The “back to the office” wars moved to a new level recently when it was leaked that some Google employees have been on the payroll for almost a year without doing any actual work. DEI proponents have responded negatively– rightfully so – since we know the office often caters to the needs of one group (one that rarely has childcare responsibilities, for example) at the expense of diversity and inclusion.

Concern about a remote workforce is not unfounded – there are a number of workers not working or working to full capability right now and that’s not going to fly, particularly in tough financial times. One employer did a study that compared unsatisfactory performance ratings with badge swipes and found a very strong relationship. Some of that is perception (work only happens when I see it) but much of that is true because people haven’t necessarily been trained to work remotely and a good number of them are not held accountable for performance. And their managers are equally ill equipped to manage them.

But reacting by swinging from one extreme to the other is just…well… bad leadership. It’s lazy. It penalizes performers as well as non-performers. And it demonstrates significant gaps in an organization’s performance management ability. As leaders, it’s our job to discern and if employees aren’t working, it’s as much OUR fault as theirs.

Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater and go backwards, let’s all think bigger. Remote work has plenty of benefits, including productivity, employee engagement and inclusion as well. Our company, Orange Grove Consulting, has been 100% remote since its inception in 2015. My business partner and I have written two books together and grown our business while living 5000 miles apart. We have managed dozens of employees over this time, some of whom have thrived in a remote environment and some of whom didn’t and have moved on. It has forced us to develop deeper leadership skills and the benefits of tapping a larger, more diverse bench of talent have been worth the investment.

What works well for us? Here are some tips:

  1. Frequent check-ins. For us, this means weekly one-on-one meetings. I like to do mine on Monday mornings starting at 8am. This helps get everyone focused for the week and in a work mindset. It also reinforces that weekdays are for work no matter where you are. The meetings are “on camera” so we get eyes on each other. Some of this time is devoted to catching up on personal lives. While we acknowledge this is not the same thing as bumping into each other in the hallway, it can be equally effective if done religiously and intentionally. To avoid meeting overload, we split the responsibility for one-on-one meetings across the team. Everyone has them but they are not all with the same company leader.
  2. Tracking task performance. We have a weekly operations meeting where we use a cloud-based software package, Trello, to track progress on all of our projects and tasks. We also use dynamic, cloud-based systems to track our sales pipeline, marketing campaigns, and financial performance. There is little ambiguity about what or how anyone on our team is doing at any given time.
  3. Debrief failure with crucial conversations. When someone isn’t performing, we give them honest feedback – quickly. Of course, we invest time calibrating among the team and reflecting on possible bias before agreeing upon a focused and immediate plan but we don’t wait until a review cycle; we act now. Such honesty removes the need for finger-pointing or blaming because everyone can feel secure that there is no hidden agenda or punitive grievance accounting system building up against them – they get the feedback they need in the moment and we move forward. Team members generally know where they stand and feel more confident because if they veer off course, they will be told before it becomes untenable. And if the problem is process or resource-related, we can get to solutions more quickly through truth-telling and direct discussion.
  4. Ensure form follows function. The decision to work synchronously or asynchronously, in person or remote, and collaboratively or individually stems from the situation at hand. Sometimes, everyone does need to convene. Often, personal conversations beat email. And urgency requires responsiveness…as long as it really is urgent. We have found – out of necessity – what functions in our business require what type of tool and we respond accordingly. What we don’t do is force people to commute every day to sit in an office for 8 hours and then commute home just so we “know” they are working. This should be negotiated at a team level, not a one-size fits all system for the entire organization.

The pandemic introduced us to new and more efficient ways of working that most people never thought possible before. “Going back” is as counter-productive as the phrase implies. And if we can’t figure out how to manage our employees when we can’t lay eyes on them, then maybe the problem is with us, not where they happen to work.

These are just some of the inclusive leadership skills we help organizations build. Wondering how we have helped clients with this challenge in the past? Here are two examples.

For a professional services company, we created a program for team leaders to design an inclusive hybrid work space with their specific team members. The program featured a five-step approach, with worksheets and activities to guide the leader through each step and facilitate designing how their team works inclusively – including how they communicate, make decisions, and handle conflict.

For a federal government client, we provided hybrid workplace workshops each day of their inclusion conference, with interactive discussion groups and curriculum that brought the day’s keynote session to life through real-world application activities.

Let us know how we can help you build a more inclusive workplace – whether remote, hybrid, or in-person!

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