The perks of being a wallflower and the rush to get everyone back in the office

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A large survey sponsored by Slack, a intra-company messaging application, raises the question: Is it really a good goal for organizations to get everyone back in the office? And a second question: Would companies and government agencies do better to educate managers on how to better deal with a workforce that’s scattered — some home, some in the office? To find out, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with FNN’s resident workplace expert, Bob Tobias.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bob, what was your take on this data that maybe this rush to everybody get back to the office, we’re normal again, may not be all that great an idea?

Bob Tobias: Well, Tom, I think it’s interesting that that survey validated some of the good things that people like about working at home, you know, they like working in sweatpants, they like not having long commutes, they like not having lunch expenses and they like flexibility. But the survey also revealed some other things that I found very interesting. First, they found that the pressure to work more hours and be available more hours declined over this two year period of working at home. They also found that more employees were evaluated based solely on their work, rather than on likability. So it was more objective than subjective standard. And interestingly, women reported that they liked having the flexibility of setting their own at home work temperature, rather than being cold in the workplace, because offices set their temperatures based on the resting metabolic rate of a 40 year old man weighing 154 pounds. And it was also easier to avoid the feeling of being excluded by office cliques, or a feeling of not fitting in because they were working at home on Zoom. And finally, many employees reported that they were able to avoid the micro-aggressions that were often present in the workplace.

So I believe that these folks, when they’re going to come back into the workplace, are going to be wanting what they experienced at home transported into the workplace. And the question and challenge is, are agencies going to recognize these needs, or assume that the past before the pandemic will be implemented automatically when people come back to work.

Tom Temin: That idea of rating people on likability, which I don’t think is a criterion anyone has in writing as one of the company or organizational attributes they seek. I guess there’s other ways of saying it, gets along well with peers and this kind of stuff. And the idea of the social unpleasantries that can happen in a large workplace with cliques and so forth, as you mentioned, are somehow related, because someone could do excellent work, but they’re just not socially part of the, I don’t know, in fabric that might be in a workplace. And so therefore, they get downgraded, and so on. Whereas, when they are out of sight, and only the work can be seen, then evaluations become more objective, more related to the goals of the organization. Is that a valid connection?

Bob Tobias: It is, and that’s what the surveys found, the person who either is seen as a wallflower, or believes themselves to be a wallflower, is now evaluated on what’s produced, because everyone is a wallflower when you’re working at home.

Tom Temin: In fact, it can work to the opposite way. That is to say someone who could do great work, but is horrible actively to have around the office can almost save themselves if they were remote. I’m thinking of an employee around here many years ago, who was well known and did great work in terms of what was presented to the public, but would shout and holler and swear at colleagues, even to the custodial staff one night, and that’s kind of what did him in. And so if he’d never been in the office, he might have still been working here.

Bob Tobias: Absolutely. And so the challenge for managers and leaders, as more people are coming back to work, as I said, are we going to assume that the past was so great? Or are we going to use this opportunity as creating something new and better in the future? I mean, for example, are agencies upskilling managers to recognize the need for empathy and understanding? I mean, the fact of the matter is that people have changed over this period of two years. And because of a lack of in-person communication, I don’t really understand how much you’ve changed, Tom, or how much I’ve changed. So am I going to acknowledge that, and have the empathy to connect on a new basis? And are agencies going to encourage managers to really spend the time to make new connections, rather than assuming everything is going to pick up where they left off? And will they take time to plan and to train and to encourage the creation of something new? And I have not heard any agency discussing this aspect of its return to work policies.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University, what you say is something that’s reflected in that study, and that is people coming back, if they come back, are not the same people as who left before the pandemic for a variety of reasons. But I wanted to ask you about the idea of a two tier system, those that are obligated to be at the worksite and those that have if you want to call it that the luxury of being able to be remote or be teleworking. And I’m just wondering if that’s a red herring, because say, I’ve just picked out an agency and random the Postal Service, you’ve always had headquarter staff, planners, analysts, IT people that can work from anywhere, versus the delivery staff, which is out there on the field necessarily, and it hasn’t destroyed the Postal Service, having that different class of employee.

Bob Tobias: Well, I’m wondering if the test should be the presumption that I work remotely, unless there’s a need that I come to work in-person. And certainly the need for the letter carriers to deliver, they got to do that. But the other folks’ presumption of working at home until there’s a need for people to get together, to work together, to brainstorm, to solve problems together that they can better do in-person than at home. So it seems to me that a hybrid opportunity should be present, but not an artificial hybrid opportunity where you must be at work for three days, or you must be at work for two days. But rather, you come together when there’s a real need for interconnection and interrelationship.

Tom Temin: Because those that have been teleworking, still teleworking, to a large extent, often state that they are so sick of being confined to the dining room, or the home office, or whatever it might be, Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, that the end of the day, it’s more exhausting than, you know, being with people and then driving home or taking the mass transit home. So it works both ways.

Bob Tobias: It does. And what I’m suggesting is to take into account it works both ways, and create a workplace that convenes based on need, as opposed to an in-person workplace that’s artificially created, I must be there for two days, every week or two days every pay period, or whatever it is, but based on need.

Tom Temin: It seems like part of that managerial training to deal with that type of workforce should include, therefore, solid referenceable metrics as to what constitutes good performance, so that the person’s presence is not required to measure whether they’re doing the metrics of what you need from them as an employee.

Bob Tobias: Absolutely, this likability factor is—

Tom Temin: Overrated.

Bob Tobias: Yes. Overrated. I mean, certainly, I have to be likable. I’m using that term loosely. I have to have the skills in a knowledge workplace to be able to relate to my colleagues to learn from them, and then to learn from me. But that doesn’t mean that I have to fit into a group, it means that I have to be able to connect with people in a group and advance the goal of the group. And that I want to be rated on that contribution, as opposed to whether you as the leader like me, I mean, that should not be included. And yet that’s a common complaint in the workplace.

Tom Temin: And in your contacts with federal managers now and people aspiring to be managers in your own daily work. Do you have the sense that the government is on this train to get everybody back? And maybe there’s an opportunity that’s about to be lost?

Bob Tobias: I do. I really do. Because the goal is to get people back to work, not to get people back to work in a way that increases their productivity or takes into account the change that has occurred between leader and led over this period of two years. And if the goal is merely to get people back to work that can be done, I can order you back to work. But that does not take into account unlearning, learning something new and creating a new and different and better workplace for the future.

Tom Temin: Bob Tobias is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. As always, thanks so much.

Bob Tobias: Thank you, Tom.

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