When I was working in consulting there was an unspoken truth. To say it would undermine 75% of the work that these firms do each day.
That truth is that most companies will not change without a genuine crisis.
Right now, every company finds itself in a crisis. From the supermarkets who are realizing they are the most essential business in their community to the office that has completed a 100% shift to remote work in less than 24 hours.
This short essay is a letter to the leaders of the companies in that second category who’s work is already digital, but the operations and day-to-day reality of the company are still rooted in an office-based existence.
It’s time to wake the f*ck up.
While most business leaders understand working remotely at an intellectual level, not many understand the psychological shifts required to operate in a new way.
I’m not talking about tools and tactics. I’m talking about vulnerability and discomfort.
The good news for you is that everyone in your organization will have a dose of discomfort. Workers who are used to the pressure and coercion of an office environment to keep them working and the directives of a hands-on manager will find themselves with more freedom and less structure than they are used to. In response many will either overwork or become demotivated. They will struggle with trying to craft their own workday, keep themselves accountable and keep momentum without the daily ritual of coming to an office.
You will likely struggle with many of the same things, but you need to resist the urge to double down on command and control tactics and instead embrace a different mindset and approach to navigate this new terrain.
Are the people that work at your company machines or humans? No, Really.
I was recently having a conversation with a friend who’s company had made the shift to remote and wanted to know how to think about the conversation he was about to have with the VP of HR.
I suggested that before they dive in to setting policies, rules and optimizing the tech stack, they should have a frank conversation about how they view people that work at the company.
- People who produce things and should always orient towards being as efficient and productive as possible?
- People that live complex and messy lives who generally want to do good work at the company
This isn’t a trick question and I’m not going to waste your time trying to paint a thought-leader Utopian vision of “perfect work.”
No one needs that right now.
The brutal reality of work is that we pretend #1 is true while operating with the fact that the second definition is in fact the reality.
Because of those same thought leaders that get paid by corporations to give exciting speeches, no one is ever willing to tell you this. Even though most companies have a well designed culture PR program telling you how important you are to them and that they want to help you develop, grow and feel included, the day-to-day operating logic of most companies dictates behaviors and norms that reinforce a view of humans as machines to be controlled and optimized.
So then the real crisis of shifting to remote work is not about which tools to embrace or how to “make sure people do their work” but instead cutting the bullshit and actually embracing the total messiness and uncertain reality that your workers are in fact human.
The kind that rather take a nap than show up for a meeting, the kind that actually has kids in real life instead of just on their health care plans, the kind that struggle with their relationship at home instead of the cookie cutter view you get at the holiday party.
We don’t need to abandon efficiency, we just need to create a little room for people to breathe.
The part where I get a bit feisty but also try to give you a hug
I’m going to get a little heated right now and say this again to you dear leader, because as someone in a high ranking position in a company today, you likely enough money, resources and connections to make it through this crisis well.
It’s time to wake the fuck up.
You are not in fact a worker. You are a messy human too. You may have even had to hide your own vulnerability and insecurity early on in your career to get to where you are.
I see you.
I see you and I think you deserve compassion too. Maybe even a hug. Okay, definitely a hug.
As a former over-eager junior employee, I was often impatient with senior leaders who were cold, distant and power hungry. I was quick to criticize, but slow to listen and understand.
Over time I’ve realized that many of these leaders have had to compromise a lot to get where they are and feel like they are stuck in a sort of performative success that demands they pretend like they have everything together.
It’s time to loosen the grip on yourself and soften up to the opportunities, vulnerability and messiness of the moment.
Do you want to be loved?
I’m not asking you to ignore what might go wrong because I know you can handle that. I’m asking you to embrace a “both/and” approach and to look towards possibility and start asking yourself:
- How can I help people design their workdays and weeks to stay sane and support their family and community right now?
- How can I empower people who might be young, but digitally-savvy to help design new processes and norms around how we work?
- How can I let people fail in ways where they feel supported and the team can learn from what went wrong?
- How can I share my own insecurities and challenges during this transition?
- How can we give people small gifts to use their own judgement to buy things that might help them work better from home (e.g. a plant, a desk, a new camera, some toys for their kids)?
- How can I avoid making the mistakes that every company makes and learn from the companies who have been operating remotely for 10+ years? (e.g. the founders of Basecamp and Automattic are good places to start)
Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiment:
Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely…He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful
As much as this may be hard to believe, 99% of people in the business world do in fact want to be loved. Especially leaders.
Dear leader, this is your chance to start a new story.