Helping a boss overcome concerns about remote work’s impact on office functions

I’m continuing the discussion of return-to-office policies, this time from a well-meaning leader’s perspective.

Reader: Most articles I see paint the boss as evil for pushing for in-office work and dismiss the value of in-office work. I would like to share the perspective of a boss who is struggling to have both happy employees and a well-functioning organization.

I am the executive director of a nonprofit where most staff come in once a week. I would like to have them in more often, but cannot apply that policy fairly, because I have already exempted five remote staffers who either had to move out of the area or have health concerns that put them at risk.

These access barriers have created challenges in the following areas:

1. Preparing for external engagement with stakeholders/partners. I need input from seven senior staff members in three major programs for our stakeholders. One staffer takes the lead on assembling a two-page summary, which then needs edits for sensitive content and tone. This results in emails that I do not have time to look at clogging my inbox, and a missed opportunity for me to provide immediate feedback.

2. The time suck of regular check-ins. I have six standing weekly meetings with senior teams and directors and a seventh with all senior staff. Pre-pandemic, when everyone was in the office, these meetings occurred monthly, if at all. I keep some meetings not because they are necessary to move projects forward, but because I feel the staff need my support. While all meetings are brief, the 15-20 minutes prior is a dead zone for me. Grouping the meeting days and times together helps somewhat.

3. Limited interaction. As a small, flat organization, we have challenges with career progression and keeping junior folks engaged. If new hire “Jane” has a burning desire for advocacy work, how can I put her in a position to succeed if I can’t get to know her? Developing a rapport with “Bob” could help me anticipate when the lack of promotion opportunity is about to make him jump so we can line up potential replacements.

I don’t have a lot of solutions. Pushing for more time in office will breed resentment.

Work Advice: When remote workers move far away, who pays for their office visits?

Karla: Thank you for this thoughtful illustration of the fine line you walk between maintaining morale and optimizing operations. Compassion does complicate things, but it’s usually worth the effort.

Almost four years ago now, many of us saw shifting to a remote-work model as an ad hoc response to a short-term crisis. But the crisis has lasted long enough that some things will not, and probably should not, go back to the way they were. Instead of looking to return to what was, it may be time to use your current reality as the new baseline for moving forward.

First: Technology can help resolve your challenges with gathering feedback from multiple contributors. Centralized content management through software such as Microsoft Teams or Google Docs is better than email for coordinating a synchronized product in an asynchronous environment. It lets all the chefs take their turns at the same pot from separate kitchens, gives you control over the final plating, and makes your feedback available to everyone.

Second: “I keep some meetings not because they are necessary … ” Yeah, don’t. Meetings without purpose are, as you say, a time suck. And if you feel that way, your staff undoubtedly does, too. As The Washington Post’s Danielle Abril recently reported, meeting overload is a common affliction that employers are increasingly combating by canceling standing meetings, declaring no-meeting Wednesdays and encouraging employees to block solo work time on their calendars.

Presumably, you didn’t need so many meetings pre-pandemic because staff could be trusted to work independently and contact you as needed. Why not continue that show of trust, and let them tell you when they need support? Bonus: You will be more accessible when you’re not stuck in all those meetings.

When in-person meetings are necessary, you are on the right track with clustering them, especially for commuters’ sakes. You might take it a step further by drawing a clear distinction between collaboration days — dedicated to meetings and free-form networking — and heads-down days, when employees can focus on tasks. Providing breakfast and lunch on collaboration days wouldn’t hurt, either.

When in doubt, start with an email. You will see pretty quickly whether it needs to become a meeting.

Work Advice: Tips for meeting co-workers at a new all-remote job

Finally, spontaneous personal interactions might have to become more intentional. Instead of twiddling your thumbs in your 20 minutes of premeeting dead time, check in early and make yourself available for small talk. Quarterly surveys or scheduled one-on-ones would ensure you hear from people who might otherwise fade into the group. (I know I just dissed needless meetings, but a getting-to-know-you coffee serves a purpose.) And even without a formal workplace hierarchy, experienced workers can be deputized to mentor junior colleagues and convey intel to you about their interests and strengths.

If you need more concrete advice tailored to your business, LinkedIn is bursting with hybrid work experts who write helpful blog posts and offer consulting services. For that matter, I bet your employees have some ideas on how to make things more efficient. Present them with the challenges you are encountering, as you did with me, and ask for their ideas on how to streamline. They will be more invested in implementing solutions they helped design — and isn’t that one of the perks of a flat organization?

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