Going back to the office

Out of the many TED talks/articles that turned into books that then turned into consulting businesses, I think “radical candor” generated some of the funniest stories for me. Radical candor, for the blissfully unaware, was an approach to delivering candid feedback and guidance in workplace settings with clarity and kindness. Radical candor was supposed to be the much-better alternative to not giving feedback or guidance at all, which I guess people were avoiding b/c they were worried about blowback, or they didn’t know how to do it, or they didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. Radical candor was a way to re-define honesty as an act of kindness—e.g., if someone you are working with really doesn’t know how to do the thing they’re supposed to be doing, is it better to let them struggle along and let them ultimately face harsh consequences, or can you find some way to let them know that they need to improve and point the way to how they might do that?

After radical candor became such A Thing, I had quite a few people contact me to say that the approach brought me to mind. (They all meant it as a compliment, but that same feedback has been given to me in not-so-complimentary ways.) In addition, one friend told me a story about how radical candor workshops were offered at the place where she worked, and as a result, people went around saying blunt and hurtful things to each other. Not everyone realized that you had to deliver honest feedback and guidance to someone within the context of a trusted, open relationship.

Anyhoo: during the many years I worked full-time, in an office, it always felt like people were looking for silver-bullet solutions to the challenges they faced in building healthy, inclusive, and open organizational cultures. Now that many workers have had a year of working remotely (me for longer, since I went freelance well before the pandemic hit), I think there’s a lot of soul-searching going on about what sorts of organizational cultures people do—or don’t—want to come back to, when businesses start to open up again. For some, it’s causing anxiety.

I’ve had many friends tell me that they would like to continue as they are—I have other friends tell me that their org cultures and work processes are collapsing without in-person interaction of some sort. I do understand missing things–and people–about in-person work. When I started working remotely full-time, I didn’t miss the headaches of business travel, but I did miss the opportunity to have dinner with some of my closest colleagues after the days finally came to a close. I didn’t miss daily schedules blocked end-to-end with meetings, but I did miss the lighthearted moments that came during intense work periods, when fellow team members and I would look at each other and realize that we were getting somewhere.

I am not likely to return to a full-time office setting any time soon, even if the pandemic does eventually limp to a close. While I’ve had a few deeply meaningful and wonderful job experiences, I’ve also had some hellishly awful ones, and I’m now old enough and experienced enough to make a halfway-decent living in freelance and consulting. (This opinion piece, by a woman who said she will never love a job again after a terrible experience at Google, nearly broke my heart.) But if I were the Minister in Charge of Returning to Work, I would focus re-entry preparations on making things better than they were before. Such as:

  • Not insisting on mandatory one-size-fits-all work arrangements for all of your employees: I truly don’t get why some employers are so afraid of flexible working arrangements—is it because of the slackers? Number one, it’s not hard to tell when people are doing their jobs and when they’re not doing their jobs—schedules have very little to do with that. And, if you’re worried about degrading your organizational culture with a remote workforce, you can develop schedules for employees that maximize in-person time and then allow one or two days a week for employees to not have to commute, so they can get work done, as well as get other shit they need to have done (like doctors’ appointments, or parent-teacher meetings, or waiting for the wireless repair guy).
  • Re-thinking the composition and chemistry of your management teams and your teams in general: Bad managers, and toxic employees, are SUCH a drain on other employees. Also, what kills me is that everyone always KNOWS who the employees are who most negatively impact other people’s morale. If you know there were problem areas in the organization before remote working, I don’t think you want to re-create those exact same dynamics when people come back to work, do you? For the non-toxic people who struggle with interpersonal and team interactions, yet offer intrinsic and immense value to the organization, maybe you let that person….stay remote? For those people, you could set some mutual expectations about which in-person events are super-critical to show up for. And then let them get their work done for the majority of their other hours. .
  • Shifting to demand-driven employee learning: At many companies, there are mandatory trainings—in sexual harassment, on diversity, equity, and inclusion, in compliance and procurement processes, etc. But outside of those mandatory trainings, people often get learning forced down their throat by executive or management teams who think: oh hey, here’s the latest silver-bullet thing! Like, radical candor. I think, instead, it would work better when peer groups are given the space and encouragement to organize around topics they want to learn and then ask for learning to be supported by managers and financially.    
  • For that matter, make employee socializing demand-driven: I cannot tell you how many birthday celebrations, happy hours, goodbye parties I’ve seen pushed onto employees, and how many of these events administrative support staff are forced to organize, especially at organizations where the majority of people are deeply unhappy. The forced socializing usually has no effect on employee dissatisfaction (because often, they’re unhappy because of problems at the top). But sometimes people truly do want non-working time to get to know their colleagues better. I always loved hearing stories about people’s lives and interests outside of work—I’m kind of nosy that way, I guess because I feel like it helps me understand my colleagues on multiple human dimensions, and I long for that same understanding to be accorded to me. So if your colleagues show an interest in getting together, or celebrating someone’s birthday, by all means, support that. Set aside a little fund for that, make it okay for them to do it during working hours. Just don’t force it on anyone.

All of this advice may be, again, pie-in-the-sky thinking. I do that occasionally, in this space. But we’ve just had our lives completely up-ended by a global pandemic. Now that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, has there ever been a better opportunity to dream better workplaces into being?