Quadrant charts (multidimensional scaling in two dimensions if you want to get all technical about it) are handy tools for visualizing patterns in data. They’re especially handy for oversimplifying complex situations, as several of you pointed out in response to last week’s column on determining which employee roles most and least lend themselves to remote work. Check out the comments: Where your desk should be – IS Survivor Publishing and scroll to the bottom.

And make no mistake about it. My quadrant-oriented analysis, based on the importance of process management and strong interpersonal relationships – was seriously oversimplified. To help de-over-simplify it, here are a few additional random thoughts and comments:

Pre-existing relationships: If relationship building drives the need for a role to be performed on-premises, why should teams that have already formed (and stormed, and normed) have to commute to their on-premises cubicles?

Answer: For pre-established teams, on-site face-to-face interactions might not matter, at least, not at first. But teams aren’t static entities. Over time, some members might “call in rich,” transfer to a different team, or be promoted to a different role. Meanwhile, new members might join and need integration into team functioning. Just my opinion: There isn’t yet a technological substitute for the chemistry of in-person team interaction for building the trust and shared understandings required for maximum team effectiveness.

We can’t be face-to-face anyway: In international enterprises, teams are often composed of members scattered across all latitudes and longitudes (well, maybe not all – few businesses employee Antarcticans or, for that matter, Guamians, but you get the idea). Bringing teams physically together can be too expensive, and the logistics too complicated to be practical.

It’s a key factor in the ability of SMBs (small-to-medium-size businesses) to compete with their larger competitors: They have the advantage of operating out of a single location, with no concerns about what, in an earlier column, I called the “soft bigotry of time zones” and the “softer bigotry of accents.” Cohesion is, in relative terms, easy.

It’s a competitive advantage because SMBs can, for the most part, bring team members together as needed, achieving alignment and trust more quickly and easily through proximity and similarity.

But this isn’t an unmixed blessing. SMBs often suffer from the disadvantage of excessive sameness. When everyone looks and largely thinks alike, “out-of-the-box thinking” and “not-in-the-company thinking” are the same.

Especially, SMB decision-makers are more prone than their larger competitors to assume their customers are just like them.

International or multinational/global businesses face the challenge of achieving the trust and alignment that happen naturally in an SMB, substituting sophistication in the use of collaboration technologies for the simplicity of physical presence.

SMBs face the obverse challenge.

Power: Employers are accustomed to having it; employees are accustomed to … well, to employers having it. But right now (nobody knows how long it will last), good employees are hard to find and know they have some leverage. So an employee’s preference for working remotely can’t just be written off as “That’s why they call it work.”

It’s akin to the early days of unionization. Employers then had to face the jarring realization that they couldn’t just call the shots anymore. Employees could and did negotiate with management from a position of significant strength.

Perhaps there are insights to be gleaned from this history.

Culture: Culture inflates the team-level characteristics of trust and alignment to enterprise scale.

Culture is far too big a subject to squeeze into a space this small. For today, consider that culture is, for the most part, a reflection of leader behavior. In on-premises SMBs the reflection is a high-fidelity image. The larger and more dispersed the organization, the more it’s like what you’d see in a fun-house mirror.

Bob’s last word: If achieving trust and alignment at a team level is hard when interactions are limited to what collaboration technologies allow, promoting a company-wide culture in a large, dispersed enterprise is orders of magnitude harder.

And yet, without a healthy and cohesive culture, leaders might as well relegate themselves to an operating model in which workgroups, departments, and divisions interact as if they’re all outsourcers, delivering their work products to their (gawd) “internal customers’” inputs while negotiating service level agreements that look a lot like arm’s length contracts.

Bob’s sales pitch: My ManagementSpeak cupboard is bare. Keep your ears open and send in your favorite euphemisms, obfuscations, and oxymorons. What you’ll get in return is the admiration of your fellow members of the KJR community (if I can attribute you as the source), or the secret satisfaction that comes from anonymity (if I can’t).

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.