Heather here.

According to BBC Radio 4 this morning, Next (the multinational clothes and homeware retailer) has reported one of the downsides of home-working as ‘missing the cauldron of creativity’ that happens when people are together. I don’t know if ‘cauldron’ is the reporter’s term or if this is the actual word Next used. Either way, I’m not sure that the image of ‘witches brew’ that it evokes quite works.

Nonetheless, the report captured one of the hot debates around just now – the pros and cons of office vs home-based working. You’ve engaged in a few of these conversations yourself recently, I have no doubt.

Whether you’re currently deciding if people in your business should return to the workplace, you’re making the decision on a personal level or you simply enjoy the cut and thrust of the heated debate the topic generates, this is an important topic.

In our conversations with business leaders over the last few weeks, there are several different categories of work roles and individual preferences here. There are the roles that must be done at the workplace – as one CEO in an engineering company said ‘It’s hard to build a five-storey underground car park from home’ :-). There are the individuals who are keen to get back to the workplace. There are those who are keen to work from home. It’s not rocket science at an individual level, but it is a complex problem when looked at systemically because there are so many different needs to meet.

It is inevitable that, in meeting all of those different needs, somebody’s going to lose out. This is a situation where you can’t please all of the people. But how can you as a leader make this situation as palatable as possible for everyone impacted? 

Here are three top points I’d recommend you consider.

1.   Whether or not you’re asking people to return to the workplace, begin with Simon Sinek’s advice and ‘first start with why.’ Get really clear about this. 

Then, because this decision impacts people at a deeply personal level, make sure ’the why’ is compelling. This is not the time for a mediocre reason or even one that works against you!

But what makes for a ‘compelling’ why? It’s simple: a compelling why is something that people believe is true, believe will impact them imminently, and one that they care about. For a why to be compelling, it must meet all three criteria. As not everyone will care about the same things, this means that you might need a number of different whys. Note here: if you have several different whys, make sure they don’t contradict one another!!

It can take time to really work out compelling whys, but you will save everyone a lot of time and hassle when you do.

2.   Now, some of you will be crying out ‘hang on, Heather, we’re giving people the choice whether or not to return to the workplace.’ That’s fantastic because people love choice. In ’The Art of Choosing’, Sheena Lyengar points out that this is a trait humans share with rats, monkeys and pigeons – interesting. 

But don’t fall into the trap of assuming this means that all choice is good choice. It isn’t! 

For a start, too much choice overwhelms us, so don’t simply throw the topic wide open and ask people to decide. Be clear about the options that are available (remembering to set out the compelling whys that underpin them). Then, ask people to decide.

Choice is also not great when we’re asked to decide about something we don’t care about. One well-intentioned leader, having decided that his team will work from home for the foreseeable future, asked if they’d rather be given a budget to choose their own desks or if they’d prefer to simply have desks provided for them. People didn’t actually want either of these because they already had workspaces set up at home. In one sense, not a major issue but the leader was frustrated because he’d wasted time and effort negotiating with various departments at work so that he could make this option available to his team.

3.   Make sure the choice you are offering is genuine. Do not fall into the trap of appearing to consult even though you have already made up your mind about what will happen. You are not a good enough actor to pull this one off. People will see through your ploy; and, it will cause frustration and damage trust. 

Far better to share your decision (along with your compelling why) and then work through people’s response to it. Oh, and a final point with this one, if people would prefer a different approach and come up with a compelling why that demonstrates why their preference is better than yours, be prepared to change your mind and accept that you’ve been out-compelled on this one.

That’s it for now. 

Stay safe, stay connected and catch you next time.

Workplace vs home office – how to have a meaningful conversation