The impact of being in the office isn’t the same for everyone; the needs of workers and the needs of managers may be quite different, driving different levels of desire for in-office work.
For years employees have lamented the “office face time game” where they just had to be in the office to “show” they were working, rather than whether or not they were actually working. They were right to complain. Your bonus and promotions should be based on your output, not time at your desk.
It’s rare to have two people doing exactly parallel jobs that can be fully objectively measured.
However, some of that output isn’t always so easy to see. Measuring a salesperson's output is easy, look at the sales figures she brings in. With marketers, it’s easy to measure how well an ad campaign is doing or social media likes; it’s harder to quantitatively measure a new corporate tagline. Software developers can be measured based on the number of source lines of code created (SLOC), but more complicated systems have a different ratio of design to writing than easier systems; it can be apples to oranges. How do you quantitatively measure the team designing a new suction pump to be used under extreme temperatures never before attempted? How do you quantitatively line up two directors of finance running a budgeting process on two very different business units in different financial situations? It’s rare to have two people doing exactly parallel jobs that can be fully objectively measured.
Beyond all this are things that cannot be easily measured. How much of a team player is someone? Does she help her teammates succeed? How do you measure that? You can do peer surveys, but that can also lead to very competitive intra-team culture. Even when you do it, the manager’s opinion matters.
When we’re in the office we get a sense for who helps others. Some of it really comes from just seeing who is sitting with whom and how often. To clarify, no one is simply measuring the time together, but you see who works together and you have a sense of who tends to be helping whom. Part of that comes from seeing what's happening in the office.
Those little things are less visible when remote because the manager isn’t going to drop by a video chat between two people.
How about commitment to team values? That might be visible in the outcome, but it’s not always. A manager might be walking by two people at the white board and ask, “what’s the diagram” only to hear, “oh, I know we did the design yesterday, but we thought it would be a good idea to look at it from the needs of the customer just to make sure we didn’t miss anything.” That’s exhibiting the “customer focus” value of the company. Those little things are less visible when remote because the manager isn’t going to drop by a video chat between two people.
I’ve had employees in conflict. Usually, it wasn’t in our team meetings since they often didn’t go at each other when I was around, not unlike kids who put a lid on their fighting while mom and dad were in earshot. Instead, it was when a few people gathered around someone's desk for a discussion and instead of a healthy debate I saw and heard personal animosity. I’d miss that if we all worked from home and the fighting was in a small video meeting, I wasn’t a part of.
Who is a good listener? That’s harder to gauge on a zoom meeting. Resilience is rarely needed or exhibited during the weekly team meeting, but that may be an important trait for promotion. Conflict resolution happens in formal meetings, but just as often in hallways or at desks. I learn a lot about someone’s character on those rare occasions where we have a deadline (or server crash) and are trying to solve a problem at 11pm at night. No one likes being there; who simply complains the whole time and who says, “This isn’t fun, but let’s focus and get it done”? That attitude is less likely to come through on email, or instant messaging. (And it doesn’t have to be at 11pm, it can be at 4pm trying to hit a deadline so people can head out to make it home for dinner.)
Work output is by far the number one factor. That’s why we hired you. But these other attributes do matter. They are especially important when it comes to promotions. If you’re an individual contributor, it’s about your work product. The people who get promoted to manager are no longer just judged on their direct output, but how they get the team to perform, and that is very much a function of some of the skills above, as well as plenty of others. At many companies, even senior individual contributors’ roles often have some implicit leadership or management to them, and we take that into account when thinking about promotions.
This is to say nothing of the benefits of those water cooler conversations to team communication and productivity, as well as team bonding and engagement.
This is to say nothing of the benefits of those water cooler conversations to team communication and productivity, as well as team bonding and engagement. One of the best pledge activities we did at my fraternity was puzzle night. We “locked” the pledges in a room with pizza and drinks and gave them a puzzle (with no cover). We were forced to spend hours stuck together where we got to know each other. There may be a little small talk at the start of a video meeting but seeing the same people and being “stuck” working next to them daily does help with bonding.
And then there are other issues from the management side. When a leader delivers an important message, he likely wants to know how the message was received. Did people understand it? What’s their reaction (e.g., happy, angry, confused)? That’s much easier to do in person than looking at a Brady Bunch screen of tiny faces, half of whom have their cameras off. You might be thinking, well those big pronouncements only happen once a quarter. Your manager, on the other hand, might be thinking, “I want to get that feel for each of our weekly meetings so I can gauge how the team is feeling about rapid changes happening on our project.”
Every manager I know says that people issues are the hardest part of the job. People issues are a lot easier to deal with in person.
It’s easy to think the bottom line for your job is your work product alone. While it’s the most critical factor, it’s not the only one. It’s not necessarily the biggest one your boss focuses on. Every manager I know says that people issues are the hardest part of the job. People issues are a lot easier to deal with in person.
If we were just measuring social media likes or units shipped you wouldn't need a boss, you’d just need a calculator. We hire humans to manage people precisely because there is a lot of difficult to measure activity, and the difficulty of it is made harder when remote. That’s not saying we need to be back in the office five days a week; but while being fully remote may work for you, it may even be better for you than being in the office part time, your boss’ job may be harder if you’re never around. The trick is to find the balance—and that’s why your boss has a boss, and not a calculator, managing her.
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