Posted on
February 8, 2024

What the Debate on WFH Isn’t Talking About

So much of the discussion on returning to the office is centered around productivity, and loose ideas on the value of “water-cooler conversations.” It’s also been framed as a battle between managers (“I need this to perform my role!”) and employees (“Don’t make me commute!”).  I’m oversimplifying, but you’ve been hearing and seeing the same things, I’m sure.

What we don’t hear is debate on how WFH affects decision quality, for both managers and direct contributors. This might be the real issue that underlies the tradeoffs.

Why don’t we hear more about it? Because we are nascent in our ability to talk about the current state, shape, and role of decision architectures in our organizations.

If we had a rich language for decision architecture, we could discuss how remote vs. in-person environments affect each aspect and capability within the decision architecture. My hunch is that the impact is negative overall, especially for decision architectures that are not-yet-structured and not-yet-digitized.

If decision speed and quality are negatively impacted, then business agility will suffer. This seems like something worth talking about….

Let’s expand on this discussion, focusing on strategic decision making. We could be talking about strategy at any level of the company, from a functional team, to a product organization, to the C-suite. Let’s assume that “good strategic decision making” includes each of these activities, to some degree:

  1. Sense-making
  2. What is the current situation?
  3. What is everyone seeing right now?
  4. Navigating uncertainty
  5. What are the known unknowns?
  6. What do you know about this topic that I might not know?
  7. Strategic conversations
  8. What are the possibilities?
  9. What would it take for this scenario to be true?
  10. Making choices
  11. What’s your perspective on this question?
  12. What are the options and tradeoffs?

These activities are explorations, and improve in quality when they can leverage collaborative groups, and face-to-face communication, at least for some of the activity. While all these activities demand some individual “System 2” (i.e. rational) reflection, strategy is inherently a “team sport”, so we need to grow awareness and shared understanding (as a group) to give it a chance at success.

Within these activities, good communication patterns will include healthy debate and disciplined dialog. But it takes a balance of structured discipline and unstructured openness. These activities get the needed space to breathe when they can occur outside of a constrained 1-hour meeting, and outside of a Zoom screen.

Communication in these activities is messy and non-linear. Humans have been doing these activities for thousands of years, and while there is no formula, we have instincts that know how to drive them forward. They don’t easily resolve to checklists and crisp agendas. Results and insights are more emergent.

Given these needs, does our current focus on productivity in WFH settings help or hinder? We want to be able to say: “If you are effective at getting your work done, then it doesn’t matter where you do it”, right? But focusing on productivity sends a message that these messy, impromptu explorations with other people are to be avoided. They happen at the expense of getting the work done.

How should we accommodate these activities… the activities that frame the work?

I think this is the issue behind the current debate. In the office, strategic decision making was often informal, highly instinctual, mostly unstructured.... but it happened every day, and those in leadership roles had effective ways of working in place to make, communicate, and activate decisions.

But for organizations that shared an office, those ways of working were put under stress when we started working from home.

  • From home, leaders couldn’t stop by a peer’s desk on the way back from a meeting room, sense their availability, and ask, “Got a minute?”
  • From home, people couldn’t physically gather around a whiteboard, using the whitespace as an invitation to explore and learn.
  • From home, leaders couldn’t sense the mood of their teams and solicit ground-truth insights with “management-by-walking-around”
  • From home, informal conversations often wouldn’t stretch out (when needed) when other (arguably, equally or more important) needs were ever-present, like helping with the kids, the dog, or getting lunch (with family, not co-workers)

It’s just different. Clearly better in many ways (i.e. no commute!!), but also clearly impactful to our pre-existing ways of working. And when conversations become different, those activities change.

Research is starting to help us understand the differences, including how video conferencing changes the way we cooperate, by changing our speech behavior. In a recent Stanford study, it was found that “online interactions tended to reduce a particular aspect of conversation known as turn-taking—switching speakers. In these virtual meetings, less turn-taking was linked to less positive feelings about the interaction.” (source)

Stephanie Balters, one of the leads of the study explained, "I think people can empathize with that. If you interrupt one another on Zoom all the time, it's kind of awkward, so it appears people just reduce this turn-taking initiation."

Turn-taking is a signal of healthy dialog, and it seems that without body language and social cues, we adopt different behaviors. And in larger online meetings, we might avoid taking a turn altogether, and just tune out (or multitask).

Another study, conducted by David Holtz of Berkeley Haas and colleagues at Microsoft, found that:

  • “Company-wide remote work caused workers’ collaboration networks to become less interconnected and more siloed. They communicated less frequently with people in other formal and informal business groups.”
  • “Remote work caused workers to spend about 25% less of their time collaborating with colleagues across groups, compared to pre-pandemic levels. Remote work also caused workers to add new collaborators more slowly.”
  • “Conversely, remote work led workers to communicate more frequently with people in their inner network, and to build more connections within that inner network.”
  • “Remote work caused workers to spend more time using asynchronous forms of communication, such as email and message platforms, and less time having synchronous conversations in person, by phone, or by video conference.”

So the breadth of people we talk to has reduced. Those middle managers that had found ways of working to effectively “glue” the organization together and make strategic decisions… they are under significant strain.

How can we address these differences that we see when we WFH?

One theme that has emerged from organizations that have found success with WFH (which might be more accurately called “distributed work” arrangements), is the need to make some things more intentional.

In the office, proximity served as a powerful enabling constraint (and yes, there’s also the proximity bias…). Proximity enabled the social binding and tristy that is essential for high-performance teams. It enabled unstructured conversations to “just happen” and this spark created momentum for the next round of questions to explore.

If physical proximity is gone now, what is needed to avoid the entropy that might follow?

We’ve seen organizations invest in “intentional togetherness” (via on-site, in-person gatherings) to reconnect and recharge the goodwill and trust that forms the foundation of great teams. This recognizes that some things that happened without intention, enabled by proximity, need something extra now, to sustain those valuable things, in the new normal.

The same considerations are needed for decision making.

Let’s think about each of those activities again:

  • If sense-making benefited from that “start-your-day” chat over coffee first thing in the morning at the office (“So I saw this article last night…” or “Did I tell you what this customer said yesterday on that call?”), what is our intentional substitute for this now?
  • If we navigated uncertainty before by asking “quick questions” in safe environments, with subtle reads of body language to test the emotional stakes, what is our intentional substitute for this now?
  • If the strategic conversations that sparked at the end of the lunch table, then spilled over into an unexpected (“I can’t believe it’s already 2:30!”), but rewarding, dialog are no longer as friction-free in our all-digital workplace, what is our intentional substitute for this now?
  • And finally, if the decision making that used to take place in an office, after a meeting, with someone on drawing on a whiteboard, someone sitting on the edge of the desk, and a decision maker leaning back in a chair, is now a series of asynchronous Slack messages, do we need an intentional substitute that can address the diminished communication bandwidth?

The common theme is the need for “intentional dialog”.

These activities don’t lend themselves to recipes and frameworks. Sense-making is observation and judgment. Navigating uncertainty is an activity where the path unfolds as you go. Strategic conversations are creative dialog that need room to breathe.

Structure? Yes. Discipline? Yes. Formulas? No.

If good strategy is emergent, then strategic decisions will sometimes feel emergent as well. We should aim to create good initial conditions for our activities, by building the context, then pay close attention to what emerges, why it emerged, and how the context helped shape it.

A context for intentional dialog is framed by an environment that encourages:

  • Acknowledgment of uncertainty
  • Transparency of open questions
  • Transparency of beliefs and assumptions
  • Examinations of causality
  • Structured (and some unstructured) explorations
  • Learning from others
  • Healthy debate and disagreement
  • Forcing functions for re-evaluations (via cadence or triggers)

These are also the factors that drive the constraints we introduce to build out strong decision architectures. We build decision architectures when we “decide how to decide”... and this must be intentional, now more than ever.