Pardon my french, but the whole discussion about where and how people are allowed to work from, is dumb. Too harsh? Maybe. At the very least it misses the point and only scrapes the surface of a more fundamental question. Please allow me to share a short story with you to make my case.
Once upon a time in California, I took an epic Leaders in Cars Getting Coffee ride with the legendary Dan Walker, former Chief Talent Officer of Apple. During our cruise along Pacific Coast highway in a 1955 Porsche 356, Dan shared a wonderful short story with me to get a glimpse of the Leader that Steve Jobs was.
This is during the early resurgence of Apple, setting its course to becoming the first billion dollar company. Jobs had just returned to initiate the most famous turnaround above the waterline (see what I did there, L. David Marquet? 😂). Apple’s upward trend did not go un-noticed. Soon Steve started to receive many a call from CEOs in Silicon Valley to send his Chief Talent Officer Dan for a keynote on ‘how to be as successful as Apple’. The conversations would go a little like this:
CEO: “Good morning Steve! How are you?”
Jobs: “I got things to invent, get to the point.”
CEO: “Say, would you send your Chief Talent Officer Dan Walker over here to teach my Leaders how to be as awesome as Apple?”
CEO: “The line was bad there for a moment…did you say no?”
CEO: “You narcisist!! You’re so high on yourself, you can’t even share some lessons?”
Jobs: “Nope. Look. Let’s shortcut this. I have a question for you. Do you agree with me that Performance Management is a waste of time?”
Jobs: “Would you agree that performance management never made anyone perform better, or was anything else than a bureaucratic exercise that stole your people’s time?”
CEO: “Well…now that you point it out…I’d have to agree.”
Jobs: “Here is the Apple conclusion: Stop it.”
CEO: “Stop what.”
Jobs: “Stop performance management. You just agreed it’s a waste of time. That’s what we did at Apple. We simply stoped it. Now we spend that time on creating insanely great products.”
CEO: “…but we can’t just stop…”
Jobs: “See, that’s why I am not sending Dan. It’s a waste of our time and yours.”
CEO: “Now hold on a minu….”
Click. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.
Jobs instilled a sense of being as consequential in Apple’s Enterprise design as in its products.
No, Jobs wasn’t a t*rd-blossom. Instead he instilled a sense of being as consequential in Apple’s Enterprise design as in its products.
This mentality matches his now famous quote, that “it doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
It follows that your people - given a level of maturity, technical competency and clarity about the purpose and priorities of the organization, should determine when, where and how to make their contributions. Period.
Everything else is corporate angst manifested in half-assed hybrid systems and fearful, iterative change. Covid19 pushed companies into a scenario of completely remote work overnight. The uncaring pandemic bypassed all of management’s tepid decision-making and worker’s council objections that the sky might fall. Surprise, surprise, the world did not end. Teams adapted. Some better. Some worse. Some faster. Some slower. In essence, the Corona virus forced the organizational hand to begrudgingly act like Steve Jobs.
Radical change led to learning quicker than theoretical discussion led to change.
However, now that the world is slowly contemplating a return to a new, post-pandemic normal, the usual organisational habits are back at play. While some organizations vow to go to a new way where people can choose how to work, we also hear a lot of talk about hybrid models. That people demand to go back to the office. That this was an emergency, but that people need to be back in the office. That’s non-sense. This is NOT a complicated discussion.
Dan and I agree that HR has one job: Make it insanely easy for teams to contribute awesome products!
HR has one job: Make it insanely easy for teams to contribute awesome products!
With that in mind, check your recruitment websites and your client-facing advertisements. You certainly claim to look for the best and brightest. To outperform your competitors because you boast the cream of the crop of the talent pool. Yet in many companies, leaders state that people need to come back to the office?
The current crisis reveals a fundamental leadership mindset that relates to the basic logic of how we think about responsible adults at work. Decades old Network Organizations like W.L. Gore, SEMCO, Morningstar, the early HP, Valve or Patagonia changed their work philosophy to a system of very disciplined peer-committed contributions long ago. The people closest to the problem and the solution decide what and how to contribute. Their old new deal is as simple as it has proven sustainably successful: make a contribution, receive freedom how-to. This works in heavy industry, where the world’s largest tomato manufacturer Morningstar allows production workers to set peer-committed productivity targets and maybe stay home on a wednesday to see your daughter’s piano recital, but get production done on saturday for the monday deadline. It works in retail, where Patagonia let’s their people go surfing whenever the waves are right, as long as the work gets done for the Customer. It works in videogames, where the most profitable US games company VALVE gives their teams free reign as long as they ship amazing, profitable games. Hell, the principles of this approach even work on a US Navy Nuclear submarine.
What’s your excuse?
Being digital is not enough. Isolated solutions do not work anymore. For the digital future, work has to be completely re-thought as a holistic, networked platform to make contributions.
No, statements such as ‘We need a hybrid’, or ‘people need to return to the office’, apart from being financially unsound (eg. travel and office space), just means these manager haven’t done their organizational design homework. It is the same with organizational hybrids that try to mix agile or network design with traditional hierarchies. That is inconsequential design. Worse, it is incompatible design. And when I say design, I mean it in the sense of ‘how things work’. TESLA is kicking ass because Elon Musk deliberately did NOT go for a hybrid solution like the failed Fisker Karma, the compromised Toyota Prius or useless BMW i8. Like Apple in its way, TESLA consequentially built for a purely electric, integrated mobility platform from Gigafactory, fully electric car layout, autopilot, to charging infrastructure. At the same time the fossil fuel guys were still napping at the wheel, arguing that it needs incremental change, while designing bigger, badder V8s. Remote work is just one of many symptoms of this fear of consequential change.
Remote work is just one of many symptoms of this fear of consequential change.
What leaders like Steve already understood already back then is simple. Being digital is not enough. Isolated solutions do not work anymore. For the digital future, work has to be completely re-thought as a holistic, networked platform to make contributions.
My personal conclusion? Managers arguing for incremental change or hybrid solutions are afraid. How do I know? I was afraid, too. For me it was letting go of my ego. Rethinking HR from the ground up. Challenging my own pre-conception that HR is inevitable. Understanding instead that enabling Greatness in others is a true Leaders job. I began Steve’s journey by adopting the frame of mind that the best HR is no need for HR.
Others? Maybe they let their inner control freak take the helm. They talk lukewarm solutions, because maybe they are afraid to loose their grip? To questions their own purpose? Their livelihood even? To having to deal with the consequences of opening Pandora’s box? Afraid of dealing with the unknown? Of stretching out of their comfort zone? Of failing or being failed by their teams? Of not knowing how to level up themselves and their teams to being a network of autonomous, entrepreneurially-minded contributors? To create level 5 clarity of Purpose and Priorities?
I can relate to all of these fears. As a Leader, you unfortunately still need to overcome them to unlock your Organization's full potential.
The network organization paradigm does not free leaders from the responsibility to level up their people
I get it, radical solutions like Steve’s require rigours discipline and enduring conflict. They are not the easy way. But they are the right way. That’s why network organizations are still so rare. Why awesome product design like Apple’s, still stands out. Complete autonomy requires giving clarity what the purpose and priorities are, so teams can argue when to meet and how. It requires a high degree of competency on part of your teams. But hey, here’s an idea if you want people in an office. Maybe consider building spaces teams want to come to for collaboration. Maybe shape them like an awesome, giant flying saucer with glass dividers so polished, people constantly run into them. Or maybe design your office like an amazing, courage-inspiring Tech-to-the-Future experience with a DeLorean time-machine parked at the center? Maybe even give your people tools that not only allow for remote chitchat and reporting, but create a safe space that transparently enables and demands -in equal measure- to make amazing contributions.
Caveat - laissez-faire is not autonomy. The network organization paradigm does not free leaders from the responsibility to level up their people to being responsible, mature adults at work - au contraire, mon capitaine - it demands it. It encourages it. Seduces you to gravitate towards it.
Bottom-line. If you cannot outline your post-pandemic work framework with a confident, resounding: our teams can work from wherever, however, as long as they make a contribution…
Steve would hang up on you.
PS: Oh, and kill your performance management. Right now. It sucks.