On busting workplace myths and the road to hybrid offices

Zach Dunn
Zach Dunn

Listen as Robin’s Zach Dunn chats with Work and Employment Studies Professor at the University of Limerick, Dr. Kevin Murphy, about changing workplace dynamics with remote and in-office work. Our conversation explores the importance of understanding employee preferences, recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the modern workplace and what that means for leaders.

 

Kevin: I think we're seeing a global reset. You've seen many executives start out by saying, "As of September one, everyone's going to be back at the office," and then having to beat a hasty retreat, not too long afterwards, because people just aren't going to do it. And executives who thought they had a lot of power, are finding out no, if people won't do this, you can't make them do this.

Zach: This episode, I talked to Dr. Kevin Murphy, who has spent his career looking at just how people work. Most recently. He's done that as Chair of Work and Employment Studies at the University of Limerick. We've talked about the impact the workplace has on people and what it means for great management in the months ahead. This is one you may want to listen in for. What role do you think the actual physical space or the setting, what impact do you think that has on your ability to have that sort of great environment?

Kevin: Well, I think it can have a big impact and we certainly saw this over the last 20 years when there's been a lot of attention on some variation of an open office environment or a shared office environment. And the theory had always been that people would benefit from interactions. And this really is sort of a subplot of the broader theory that people benefit from coming into working at the same place, no matter how you configure the space.

And I think the findings have been pretty consistent. Just about everybody hates it. It's disruptive. The once in a great while productivity gain is so much offset by the stress, the noise, the distraction. And so you'll see a lot of people in an open office working with headphones on at all times, to try to shut out the other people as much as possible. It's like people are voting with their feet. They're telling you that they don't like this particular way of running an office. And if you insist on putting us this way, I will do everything I can to pretend that we're not. And that's been across countries, across organizations. It's a miserable way to work.

Zach: So for our audience, they're probably familiar with open offices being just well, lack of walls, maybe a lot of open table seating, not a whole lot of partitions. Is that sort of the one that you have in your head? Are there certain characteristics that define it for you?

Kevin: The original theory of the open office is that people would coalesce on common interests and common projects and all these good things would happen. And it just hasn't worked, in most places that it's been put into place.

Zach: So at the risk of triggering some bad memories for folks out there, what is your take on cubicles?

Kevin: The variation is we'll have an office without complete partitions, but we'll put everybody in their own little space and close them partially. That's what my graduate school experience was like. But we were at a small office with six friends and if you're going to do this, that's probably the only way to ever make it work. It's got too many disadvantages, I think, of the open office plan. And again, what's the gain here? Well, you save a little bit architecturally by not having to put so many walls and receptacles in and that's... I don't think it's a very good one.

And this whole notion of status and space being connected. When I was in graduate school, I went on an internship at a major telecommunications company. And the only office they had available, they didn't have any cubbyhole available the day I came. And so I got the office of a guy who had just retired and I was treated with deference the entire time I was there because people said, "Well, if this guy is in a level 16 office with a level 14 desk, he must be a hot shot. Even though he looks like your standard run of the mill graduate student."

Zach: Must be the son of the CEO or something, right?

Kevin: Yeah. It's degrading in some respects, because it's a way of saying, "We're going to remind you every day you come to work of your value or your lack of value in this organization, by plopping you in a small, incomplete space." Messaging like that is not beneficial in the long run.

Zach: I do find it interesting that there's almost this tension when you're designing the office where people simultaneously seem to want some level of personal space, ownership over maybe their space, but also the moment you do that, you start parceling out different parts of the office and they might have more appeal than others, and then you develop this sort of weird hierarchy, almost. Closer to the window, you must have prestige, right?

Kevin: Absolutely. One of the things is that I've worked in a lot of different academic departments over my lifetime. And one of the things that we'll often do is everybody has their own office space, but we try to cluster people who are working in related areas physically together in the building. And that again, the theory is that you're going to stop in and go into the other person's office more often. It happens, but it's a rarity. If you're going to have people come into an office, at least give them a space that doesn't make them feel bad about what they're doing and doesn't distract them from what they're doing. So I'd say if you wanted people to come to the office, give them a damn office.

Zach: Would that advice change now that we're looking at more of a hybrid model?

Kevin: People have been referring to the whole pandemic as a grand unplanned experiment. And I think we've learned a lot. And one of the things we've learned is that people can be very productive working remotely, productivity is probably higher. People spend less time and get more done. And that very few people want to go back to the way it was. People may say, "I'm okay going to the offices for a few days, but I don't ever want it to be quite the same way." There are some things, people go to the office now because they can't stand another Zoom meeting and feel like if we sit down face to face, maybe it will be a little bit better.

Zach: Just to feel something-

Kevin: My department just voted, we're not going to meet in person. We're going to meet remotely, even though people are back on campus now, because I said, "It's disruptive. It's a health hazard." You got all these downsides and the upsides are just not there.

Zach: What do you think the role of the office should be going forward?

Kevin: I think the best way to answer that is to roll back a little bit and say, "How did we get here in the first place?" And I think the role of the office was to say, "We're going to try to have people all working in the same place for two, somewhat different reasons. One is that they collaborate. They do things in which they must work together, sometimes in one-on-one teams, sometimes in a larger team." And until fairly recently, we didn't have a good technological alternative to getting people together. The other is control. Why do we have people all come to the same place? Because that makes it easier for managers to observe what they're doing, to reward people who are doing what they should be doing and to sanction people who are not.

And so the office has always been a means of controlling the workforce. And it's all based on the theory that if you don't keep a firm hand on your workers, they're going to go willy nilly and not be very productive and not do what they're supposed to do. And that's probably been the biggest myth, that's been exploded, as we've seen what happens when people start working remotely. All of the bad things that were predicted. If we don't cap managers, keeping a careful eye on you, all these bad things are going to happen. That turned out not to be true. And so it started to lead to some big questions about, how do you manage? What should managers really be doing and how do they carry out their job?

Zach: Do you think that all of those managers are aware that that dynamic existed, or is it just sort of like a by-product of how they've been conditioned to work?

Kevin: There will be some people who embrace it, say, "My management philosophy is I'm a real tough guy."

Zach: Real hands-on, right?

Kevin: Being a good manager is very difficult. So, I've got real sympathy for people who were in this, and most of the people who end up in management, are not necessarily well-prepared for this, or don't necessarily have the talents that go best to management. People will often see this, especially in technical fields. You're really, really good at what you do in the technical fields and so what happens? You get promoted out of doing the work you're really good at, to become a manager, and now not only are you miserable, but everybody who works under you is also miserable, and the company has lost a great technical performer.

Zach: What is it? They call that the Peter Principle-

Kevin: The Peter Principle, absolutely.

Zach: Being promoted to the point of incompetence.

Kevin: Absolutely. And I think if you've worked at any medium to large size organization, you've seen it in action at some points. But this is a very difficult job. And I think it's going to become more difficult now because the role is not as clear as it used to be. Traditionally, what's the job of a manager? It's to make sure that his or her team has the resources, the skills, the tools that they need to carry out the job to coordinate things, to help keep people motivated, keep people on track. And that involves things like observing, interacting. And as we go to remote work, that becomes harder to do, especially if you're managing a team and now you're working with people on a one-to-one Zoom meeting basis and occasional team Zoom meetings. It's not the same. And I think managers are really in a hard place right now saying, "If we don't have the arrangements, I'm so used to doing my job it has gotten a lot harder."

And, and I don't know that we have a good set of solutions yet. Other than saying that the evolution of management is likely to put more and more emphasis on fewer managers. I think if we learned anything, we don't need as much management as we typically have at organizations. People do pretty well without being managed. Changing the expectations. In my field performance management is a big topic. This whole idea that organizations and the authority structures and organizations pretty much tell you what to do and, and keep you on track.

And I think that we're starting to realize that A, we don't even know if any of this stuff works and B, it doesn't seem very necessary. The big question is going to be, what comes next? And there's a lot of uncertainty. If we're not going to do the traditional thing of monitoring your behavior very closely and giving you rewards, and you do the good stuff and giving you a slap on the wrist when you do the bad stuff, what are we going to do instead? And I think the answer is we don't know yet. And until we have a better idea, we're also not going to know how to figure out who would be the best at doing this sort of thing.

Zach: We talked a lot about what doesn't work and what sort of traits you might not want from managers. But from your vantage point, are there certain traits that you would imagine flourish right now, or in those managers, that are trying to lead their team through this level of uncertainty?

Kevin: I think that you are going to see stronger emphasis on persuasive styles of management, as opposed to control oriented management. A really good manager does a good job of articulating a vision of saying, "We know what our group is supposed to accomplish, and here's how I think we can get there. And I want to try to get you to buy into this vision," because there is some good evidence that when people have consistent sets of ideas on how they're supposed to be doing their work and what the relationships of people are supposed to look like at work, they're happier, they're more effective. And that's been around forever. It just gets more or less emphasis depending on the company and the circumstances. But I think that the days of the, my way or the highway, and I've given you the orders, now go execute them. That's not going to be a very effective style of management. And the people who cling to that are going to find a hard time surviving.

Zach: We see a lot of folks who have set dates, that they are starting to return to the office. And for some that's just, "Hey, the office doors are open, if you'd like." Others say, "Oh, every Monday and Wednesday, we would expect you're in." What do you think about that?

Kevin: I do think that we are seeing a large reset, both in relationships between leaders and followers, if you will. And more generally in the way people are thinking about work. You see it in other industries where people are saying, "I'm just not going back to lousy jobs anymore." And I think that the smart executives are going to have to adjust to this and say, "If the people are not going to come to the office, maybe they're right. Maybe they shouldn't be coming to the office. And even if they're not right, if they're not going to come, I have to think about this in a more creative way." We're seeing companies do very, very silly things right now.

Zach: That's a diplomatic way of putting it.

Kevin: Several of the major Facebook, Google type of organizations, have been playing with the idea of saying, "If you work remotely, I'm going to cut your pay because I was paying you more because this is San Francisco. Housing is really expensive here. And if you're working from a hundred miles away, I shouldn't have to pay you the San Francisco rate." And as a financial proposition, this is rock solid. As for psychology, it is about the worst thing you could possibly do. People feel losses intensely. And so if you say, "I'm going to take away your pay," even if it's pay that maybe they shouldn't have been getting in the first place. It doesn't matter. The craziest version right now is that if you live somewhere where you could commute in, or you could work from home, people are being penalized for working from home.

It's crazy on virtually every level. The productivity is higher when people work at home. People like it more. If you force everyone to come into the office, now you're incurring commercial real estate, all the overhead that having an office entails, and you're just shooting yourself in the foot. If anything, organizations ought to be doing it in the opposite way. I'll give you a premium for working from home, because that means I don't have to spend everything that having you in an office requires. I haven't seen anybody go that way yet, but somebody is bound to understand at some point that the math is in their favor and that if I can convince people to work remotely more often, I can save an awful lot as an organization, and everybody can get a piece of the action.

Zach: If you're continuing to hire people, at a certain point where you would ordinarily outgrow your office, presumably if you have people commuting in only a couple of days a week, because that's just the format that works for everybody, you probably can support a lot more people in a wider geographic area with the same square footage in the long run.

Kevin: I think that's exactly the case. Or you keep your workforce the same and you reduce your square footage. Now, there are some companies that have made huge investments in these huge office parks, and they're not going to be wholly receptive to the message that, "Hey, that was a big waste of time. Why don't you sell most of these buildings and use a third of this space?" But I think this is where it's going. This is probably going to be a very bad time for commercial real estate. And it could be a bad time for things like commuter railroads.

We've got this whole infrastructure built around people coming to the office. And if we start thinking that it's not necessary for people to come to the office so often, it's got a ripple effect that goes all over the board. They often say that a time of disaster is a very good time for a smart investor. And so I think there are going to be people who will learn to take advantage of these disruptions. And some people will do well out of this. But this is going to be a tough time for a lot of people who've depended on that whole cycle. I wouldn't want to be making business suits right now for a living.

Zach: The sale of pants plummeted during the pandemic.

Kevin: Yeah. On the other hand, I would sure want to invest in making tracksuits and t-shirts because that's become the defacto-

Zach: The uniform.

Kevin: The uniform, yeah. Yeah.

Zach: And to your earlier point, I will say anybody who has seen Zoom's stock price over the last year has probably very much agreed with you. So for folks that are listening to this conversation about, "Hey, commuting to the office, is it right to bring people into the office," all of that. They might be led to believe well, "Hey, does Professor Murphy actually believe that the office needs to exist? Or should we all just be a fully remote workforce?" So you and I had talked about this previously, but I wanted to give you the opportunity. Do you think we're all remote work or all office work, or is that the right answer?

Kevin:

I think we're probably going to have hybrids in most places. All remote means that customers who are used to coming in and dealing with you are going to find this difficult. Now that's changed so much over the years. This was the argument for years and years of why we need so many bank tellers. Well, people have changed how they do that. When's the last time you went to a bank to do a transaction? And so you could say maybe people will start getting used to the idea that shopping is done online because we're doing so much of it. And maybe other things that we're used to going to the place to interact with people, maybe that's not so important. I think that there will be enough people and enough instances where you'll need to have some public face of the organization, a place where people can go and interact with you as an organization.

And so there's always going to be, I believe, some part of it. And there is some evidence that most people are at least open to the idea, and some as relatively enthusiastic about the idea say, "I'm fine with going to the office from time to time, but not every day." And if we don't have everybody in the office all at the same time, that also changes the dynamic in ways that are most often, quite beneficial, having fewer people running around and making noise in an open office, I think everybody might benefit from that.

Zach: How should the average manager, you think, balance that sort of, you don't want to mandate, but you also want to create new cultural norms that probably involve the office in some way. What should we think about that balance?

Kevin: When you as a manager or someone with authority or with leadership in an organization, want people to come in, you should always take a step back and ask why and do it with the assumption that maybe this is not a good idea, or at least it's not a good idea until I can articulate what people get out of this, and what's the benefit versus costs? Coming to the office involves both pain and gain. And so, how are we going to balance some of these things off? Understanding what people's preferences and limitations are instead of just saying, "Hey, everybody's got to come to the office at this time." That's been a long-standing problem in many organizations.

It's probably the place, for example, where you see gender discrimination, that you wouldn't necessarily think of it in those terms, rearing its ugly head. We're going to have a team meeting at three o'clock every Thursday. That's great if you're not picking up your kids from school, but who gets tasked with that? And you start seeing then, those structures that are there because people haven't thought about, why am I doing it this way and what would be a different way to do it? I think that the pandemic has at least created an opportunity or a space for people to think, "Hey, I could do this differently."

Zach: There were some office designs that encouraged people to collect around certain parts of the workplace. So I don't know, are there certain dynamics that you think people can inspire in office design?

Kevin: And getting people together has been generally thought of as, this is just good and it's not. It's got a mix of good and bad and you've got to understand what that mix is like. And certainly in my field, we do this as much as anybody else. People don't talk honestly to their workforce about, what's it like? What's it like for you coming back versus not coming back? How does it help? How does it hurt? What would be your optimal schedule? And I think that the smart-

Zach: What would work for you? That's interesting [crosstalk 00:22:18].

Kevin: The smart managers are more likely to ask that question in one way or another and pay attention to what they hear.

Zach: I think there is a very important message in a lot of your answers here and commentary that I would love for more people to receive. And that is that there is a certain amount of uncertainty, it seems, with what the right answer is. But that doesn't mean that we have to stick with the existing status quo. And do you think that there are many more experiments that you've seen unfolding here that will help shape?

Kevin: I always think about Franklin Roosevelt, the beginning of the New Deal. We're going to try a bunch of things out and we don't expect them all to succeed. We don't know what's going to succeed. And so we're going to just keep banging away. That's the spirit you don't see often enough to say, "We're going to accept that there's some uncertainty. We're going to accept that we're going to try 10 things, and seven of them will fail." We ought to take solace from professional baseball players. If you get up to the plate and three times out of 10, you get a hit, you're doing damn good stuff in an organization. If people try a little something that doesn't succeed, they're not willing to say, "This is an experiment." And if you're going to be in the business of making experiments, some are going to work and some are not going to work and let's try things out and see what works best for us. And not assume we have the answer to begin with.

Zach: If you are measuring success as an organization, by the number of days that people are coming into the office, I would encourage you, please reset your metrics. Please.

Kevin: If there's anything good executives ought to be doing, it's thinking critically about their whole set of metrics. What are we here for? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we get there? And what are the options that are out in front of me? And I think you're exactly right. We've built a whole set of industries around a set of ideas about how we organize work. And maybe some of those ideas are up for grabs now. Some might not change at all, but I think we're in a position where we have lots of options.

Zach: Links to learn more about Dr. Murphy's work can be found in the show notes. If you want to learn more about the work I'm doing, go to robinpowered.com. As always I'm Zach Dunn, see you on the next episode of, In the Works.

Episode Notes:

Dr. Murphy's LinkedIn Profile

Department of Work and Employment Studies Website

Zach’s LinkedIn Profile 

Robin Website

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