Returning to the Office: Crucial Productivity Conversations

Some members of the VitalSmarts team recently published thoughts on having good conversations about a return to work.
You can read it here.
I love the VitalSmarts folks. (If you follow them, you may already know that they’ve changed their brand to Crucial Learning.) In the piece, they do a great job of discussing some of the more controversial positions in the return to work discussion as well as how to engage with them in a productive way.
If you don’t have any experience with VitalSmarts or Crucial Learning, I’ll say that building skill with difficult conversations has been a key to success in my career. You should learn that from them; their book is Crucial Conversations.
I’ll just add a few thoughts to this article that represent common scenarios I’ve witnessed in my management coaching practice. I’ll also stay out of vaccination and mask-wearing controversies and stick to my own expertise: productivity and management. Mostly, I would coach you to see the following issues as opportunities to have important conversations. As they say in the article, these conversations are intended to understand, not confront or change anyone’s opinion.
Three of the most common ‘return to work’ arguments revolve around:
  • Management’s access to employees
  • Employee commitment
  • Productivity
Many managers want their employees where they can see them and have immediate access to them. This is not a sign of great managerial skill, but it is very common.
I’ve tried to help managers overcome this bias, so I know that it can be a deep-seated issue of trust. If you decide to have this conversation, be open to the manager’s position. See if you can discuss productivity and availability without arguing over whether or not the bias exists or is ‘true’.
Another managerial concern may be commitment. Commitment is hard to measure and easy to fake, so managers often rely on interpreting signals from employees. Since commitment can be defined as the determination to overcome obstacles, this can be tricky to navigate.
Here’s a scenario: In the case of the current pandemic, some managers may consider the potential health risk as low, and thus a minor hurdle; if so, the manager may see citing the health risk as a lack of commitment. The employee, on the other hand, might interpret the risk much differently, leading to an impasse.
Thirdly, many of these conversations will include the notion of productivity, with or without data. There are undoubtedly cases in which a company’s productivity increases after a transition to remote work and other cases where it decreases. In nearly every case, however, it is likely that the manager is fearful of decreased productivity, despite our inability to measure it, see this post. If you choose to have this conversation, recognize that it is difficult to argue either side without data.
I think the notion of personal productivity is a missing component in discussions of returning to the office. Working on your own productivity sends a strong signal to your boss. It signals that you are working toward improving your own contribution to the success of the company, whether you return to the office or not.
For more thoughts on personal productivity, see this post – I cover some personal improvement basics, as well.
Finally, the article notes that your boss likely has a boss. Middle managers are often called on to enforce company policy. They may have little or no say in that policy. There is little for the subordinate to contribute to this situation except understanding and relationship building.
Perhaps you can see opportunities for crucial conversations around commitment, trust, and productivity. If you take one or more of these opportunities and have skillful conversations, your relationship, and perhaps reputation, with your boss will improve.
You may also have the opportunity to validate or refute some of your assumptions.