How community days for team bonding in the office can backfire

With everyone seeming to come to the office on random days, some federal managers have instituted "community days," designated days when everyone is required to...

With everyone seeming to come to the office on random days, some federal managers have instituted “community days,” designated days when everyone is required to come in. Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with someone who thinks “community days” could do more harm than good: Long-time federal labor relations guru Bob Tobias.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And I think it’s well-intentioned, Bob, to get everyone in so that the bonding and purported team building dynamics can happen when everyone’s in person. But you’re not so sure.

Bob Tobias I’m not, Tom. I’m really not. The theory for community days, as you suggest, seems to be that employees in a hybrid workplace who come to the office many different times, many different days, really doesn’t provide managers with an opportunity to create the interpersonal relationships and connections that are necessary to create a workplace community, and more importantly, a workplace community that will do creative problem solving. And so the solution seems to be for some community days, but I just don’t think it’ll work.

Tom Temin Why not?

Bob Tobias I don’t think it’s going to work first, because a workplace relationship starts first with a leader, with one person, one person at a time, and build out to a group. Calling a group together can build an individual trust, but rarely can it be the sole basis for community creation. And if I don’t believe, as an employee, I don’t believe that coming to work is going to really create relationships, I’m going to be angry and I’m going to think I’ve lost a full day of doing real work just to appease some person who thinks coming to work is going to create what I need. But finally, and most importantly, even if employees were not angry, a community day mandate assumes that agency leaders and managers have the skills they need to create workplace, community and an environment for creative problem solving. And we know from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey that most leaders and managers don’t have those skills.

Tom Temin Yet, there seems to be a fundamental perception on some people’s parts managers, and frankly, a lot of long time employees. I mean, the ones I’ve heard that would like to return to the office tend to be the senior executives, and they’re not running agencies or maybe they’re running small bureaus, but they just have that culture. But the fundamental thinking is something is different with everyone being hybrid or remote, versus the old way. And we sometimes forget teleworking existed before the pandemic hit. It’s got a good 20 year history of real activity in the federal government. But there’s something fundamentally different. And how do you address that?

Bob Tobias Well I think the solution for creating workplace communities is the same now as it was pre-COVID, and that is developing leaders who are skilled at creating relationships. And I had this experience when I was teaching a group of deputy chief information officers during the COVID shut down via Zoom. So I convened a panel of CIOs and I asked them, So what’s been the most important change in your leadership style that has occurred as a result of COVID? And one CIO said, I am an introvert. I am such a shy introvert, and I got to be a CIO because I was a great technician. So people came to me and asked me technical questions, and I was able to create a relationship. But when COVID occurred, it all stopped. And so I had to decide to call people individually, set up an appointment, do a zoom call, and talk about non-business matters. He said, it was so hard to press the Zoom call and actually meet someone, one on one, and say, I’d like to talk about something other than business necessary to create those relationships. So I think the lesson for agency leaders means taking the time, as it has always been, to create meaningful personal relationships with each director and ensuring on down the line that people have the skills they need to press the button and actually create relationships.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s a retired professor in the key executive leadership program at American University and former federal Union president. But that is a leader to employee or manager to employee the hub and spoke. What about the peer to peer relationships that are so crucial in a workplace?

Bob Tobias I think that’s also critical, Tom. But if I’m the manager who’s calling those peer to peer relationships together in a workplace or I don’t trust you as my manager, peer to peer relationships are not going to be created.

Tom Temin And getting back to the question then of community days. Could there be a way it could work if there was a specific purpose to the day? Say we’re going to help build out the strategic plan for the next six months or we have these three problems the organization is facing. We want everybody’s brain in a room together to put up ideas, you can sort of smell the Post-it notes coming. But nevertheless, could that be a cogent way to have these happen?

Bob Tobias Clearly, Tom, if there is a purpose for a meeting, and everybody recognizes the purpose for a meeting, that will be important and people will come to the meeting. Great. But, are they going to accomplish anything? Are they going to really achieve what it is they want to achieve? So it is great to come together, but are they going to achieve what they want to achieve? And without building the trust, creating the relationships, they’re going to get a less valuable product they wouldn’t otherwise obtain. So I think, Tom, that I’m a leader and I can mandate a community day. So I have the coercive power to require employees to come to work. But coercive power is antithetical to creating an environment where employees choose to create meaningful relationships with their manager and with each other.

Tom Temin I wonder if a community day somewhere other than the office would work. And this takes me back to childhood days when my father was a scientist for a large corporation that had a lab, and every year that unit, it was a couple of hundred people I think, would have a community day at a local amusement park. In this case, Kennywood, outside of Pittsburgh. And all the families would come and all the employees was mostly men in those days, and we’d all go to Kennywood and have a picnic. And somehow the employees, I guess themselves, the dads in those days would maybe bond in that manner or get to know each other manner and the families were present. What if that type of model, could that work?

Bob Tobias Well, I think that kind of a model is an important supplement to creating a relationship. It further enhances what I’ve already started with you as a person I’m leading. And I think it’s important. But if that’s all there is, it doesn’t work. People go and they have fun and they stay with their family, they don’t talk to other families. And everybody has fun, but the fun is not directed in a way that’s going to create great workplace relationships.

Tom Temin So getting back to the deputy CIO you mentioned, and there must be a more thankless job than deputy CIO in the federal government. It would be hard to think of what it might be, maybe deputy HR manager or something. But that person was an introvert, so it’s the introvert quality that is far more operative here than the presence or telepresence of the people.

Bob Tobias Yeah, I think it is. But it doesn’t just mean because I’m an introvert, it’s difficult. I think it is a real skill that has to be honed and developed to really create a trusting workplace environment. And that’s what’s missing. A focus on the fundamental issue. How do I do it? How do I really start creating those relationships? Now, some people have a natural talent and a natural ability, but many do not.

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