Whose choice should it be to work from home?
We all learned, driven by the pandemic, that working from home is a realistic option for people working in offices. Although we are still going through waves of the pandemic, companies are preparing for a new normality in relation to work patterns in the organisation. Some organisations have chosen to leave it completely up to the individuals to decide whether to come to the office or stay at home for the work they must do. Other organisations are going different paths and define a mandatory minimum presence for their people. Whatever path an organisation takes, it will definitely have one of many variations of hybrid working arrangements requiring much more flexibility of all involved. The main question will be: who is making the decision?
The CEO factor
Over the recent months I’ve read a couple of articles/interviews with CEOs of rather large organisations talking about their new working scheme for their employees. A while ago one CEO postulated that people in his organisation should spend most of the time in the office and not working from home. His main argument seemed to be that because he was not able working effectively from home, he did not believe other people could be effective working from home. The most recent one I read was about a large social media company where the CEO decided that people must spend at least 50% of their time in the offices. One of the main reasons she gave was her own preference and beliefs that one can only effectively work in a team when present in person. I am really surprised about such views in modern times. In the extreme it seems that the people in the organisations are serving the CEO and his or her preferences or beliefs rather than the organisation. This is in total contrast with what other leading companies are proposing regarding the role of leadership in an organisation. The more up-to-date thinking is that the role of a leader is to support their people, removing obstacles and creating the best working conditions so that they can perform at their best – wherever that might be.
What about Servant Leadership?
The way I see the statements of the CEOs mentioned before are nowhere near the philosophy of servant leadership. Let me share the description for servant leadership from Wikipedia: It is a leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s focus is the thriving of their company or organization. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. As stated by its founder, Robert K. Greenleaf, a Servant Leader should be focused on, “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they benefit as well as their employees in that their employees acquire personal growth, while the organization develops as well due to the employees increasing commitment and engagement. Since this leadership style came about, several different organizations have adopted this style as their way of leadership. They reported a significant increase in employee engagement and in their bottom line.
I am wondering whether these CEOs and other leaders, being so prescriptive about working patterns based on their own beliefs, consider the people in their organisation not capable of choosing the best way of working for themselves to be motivated and performant? It could also be that in the back of their minds they still have theory X activated which postulates that employees are generally lazy. I had already referred to this in a previous blog about why working from home works. In modern organisations, this way to approach a new working pattern is, in my experience, an outdated approach. I am fully aware there are several factors to be taken into account when leading an organisation, like culture and cohesion/the feeling of belonging are important aspects to keep an organisation functioning in order to fulfil its purpose.
I am convinced that first and foremost in such a situation the role of the top leader should be to take care that the culture and the cohesion of an organisation stays intact no matter what working patterns are prevalent at a particular point in time. There may be limits to how far you can go with a dispersed organisation. However, those should not be the limits of one individual person but the limits of functioning and belonging to an organisation. And the same is true at the more granular level when you look at teams and how they can collaborate and thrive in different working patterns. Yet, if the leader of an organisation is crystal clear about the higher purpose of its existence and provides a compelling vision for all members of the organisation intrinsic motivation will be triggered and boost the desire to be engaged and connected with other collaborators. For me, there lies the main responsibility of organisational leaders.
Whose choice should it be?
I guess that you know my answer to the question after having read so far. At the end of the day, it should be a mutual agreement between members of the organisation taking into account different perspectives and needs to create the best working conditions. Along the process all involved should be very vigilant about whether or not certain requirements or needs are actually driven by outdated beliefs. The role of leaders here should be one of facilitator or mediator with a focus of striving for the best working conditions to enable high performance in teams and securing cohesion in the organisation. That will be exactly the servant leadership approach. As a final thought, I remember a reasonably famous talk from Simon Sinek on ‘why good leaders make you feel safe‘.
When you think about the best way of work patterns in the new normality you need to start with the needs of the members of your organisation or teams and not with your own beliefs. In my view of the world, as a leader you have the responsibility to create the best working conditions no matter the ways of working. Whether from home or in the office should not be the determining factor. Almost all people in your organisation are mature enough to know what’s best for their team, the organisation and themselves. In the end, chances are high that the result will be some kind of flexible hybrid solution.
And if you want to discuss your particular situation in more detail feel free to …