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The Working from home conundrum

I’ve been meeting with many business leaders over the last few weeks and continue to be amazed by the incredible resilience and adaptability they’ve been showing. The long-burn time of the pandemic is consuming a lot of intellectual and emotional energy as they’ve had to respond to rapidly and constantly changing priorities. It seems to me that one of the hardest juggling acts for leaders right now is getting the right balance between being tough or being caring.

Let’s take working from home as a case-in-point. When the pandemic hit last year, it didn't take any of us long to work out that the priority was care for people. That we all needed to be wrapped in a loving embrace by our leaders and told “It’s okay, we’ll get through this, do what you need to be safe and okay”. Given the hyper-fuelled growth and productivity focus of the preceding few years it felt strange but necessary.

Now working from home is well and truly established. For some businesses though it’s become a problem. People don't want to come back to the workplace and for good reasons; lingering fear of COVID, loss of the free time they gained from not having to commute, the inherent cost of transport, parking and buying lunch. It’s even possible that for those that do go into the workplace they’ll be 'Zooming' their colleagues who are still at home, wondering “Why did I even bother to come in?”.

On the other hand, leaders are rightly concerned about the negative effects of too much working from home on team cohesion, loss of identification with the organisation and stunted communication. I also know many leaders who are genuinely concerned that some of their team members mental health is suffering, and that their continued relative isolation at home is contributing to it.

So, what do you do as a leader if you’re faced with this problem? Be tough and mandate a return to work, knowing that some of your team won’t like you for it? Or maintain the status quo and focus on meeting people’s needs and wants right now?

The good news

The good news is that we don't have to be limited to an either/or approach. It doesn't have to be either a tough or caring approach. It can be both. In fact, my research on remarkable leadership suggests that this is one of those paradoxes that can be resolved by embracing ‘the genius of and’, where blending strength (focus on action and results) and warmth (focus on people and relationships) produces something above and beyond the ordinary typical leadership response.

For example, recent research from Beyond Blue showed that returning to the workplace is a critical coping mechanism against rising levels of depression that the pandemic has bought on for many individuals, even when the individual may feel reluctant to return to the workplace. In which case, being tough and requesting that team members to come back to the workplace if they are able would be an act of care - provided this is part of the leader’s genuine motivation.

Another way of dealing with the problem in a way that shows strength and warmth would be to articulate the problem to the team and then ask them to solve it – give the work back to the people who need to own it.

As an example, one leader I spoke too assembled her team in an online call and laid out the problem. She told them that she wanted to improve team cohesion and connection by having them spend more time together in the office. She also told them she also wanted to help them maintain many of the benefits of working from home. She provided a baseline expectation that WFH would be no more than 3 days per week and then asked them to brainstorm ideas for how that could be achieved. The team ended up landing on a model they are currently experimenting with, in which the minimum two days spent working at the office must be on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday thereby maximizing face to face contact. In this way the leader was tough enough to address the problem but caring enough to involve team members in developing solutions that work for them.

These are just a couple of examples. There are possibly many ways in which this thorny issue could be resolved by combining strength with warmth in the genius of and.


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