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Where your desk should be

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Oh, no, not another quadrant chart!

Sorryyyy. But quadrant charts do have their uses. In today we’ll use one to help clarify whether, in our rapidly emerging post-COVID-19 world, employees who were shifted to remote work as a result of the pandemic should shift back to working on premises.

Start with a typical scenario: Executive leadership wants employees back at their desks. Many of its employees, though, having grown accustomed to the flexibility working remotely provides, are unhappy with this direction and are pushing back.

Which brings us to Lewis’s Law #Beats me, I stopped counting a long time ago. The law states that if a decision hinges on personal preferences, everyone involved is engaged in the wrong conversation.

Possibly because I’m a founding member of Sarcastics Anonymous, whenever I hear someone start with the words “I want …” I have to restrain myself from answering, “Well, I want a pony. And a Robot Commando™, and a … ”

That the executives want employees back at their desks, just doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t matter, any more than it matters that employees will happily comply, so long as the desks they’re back at are comfortably located in their home office.

What does matter is the nature of the work each employee is responsible for. Which brings us to this week’s dreaded Quadrant o’ Doom.

In this quadrant, the vertical axis denotes the extent to which process management and oversight are important factors in what it takes for those in a given role to do their work. The horizontal axis represents the importance of relationships, trust, and team dynamics.

The chart suggests that:

  • When neither process oversight nor relationships are important for an employee to get work done, it’s a role for which working remotely is a particularly good fit.
  • When relationships aren’t particularly important but process oversight (and by implication, direct supervision) is important, working remotely still can make sense, but only to the extent that automated process monitoring is available so the responsible managers can make sure work is being done correctly and at speed.
  • In situations where relationships are important but process management isn’t, employees need to be physically present for at least part of most work weeks. Not all, but enough to interact face to face. That provides a foundation for building the trust and alignment that are the heart of healthy team dynamics. This quadrant is labeled hoteled because in this situation, employees aren’t assigned to permanent cubicle locations. They park in an available cubicle when they’re on premise; someone else parks in that cubicle on a different day.
  • And finally, when both process management and interpersonal relationships are essential to success, the employees who do this work are needed on premises.

Bob’s last word: Without a doubt, this Quadrant o’ Doom is oversimplified. It’s also entirely possible that its basic dimensions of analysis – process management and relationships – aren’t even the most important determinants.

But the underlying premise – that determining whether a given employee should be allowed to work remotely or required to work on premises must depend on the nature of the work, not the personal preferences of anyone involved in the decision – is fundamental.

As a fringe benefit, starting the decision process by building out a framework, whether it’s the one described here or something completely different, can de-escalate what can otherwise become dysfunctional conflicts between management and staff that can cripple the organization’s ability to function.

Bob’s sales pitch: Not really a sales pitch, but if you have a different framework for making decisions regarding remote vs on-premises employees and are willing to share it, please post it in the Comments so the KJR community can take it into account in their own workforce planning.

Comments (8)

  • Way too simplistic. How about a team that, pre-Covid, had developed excellent working and personal relationships and has learned how to create those with new employees? A superb manager/director can make that happen and maintain it. And they had already been moving in that direction before the pandemic hit, so they had some time to fine tune how to interact. Most of them cut out 90 minutes of commute time (and the corresponding expense). Ain’t no going back! Company found the nugget of gold and is selling the buildings. Works as long as you don’t shuffle a lot of people or have high turnover…

  • Yes, this quadrant o’doom is oversimplified. Of everyone on the team were writers, or most software development then this works. But what if they are AutoCAD draftsman, using 100Mb plus files? These coordinates become obsolete.

  • You’re missing a key case: what about when relationships are important, but the people you need to have relationships with are spread around the country/world?

  • I can have relationships with people not in my office. The folks I talk to regularly on the phone in other offices are known quantities and we can call/text whenever.

    I see a major, major problem with the bosses “wanting” folks back in the office for that sacred face-to-face stuff. For any large company with offices in different cities and teams spread across different time zones, their face-to-face time is entirely fictional.

    And even worse (and standard), if half the team is in one office and the rest are at home or in single satellite offices, the remote workers actually do miss out on a lot of the zoom meeting because the local group chit chats amongst themselves.

    I saw it constantly in our “team” meetings. With covid-19 and everybody working form home, we all got equalized and imo the meetings are much better and the camaraderie across the entire team is better because we are all treated the same way even by our co-workers.

  • Bob there is one other layer to this (sorry to mess up the quadrant). For the first time I am seeing employers fearful that employees will quit if remote working isn’t offered. While I fully agree with the process of determining the best fit for a job, the job market is brutal to find candidates and employers are fearful at a time that most companies are very busy (business is good). Plus – there is the old “it worked the last 15 months, why change it” argument.

    No doubt the office first model needs reconsidering, but the market isn’t allowing that to happen without a high degree of risk. It’s more about who will blink first sadly.

  • I don’t understand the emphasis on face time to creating relationships. Across the last 30 years I’ve worked in small offices, large offices, and teams distributed across several continents. I’ve nearly always gotten along better with people in different cities. We develop relationships based on clear communications. We usually have inside jokes based on shared experience, but know when to set those aside to get work done.

    The one time that I agree that face time is useful is at the beginning of a project, when key players gather to whiteboard the shape–or at least the initial direction–of the project. This is not a time to socialize! The only reason to gather is the increased bandwidth of everyone looking at the same whiteboard at the same time. Even that only helps if there is an acknowledged leader who can herd the cats.

  • #1 Agree completely that the nature of the work should dominate; but personal preference may play a role in how well in-person or online works.
    #2 By asking about the “desk” the conversation is limited to “knowledge” workers-neither surgeons nor ditchdiggers can work “remotely”. Nor can those repairing physical items, even very digital items like computers.
    #3 I am not sure faith that in-person is better than online for both trust and supervision should be so high. My daughter married someone she met online; to all appearances, the couple is doing fine these past 5plus years. The same daughter supervises people in the US, UK, and Costa Rica; she visits once per year or so, not once per week and she has been promoted several times (as one measure of how it is working). Some people (managers and workers) do better in one situation than another; some are just fine in either.

  • Coincidentally, I’ve recently seen articles about the 4day/32hour workweek, that included employee self-reported satisfaction with the plan. Although I didn’t formalize a quadrant, once I read the detail of the companies where that was working, I could see a certain pattern… certainly not a ‘one size fits all’!!

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