Oh! How reluctant people make everything worse

You may be thinking of unvaccinated people but that’s not what I’m referring to.

When the world changes and there is a paradigm shift, when the structures of yesterday are no longer adequate and even if better alternatives are already known, most people are reluctant to change.

The 20th century corporation was invented in the first 30 years of that century. 100 years later, everything about how people communicate has changed. The ability for people to collaborate and coauthor has increased exponentially. The cost of inter-company transactions has dropped to the floor and digital technology is the centre of the global economy.

As a result, the world of business and commerce has moved to cyberspace and the speed with which new products and services are created and the rate at which new business models are emerging have reached a pace that the functional hierarchy of old companies and the head-office-centric business model cannot keep up. Let me rephrase – it’s hopelessly incapable of keeping up.

And yet, executives are incredibly reluctant to change. The end is inevitable but instead of moving there quickly and elegantly, they move very slowly, make everybody suffer slowly and most end up failing anyway.

When the evidence of change is too compelling to dispute, people make hesitant moves. Executives don’t want the solution that works; they improvise solutions that combine the approaches of the past with some elements of the future. Everybody ‘negotiates’ to be ‘half-pregnant’. “Can we be just half-pregnant? Does it have to be all or nothing?”

And it doesn’t work. Like companies that tried to go Agile but still preserved the power structure of the command and control hierarchy. Or those that create “multi-functional teams” to emulate autonomous teams; but they are just meetings.

The best example of this ‘half-pregnant’ syndrome is what’s happening with the “back to the office” debate. It’s disheartening how it’s happening and the scale at which it’s happening.

For over a year, folks worked from home. Data shows that people became more productive; and that they worked more hours. Data also shows that, after a painful initial 2-3 months, people adapted and at the other end of that change, they integrated professional and personal life in a harmonious manner to a point never accomplished before.

So… people are more productive, work-life balance is largely achieved for most families, technology helped the evolution to cyberspace but then – oh!, it’s better for everybody to be at the office, physically.

Thus, everybody talks about a “hybrid” model – 2-3 days a week at the office. Why? And how well does that work?

As expected, the only way that could work is if everybody that works together is in the office at the same time. In fact, some companies I heard about are imposing that everybody in one department needs to be in the office the same 2-3 days. And, inevitably, Executives are choosing which 2-3 days are ‘the best’.

None of this works! The Executives running these companies have completely missed the point.

Firstly, the people that work together are not in the same department. People who work in the same functional department don’t work together. They may be buddies, but they don’t work with one another; they work with people from other departments.

Secondly: the way families worked out their life structure during the pandemic was not coordinated by functional department. Each family did its thing and so – it’s impossible to find 2-3 days in the week that are equally convenient for everyone.

Thus, imposing this ‘half-pregnant’ approach isn’t making anything better: it’s not helping people work together; and it’s not helping with work-life balance; and, ultimately, it’s destroying productivity.

The solution that works is actually clear, proven and almost evident. Unfortunately, people are people and their entrenched convictions get in the way of seeing solutions clearly.

What you have is a generation of executives that are convinced that the best way for things to work is if they have control over everyone under them. The only way to do that is for everyone to be in the office “where we can see them”. That’s the part of the past they are trying to preserve. That’s the factor that makes them blind to the clear solution.

Let’s get this out of the way: yes, study after study during the pandemic surfaced this dichotomy: people love the flexibility of working from home but they miss contact with their colleagues. This is true and it’s to be expected. Human beings need direct contact with other human beings. It’s how we’re wired.

But why would you think that the answer to this need for human contact is to go back to the [old] office??

The clear answer that conditioned executives are not seeing is that you need to separate working together from needing human contact. Virtual work – working in cyberspace – is the heart of the digital revolution because it’s the best way for people to collaborate, it offers immense flexibility and it’s fast.

On the other hand, people who work from home need to see some of the people they work with to feel more human. So, create or rent a space in each region, an office-like facility like the WeWork spaces, for instance, for people to go to for a while and see their friends.

Let’s say you rent these office spaces in 5 different regions around a city. What would people do? I’m working from home; I feel like going out and seeing some people; so I go to that office space and we’ll see who’s there. Even if I don’t see the people I know, I’ll see people working there. I’ll do my work same as usual – virtually – but when I have a break, I’ll go to the lounge area or the coffee area and I’ll chat with whoever is there. Sometimes, I’ll arrange for some of my friends to go there at the same time as me. That’s how I’ll satisfy my need for human contact. And if I have to go pick up my daughter now but my friends don’t, I go, they stay.

You see, you don’t have to impose the rigid structure of the traditional office, where physical location is associated with “where I work”, to provide for the ability of employees to have human contact and still remain productive and happy.

The only ones that need everybody at the office? Well – the bosses. But bosses can work virtually; they can also move around the various facilities; if they build good camaraderie with their teams, they can arrange activities in each region with their people.

But… it’s executives – bosses – that are reluctant. They are stuck in the power structures of the past. They don’t want to lose power; they identify with that power; they don’t want to lose their status; thus, they cling to business models of the past that can’t possibly keep up with the future. They improvise ‘half-pregnant’ solutions that don’t work and inevitably will carry them to extinction.

If you look at companies functioning in an Agile model (a real one; not a ‘half pregnant’ one), you’ll see they don’t have these problems. The reason is simple. In the Agile model, bosses don’t ‘run the world’. People don’t work for leaders – leaders work for them. In Agile, being a Leader is not synonymous with having power. You’re not a Leader because you want to be the boss; you’re a Leader because you want to help people work together and do amazing things for Customers. You’re a Leader to serve, not to be served.

Try this: compare what Agile organizations are doing with the office thing to what traditional companies are doing. You’ll see that the ‘half pregnant’ companies are not Agile.

If you don’t want to change, just don’t. Don’t go half-way. The paradigm shift is going too fast. Change for real or just stay where you are. And your employees will make up their minds. Some will stay, most will go. Each year that passes from now on, employees will walk away from these reluctant executives and go somewhere else.

Heard about the labour shortage? Well… what did you expect?

1 Comment

  1. Hi Tony,

    It is very true that we changed our ways in a very short amount of time. It is also true that we are now more productive, more then ever. No more being stuck in traffic, no more to run from one end of the building to another for meetings. But here are negative points to this, as you said. We miss the human contact. It’s just not the same discussing virtually vs face to face. As well, yes we are more productive but we also work more hours then we ever had prior to the pandemic. The time that we don’t « waste » in traffic, well we work. It is also super easy to finish work past 6:00. Before the pandemic, being on site, you saw when people left and this gave you the cue also that it’s now time to stop. When you are alone in the basement of your house, there are no cues to leave.
    I do agree that wether or not we want to change, we have no choice. Everything has already changed and everyone must face the fact that things will never be the same.
    As well, I like how you talk about leaders. Being an executive or a « boss » does not make you a leader!!
    Thank you for this article.

    Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

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