
Offices must be a better place to work than home, rather than feeling like a grim share house.
She suggests drawing inspiration from the golden era of travel and offices, providing useful services to staff so they can feel good about being there and get on with doing quality work.
Fionn draws parallels between personal relationships and the employer-employee relationship. Like dating, you can tell a lot from the details of how people manage the details.
She speaks of the power of the occasional grand gesture, and how essential that is in the new work world.
And she recalls how the office tea lady diagnosed Fionn’s mum’s pregnancy before her mum actually knew. Service super-powers that made staff feel truly valued.
How is your work creating memories?
I think a good management goal is to create somewhere that staff can look back fondly in a decade.
When they’ll say:
“I worked in a great place. I was supported, I learned a lot, I worked with some smart, capable people and some of them are friends to this day.”
What are you doing to create those memories?
Because I don’t think they’ll remember a single Zoom call ten years from now. They just all blur into one another.
There’s none of the sensory experience that burns happiness into your mind. The way the smell of frangipani blossoms or the sound of an ice-cream truck takes you instantly back to a golden moment long ago.
Ask yourself: what can you do for your staff that they’ll tell their friends or post about?
Take them to the big-name restaurant. Block-book seats at a theatre show. Let them meet someone famous or at least be close enough to get a phone shot that shows they were there.
These are the things that make them feel special.
Rather than some infinitely-scaleable digital experience coming out of the same old laptop.
Content Is Not Always King
How many times have you heard some wannabe thought leader say ‘content is king’?
As if that’s a golden rule for every situation.
Guess what, we’re fucking drowning in content of all kinds and people are getting sick of it.
So it has a diminishing effect. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of communicating that message via a weekly content piece.
I spoke to a friend who is a senior APAC manager in a global tech firm. He’s staying undercover so he doesn’t have to get his thoughts signed off by the Comms Approval Department, let’s call him Francesco.
Francesco’s team runs some massive events, and the objectives of those have been completely turned upside down. They used to focus on delivering amazing presentations and the newest information.
“Now people want connections, not content,” he said.
A lot of their efforts from now on will revolve around maximising the random hangout benefits of people who might benefit each other. Like a corporate matchmaking service on a grand scale.
Better Connections In The Office
Francesco’s firm has a large and amazing office space, all ready for their staff to return, but will they?
They’ve continued the connections theme there. One simple, effective design tip: staircases. Francesco and his team get so much benefit out of bumping into people from other departments while moving around the office.
“The conversations just don’t happen if you take the lift,” he said.
The company uses ‘teaming agreements’, where teams agree on what day they’ll come to the office. They still work mostly remotely. But on the days in the office, they’re working on group stuff, and they’re excited to be doing it.
“You look forward to going in, and you make a day of it.”
On the flip side of that, Francesco is excited about the lasting benefits of the virtual revolution. One of his passions is greater accessibility for their impaired workers and audience members. Now all their events and presentations are available in some form to those unable to get involved in the conventional way.
They’re refining what does and doesn’t work virtually.
All- or multi-day activities like training and conferences don’t work for remote viewers. Nobody has that attention span. It’s not as involving if you’re not there, and there are endless distractions pinging in the background.
“We looked at the average view times, and it drops away heavily over time,” Francesco said. “We broke our main conference up into short segments on different days. And a speech that used to get forty minutes now gets twenty. People can only focus on a laptop for so long.”
Some activities will always work best with people in the room.
As their staff return to the office, many are doing personal posts about how excited they are to be back. It’s those unforced endorsements that will get others back, far more effectively than memos or policies.
Now is the time to take advantage of all this change and hire the good people. Despite the horrors we’ve been through, I’m super-amped for 2022.
And that’s not just last week’s first pub beers talking. Damn they were good.
THE MASKED SIGNER
ydney bookshops are open again! Had a fun day signing copies of Undisruptable in a bunch of stores. If you’re in the CBD Kinokuniya Book Store has a sweet new business book section, well worth checking out. There’s also signed copies in Dymocks Macquarie Centre, Broadway and Chatswood. I’ll be getting to interstate stores when borders open again. Support book stores folks!
Just chillin with my cardboard author mates.