Three Slightly Ranty Thoughts on “Back” to Normal

All kinds of people are talking about “back” to normal. However, I see several problems:

  • Many of those same people think there's a talent shortage. (Management can't hire people  for the same salaries they used to pay.)
  • Or, that while managers might want people “back” in the office,  not everyone wants to work in an office. (People realize they don't have to waste time in a commute and the office isn't actually collocated.)
  • Worst of all, too many managers still want to micromanage people—and that's more difficult when people aren't in the office.

“Back” to normal cheats us out of our learning. “Forward” to something new helps us create more possibilities. (Early in the pandemic, I wrote that we will have to We Won't Return to Normal; We Will Discover Normal.)

Here are my three rants and ways we might rethink our situation.

Rant 1: There's a Talent Shortage

Do you remember the “software crisis” of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s? I've worked in the software industry since the 1970s. In all that time, someone's moaning about not enough people. (I wrote an article in 2001: Crisis? What Crisis? A Contrarian Perspective. I still agree with everything in there.)

When people say there's a talent shortage, they really mean: “We can't hire people for what we're willing to pay them.”

I happen to work mostly with relatively highly paid software professionals. However, I keep reading about hourly work, where once managers increased the salaries, the managers hired people who were better employees. (See the Pittsburgh ice cream shop story.) The employees no longer fret about whether they can piece together enough hours to make a real living. They can focus on the here and now.

What about knowledge workers? Same idea applies. Years ago, I consulted with a software company that purposefully hired from the “bottom of the barrel.” (Their words.) They wanted to manage their salary expenses.

They hired me because they were in danger of going out of business due to their inability to release a working product. That's because they had an architecture that couldn't scale, people who couldn't do the work, and a mess of a product. (Not to mention a “team” that couldn't stand each other and didn't collaborate.)

They changed their strategy and offered slightly above-market salaries and now they have a sustainable business.

We don't have a talent shortage. We have short-sighted managers who live the myth that lower wages mean you get less expensive products. (See Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization for this myth and what to do instead.)

There's no talent shortage. There's a disconnect between what managers want to pay and what people want.

Then there's the disconnect of “back” in the office.

Rant 2: Everyone Back in the Pool! (the Office)

I keep hearing about companies that say, “Everyone must be in the office every day, five days a week.” Some companies want people in the office at least four days a week. Then there are choose-your-day(s) companies.

These managers think that people will be collocated in the office and that work will happen faster. That's not what I see.

My experience is that the supposed collocated teams are not collocated. (See Understanding Distance for a Geographically Distributed Team.) As soon as people sit more than 8 meters apart, they tend not to work with each other. They store up their questions and work alone.

What did we prove during the pandemic? That people can collaborate, especially if we give them the right tools. The half-duplex phone? No. The video conferencing tool that doesn't show everyone? No.

When we work remotely, with the right tools, we have a better working environment than working alone in the office. Anyone can call a meeting at almost a moment's notice—and everyone has a seat. Not like now, where meeting rooms are scarce and God forbid when you need another 15 minutes to finish your work. No, you have to give up your meeting room for the next meeting.

That said, I still want people to get together on a regular basis. At a minimum, quarterly. Some teams need to get together once a month for their work. However, most of us can work away from the office for weeks or months at a time.

That's because remote work is not the same as work from home. Just because we worked from home since March 2020 does not mean that's the only way to be remote.

When people don't have to manage their commute time, they often gain a higher quality of life. Just as with people who make enough money (and that changes for every job), a higher quality of life means people deliver more for the company.

I just saw this: The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?

I hope we are. And one way we can be ready is to avoid management micromanagement.

Rant 3: A Finger on the Pulse or Micromanagement?

Even when people worked from home these many months, some managers intruded on their work with micromanagement. Sometimes, that's because the organization creates an environment that rewards micromanagement. (Any time you tell a manager that his or her job is to release the product, you'll get that micromanagement. Instead, tell the manager to create the environment where the team can release the product.)

Note: the managers who mandate in-person work? They're micromanaging, not trusting the people and teams to choose for themselves.

However, sometimes, managers micromanage because the company promoted the best technical person into management. That expert didn't receive management training. No one suggested any management book to read. I  know of many smart people who think they can master all the technical work and all the management work. I've met 5 people like that in my entire career.  I am not one of them.

Then there's the “what you see” problem. You don't have to raise your hand, but how many of you have seen managers who did not micromanage? Most of us work for micromanagers. If you've never seen micromanagement, you have no idea that you could manage another way. (I suggested ways in Leadership Tip #9 about micromanagement.)

Managers need to select actions that create a balance between people running open-loop and micromanagement. I like starting with trust and asking if people understand the work; if they need anything; and when I can expect to see a demo or results. The more often I see progress, the less likely I am to micromanage.

Okay, I got that off my chest. Now, what can we do?

What's Your Forward to Normal?

Consider how you can move forward to normal.

  1. What value do you want people to provide to their team and the organization? Assess the pay for that work and offer a reasonable salary.
  2. How often does each team need to work in real-time with other people? Can they sit together, inside the Allen Curve of 8 meters? Do you have enough meeting rooms for people to meet together whenever they want to?? Can you be more flexible and trust people to do the right thing?
  3. What would you have to do to create an environment of trust instead of micromanagement?

Define the outcomes you want, not the outputs. You can create a great organization where people want to work.

Okay, I finished my ranting. Let the comments begin!

4 thoughts on “Three Slightly Ranty Thoughts on “Back” to Normal”

  1. There are several activities for which online telecommuting doesn’t fit. This is because the computer screen isn’t big enough yet. These fall under… let’s call it “big strategies.” One example is writing a proposal for a contract. We post the requirements on the wall. We walk along the wall and talk and post suggestions along the wall. We can stand back and see everything at a glance. There are other “big strategy” activities like this. More people in the room helps.
    Do this when needed. Allow commuting time. Provide food and beverage and other services (child care is an example) as needed. Be ready for these gatherings, i.e., don’t waste everyone’s time!

    1. Exactly. I like your name of “big strategies.” One of my examples is my project portfolio workshops. In person, we put cards on the wall. We can move them around, discuss them, and choose what to do. The wall makes it easier to see the magnitude of the organization’s WIP. Online, I have not yet been able to reproduce that feeling when managers see all the work.

      Yes, we need to support each person—not just the in-person food and beverage, but the support for people to leave their homes, such as childcare.

      Thanks for a good phrase for this, the “big strategy” activities.

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