Originally published in the Globe & Mail October 28, 2022
As organizations attempt to transition to a business-as-usual environment after two-and-a-half years of a pandemic, they are diving into new ways of working. Many are considering a hybrid model, where employees split days between the office and a remote location. However, if employers don’t provide a compelling reason to trade the comforts of home for long commutes, an “us versus them” power struggle between leadership and workers may emerge.
To break through the inertia, some companies are mandating anchor days when the team or whole company is requested or required to be in the office on specific days. For example, Uber just announced workers must return to the office starting Nov. 1, with Tuesdays and Thursdays as anchor days.
At first, I had a visceral reaction to the concept. After all, isn’t it counter to the flexibility we are trying to support, by essentially imposing new rules that don’t work for everyone? Having had experience transitioning to a hybrid working model in 2010 and again in 2014, I observed that if you empower teams, leaders and individuals to figure out how, where and when to get their work done, they do.
Sure, they may make mistakes along the way, but most get into a rhythm by trying and learning. This trial-and-error process is an important step in building ownership and accountability for outcomes, where location and schedule are simply a means to an end, not the end in and of itself.
While I used to be against anchor days, I now see them as similar to training wheels, providing a tangible construct to support employees in building new habits, before they are ready to ride on their own.
According to the latest Microsoft Work Trends Index, 73 per cent of employees surveyed want a more compelling reason to be in the office than “because I said so.” The reason should be clearly communicated, connected to the company’s purpose and values, and considerate of individual needs.
In this transitory period, it may not be enough to articulate “why” we should be in the office (some of the time). Leaders may need to suggest what would be beneficial to do on anchor days, so we don’t have the worst of both worlds – hard to find space (as a result of fewer desks and hot-desking) with lots of people in virtual meetings all day.
In his book, Remote not Distant, Gustavo Razzetti talks about six work modes for distributed teams. Each of these modes can be classified along two dimensions: “me versus we time” and “deep versus shallow work.” In doing so, we can better identify activities best suited to our in-office days. Here are a few ways leaders can help their teams prioritize on anchor days:
1. Deep collaboration: One of Mr. Razzetti’s six identified modes is Deep Collaboration (for example, teamwork without distraction, to accomplish a single task together). Not all collaboration is best accomplished in-person – it has been shown that an asynchronous and remote form can mitigate bias and groupthink. However, when we need to focus as a team on accomplishing one common task or goal, being together in the same room can enable quicker alignment and decision making.
2. On-the-job learning: Data from The Power of Proximity study suggests people give and receive more regular feedback when in proximity with people on their teams, even in a digital world. This type of feedback is considered “on the job” and/or “in the flow” learning, which is a critical component of building new skills.
3. Exchanging human energy: Or “casual collaboration,” per Mr. Razzetti. The Microsoft report indicates that:
- 85 per cent of employees would be motivated to go into the office to rebuild team bonds.
- 84 per cent would be motivated to go into the office if they could socialize with coworkers.
- 74 per cent would go to the office more frequently if they knew their “work friends” were there.
- 73 per cent would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members would be there.
People miss and care about their work friends: it’s that simple.
Hybrid work, if implemented thoughtfully and given time to normalize, creates many win-wins for organizations and employees. Eventually, I believe anchor days can go away once people naturally recognize when they should and like to be with people versus not, and self-organize that way.
But until then, implementing such days, including clearly communicating the “whys” and suggested “whats,” is a temporary solution to encourage meaningful, intentional in-person interaction.