In December the Treasury Board of Canada ordered that, starting in mid-January, all employees would be expected to return to the office for two to three days a week. Among the stated goals were: Innovation, Creativity, Fairness, and Consistency. This all ties in well with the Agile Manifesto which includes the principle “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”
Prior to the pandemic, I would have trotted out reason after reason, study after study, why this was always 100% the best choice. I would have gone on to show that Team Rooms are generally more productive. (Hint: if you have an office, giving them a Team Room is generally a much better choice). I know from experience that working face-to-face increases collaboration, creativity, and innovation, so I should be applauding the Treasury Board’s decree.
I’m not. And here’s why…
Does Remote Work… Work?
COVID-19 swept into our awareness in March 2020 and upended our lives. We were required to move to remote work. As a result, that question has been well studied:
- Remote Work Productivity Study Finds Surprising Reality: 2-Year Analysis: “Working from home is just as productive as working in the office – possibly more so.”
- Research: Knowledge Workers Are More Productive from Home: “We are spending 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners.”
- Remote work – a forced experiment during the Covid-19 era or a lasting value?: “Under normal circumstances, remote work increases productivity and helps people to strike a better balance between their work and family life.”
- Working From Home Under Covid-19 Lockdown: Transitions and Tensions: “we found that almost nine in ten workers (88.4%) said that they had got more done or as much done as in the office pre-lockdown, and just over one in ten felt they were doing less.”
It wasn’t all roses. Challenges that are apparent:
- Some people find working from home more stressful
- Others had problems with internet bandwidth
- Some suggest there is a loss of creativity
It is worth reading the reports referenced for a lot more detail. The key, however, is that it does suggest that people were as/more productive. In addition, they were happier. That will become important in a moment.
How 2-3 Days a Week in the Office is Working
The claim the government made is “Bringing in this common approach of two to three days in the workplace … will help with having in-person teamwork and collaboration. But also, the one factor it will really help is the fairness and equity issue”.
Collaboration is good in the Agile world. So let’s see how this policy is helping.
To improve “teamwork, collaboration and creativity”, we need people to be in the office at the same time, working in the same place. Preferably, we want people in team rooms. Except, as it’s been mandated by Treasury Board, there is no reason that the whole team will be in the office on the same day. From the people I’ve heard from, there is no coordination of who shows up on which day, so people go into the office but still don’t see their team. Instead, they join the same MS Teams/Zoom meeting they would have from home, except that they’re at the office.
But wait, it gets worse.
Suppose for a moment that you and a teammate make it to the office on the same day, then face-to-face conversations will surely happen, right? Not so fast. Many departments are moving to a hotdesk/reserve-a-desk approach. Some people even reserve desks with their team but, when they arrive, their reserved desk is occupied by a stranger. In many cases, I hear stories of not getting a desk on the same floor as the other person from their team who is in that day. So the theory is great, but the practice is, at best, a failure thus far.
Engagement at Work
Employee engagement is critical to an organization’s success. It’s the difference between a person who comes in to do a job, collect a pay cheque, and go home, and an engaged individual who is there to help solve a problem and make something better. An actively disengaged employee will sabotage their own work as well as the work of others. Gallup has documented a lack of engagement as one of the bigger problems in the modern work place.
When we have engaged people on our team, magic happens:
- Performance – engaged team members are more productive as individuals
- Collaboration is easier – when people are disengaged, collaboration is reduced because people don’t feel that their work has a purpose
- Retention – engaged people stay with their employer longer, which means tacit knowledge stays in the building
- Better quality and customer satisfaction – as our engagement goes up, so does pride of ownership
- Less Burnout – engagement is a protective factor in preventing burnout and maintaining mental health
The importance of engagement at work could occupy an entire blog post in itself.
How Does the Change to Remote Work Affect Engagement?
Anything that negatively affects motivation will harm engagement. I will cherry-pick elements from the ARC and SCARF motivational models that I share in the Advanced Certified ScrumMaster workshops.
- Autonomy – As humans we have a strong need to control the way we do things. Consider the reaction you get when you tell another family member how to do some work in the kitchen. In this case, Treasury Board has taken away a lot of people’s autonomy. They no longer have the freedom to choose how often to go into the office.
- Fairness – Allegedly this change was made to ensure fairness. Simplistically, everyone is treated the same way, but most individuals don’t feel that they’re being treated fairly. Most were productive while working remotely. They feel that their accomplishments during the pandemic are being ignored. For some people this reaction is so strong, they’re looking for employers who are embracing remote work.
- Fairness – When a change is imposed from the top in an organization, it rarely works well. Fairness is violated in this case, because people don’t feel like they had a voice in the change. I don’t think that Treasury Board can make true collaborative decisions with 300,000 people. But I do think they could have created guidelines and given departments room inside those guidelines to experiment.
Outside the motivational models, there are many other ways that this harms people at work, including:
- Child care – Many people changed their child care arrangements or [shock] had new kids during the height of the pandemic. Now they’re magically expected to find childcare arrangements that will accomodate two or three days a week. This in the city of Ottawa where there was already a shortfall of childcare options.
- Stress – No one has told me that they enjoyed their pre-pandemic commute. Insisting that people start driving downtown again simply brings that stress back into their world with no benefit to offset it.
Other Challenges of Mandatory Office Attendance
- It limits hiring options. Remote work made it possible for the government to hire people anywhere across Canada. The change means we’re back to the same pool we always had.
- Remote team members are forced to be in an office with no colleagues. Imagine a team in Ottawa hires a person in Calgary. There is little point in forcing the person in Calgary to commute to an office when their team isn’t there.
- It limits the hiring pool. LinkedIn announced over a year ago that remote jobs got 50% of all applicants. If the government is committed to hiring the best people, then this policy says “no” to many of them, even before a job ad goes up.
Not All Pixie Dust and Goodness
Remote work isn’t a magical solution to everything. There are some real challenges that need to be addressed. One of the things I’ve heard throughout the pandemic is that, while the work is getting done, people have less sense of their team and teammates. People clearly need time together to renew bonds. Pre-pandemic, many remote-only companies would get the whole company together in person once to twice a year. A recent survey published in The Conversations suggests that many people would like one day a week in the office.
Allowing each department to do its own thing was creating unfairness, however, Treasury Board has done something worse in that it left everyone feeling unfairly treated.
One size doesn’t fit all. CSE, CSIS and parts of the Department of Defence can only operate on a secured network, in a secured facility. Even during the height of the pandemic their work happened in the office. In addition, entire classes of work (Coast Guard, active military units, Emergency Operations Centre, …), need people to be physical present and will never be remote.
What Should Organizations and Leaders Do?
The argument about just returning to the way it was before is specious, that world no longer exists. We live in a world where remote work has been proven viable (with caveats). We can’t wind the clock back. I’ve updated my hard-set, previously-held beliefs, and it’s time that organizations do the same.
In theory, I should address this section to Mona Fortier and the Treasury Board Secretariat. In practice, I don’t think I have their ear. Decisions on how to make hybrid or full remote work, in the long run, should be made at the level of the people they affect – the people actually doing the work. The best choice would be to have leaders wading through the evidence carefully, summarizing it, and sharing it with their teams. Then either the teams are trusted to make their own choices or, if a degree of coordination is required, decisions should be made by creating a larger, temporary group with representation from each team. In the latter case, the group helps to decide the policy around things like how often people need to be back in the office, and they also help with the implementation (e.g. which teams go into the office on which days).
For teams that are remote full-time, then the team(s) need to decide how to recreate the missing social connections. They also need more explicit effort with activities to help spark connections for creativity and innovation.
On the off-chance that Treasury Board is interested in a conversation, the same formula applies. Summarize the research, share it with the departments, and trust people within each department to make decisions that are best for them. Every six to eight months, gather data on what is working at the departmental level and share it out across the whole government.
We shouldn’t force people to do what is familiar and comfortable just because it’s what was done before. Not only does it invalidate new discoveries (like that people still work hard when at home) but it misses all opportunity to benefit from change and evolution. That is most definitely not being Agile.
Update: I shared this article in our newsletter along with the question “What would you set as the required number of office days each week for your team members if you made the rules?” We received many interesting replies from people around the world.
Some respondents were behaving like true systems thinkers, by considering the environmental impact of commuting. Another agreed, explaining that if you live in a major city where the average commute is 2-3 hours a day, travel time is a big issue. They believe most people gladly work 8-10 hours days when they are home, but they are less likely to do that when they also have to fight with traffic and, when they do arrive at the office, they’re not at their best.
The stress of travel was a common experience. One reader reported that they ended up quitting their position because they were being forced back into the office. They found a new job that is 100% remote, with an office that people are free to use when they want to. With the removal of the commuting time, they said they hadn’t realized how stressful it had been and how much it affected them and made them exhausted before.
They weren’t the only one who quit under pressure to return to the office. Another reader left their municipal government position after 15 years because they were ordered back to the office. The key reason they were given was to bring people to the central city, spending money and adding to the vibe. They acknowledged that was an admirable goal, but it wasn’t their job, nor were they being compensated for the increased local purchases they were expected to make.
In regard to collaboration, having pairing sessions over zoom reportedly helped teams gel with each other and avoid the feeling of isolation. One reader leans toward one day at work max per week where employees attend as needed. In their senior role, they make an effort to meet team members for lunch, which reportedly works well for morale and social interactions. They wisely pointed out that there are many better ways to keep track of work than just attendance in the office.
Others talked about the importance of flexibility to balance work life and personal life, as long as commitment is maintained to contribute the hours they’re paid for.
The topic really resonated with many people. “Let the team decide what they need” was a common theme in the replies, demonstrating a strong understanding of Scrum and Agile philosophies. Another point made was that if a team managed to be effective during a pandemic, they will certainly still be effective when the pandemic is not there to drain their resources.
I liked seeing people take a wide viewpoint. There is no one answer appropriate for everyone, and there are plenty of pros and cons to be considered. Some readers commented that they found it good for their mental and professional health to get out of the house and interact with colleagues a day or two a week. This was interesting balanced against those who reported improved mental health from not having to deal with commuting.
One reader found the mandate to return to work pretty hypocritical. In addition to the carbon footprint effects of forcing employees to come onsite, they pointed out that the pandemic allowed companies the flexibility to create teams that were distributed geographically. The result is that now, when forced back to the office, they still need to conduct meetings online to include colleagues in other cities.
This distributed team awkwardness was mentioned by another reader who shared that they personally prefer either 100% in-person or 100% remote, and that half the team in the conference room and half dialed in feels clunky. Another suggested two days would be their preference since their sprint ceremonies and refinement can all happen in that time.
One long-time alumni shared that his company has gone fully work from home and it’s working well for them. They reportedly have no plans to force anyone back into the office, and plan to end their lease when it comes up for renewal. They’ve opened their hiring to anywhere in Canada, and have roughly doubled in size over COVID. They report that, from a team experience, it has been positive but the challenge does remain for organizational connectedness since it’s hard to get to know colleagues on other teams very well when you’re not in a shared location.
An excellent question that was brought up: What problem is an organization trying to solve by bringing people into the office? Some suggested that management decisions to force people might be the product of historical habit, or perhaps even leadership desires to try to control employees, rather than trust them to do their jobs.
I agree that paranoia is one reason many managers don’t like remote work. Consider the following observation in “Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong?”:
“85% of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive. And as some organizations use technology to track activity rather than impact, employees lack context on how and why they’re being tracked, which can undermine trust and lead to ‘productivity theater.’ This has led to productivity paranoia: where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased.”
Another interesting article: “Think Hybrid Work Doesn’t Work? The Data Disagrees”.
While hybrid work isn’t preferred by everyone, it’s undeniable that the freedom to choose the where has a direct and profound impact on the what and how for teams.
I’d love to hear your take on the issue, too. Please comment below.
Another reference that is worth mentioning: https://hbr.org/2022/10/4-myths-about-in-person-work-dispelled
Mark Levison has been helping Scrum teams and organizations with Agile, Scrum and Kanban style approaches since 2001. From certified scrum master training to custom Agile courses, he has helped well over 8,000 individuals, earning him respect and top rated reviews as one of the pioneers within the industry, as well as a raft of certifications from the ScrumAlliance. Mark has been a speaker at various Agile Conferences for more than 20 years, and is a published Scrum author with eBooks as well as articles on InfoQ.com, ScrumAlliance.org an AgileAlliance.org.