This article was published on July 1, 2021

The ‘five whys’ will make returning to the office less awful

The return will cause friction on all sides, that's why we need to find the root cause

The ‘five whys’ will make returning to the office less awful

Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

I was talking to a woman the other day about how much she liked the company she worked for. It’s fun and modern in most ways, but there was one big catch — the management team is still stuck in the past when it comes to this year’s biggest challenge for employees and companies… returning to the office.

Their CEO had recently announced that they expect employees to work from the office again five days a week as soon as things return to normal.

She was dismayed and annoyed and told me most employees don’t want to return to the office five days a week. Some are fine with three days. Others would prefer two days, and a few are happy with just one day a week at the office.

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Now faced with a forced five-day week back at the office, the employee told me she and her coworkers are ready to revolt. They thought about going to the office and spending less time working and more time drinking coffee and chatting. Performance would drop, and management would be forced to allow work from home again.

The response? Management took the position of look, you’re being paid to work from the office, so if you don’t like that, you can quit and find a different company to work at.

Both responses are incredibly human and understandable knee-jerk reactions — but they won’t lead to a solution. And I truly believe that in the end, both employees and the company will be worse off.

So how do you solve it…?

I don’t have the perfect solution to this problem (I never do), but I think it’s important to realize that frustrations with decisions like these are usually just the tip of the iceberg, while there’s so much more going on below the surface.

In this situation, I think it would’ve made more sense for the management to ask themselves, “Why exactly do we want people to work from the office? Why really?” And the answer can’t be “just because.”

To me, the answer would most likely be “because I want people to perform” and the logical follow-up would be “and I can’t ever be sure if they work from home because I can’t check up on them as easily.”

Now that’s a trust issue — and it’s an indictment on management and its approach. But trust is also something you need to earn, so both management and employees need to think hard about how to build that trust.

The logical next step is to look at performance. If you’re an employee and can show you’re more efficient and reach your goals faster while working at home, then surely that should be a persuasive reason to allow you to work from home.

But I can also see the manager’s point of view who wants to inspire people by having them in the same space because group spirit can be incredibly energizing. A good office creates a lot of space for serendipitous encounters and it can be the glue that holds a company together — which is extremely difficult to replicate online.

So despite the fact we’ve all seen that we can work and be productive from home, I think we should never underestimate the magic that can happen when you get people together in the same place.

That’s why if you’re an employee, you need to be honest when asking yourself this question: “Does working from home really make me more efficient, or is it just slightly more comfortable?”

Now, these questions won’t resolve the issue on their own, but they’re a good start of getting into the habit of asking yourself the ‘five whys.’

Try solving issues with the ‘five whys’ technique

In my mind, if you want to solve a problem, you’re going to have to stop looking at it superficially and look for its root cause. Just thinking about it a minute longer might help, but I’m quite fond of the ‘five whys’ technique.

How does it work? You just need to ask ‘why?’ five times.

If we apply it to both the employee and management in the problem above, we get something like this:

Why do you want to work from home?

  • 1st why — because I like it
  • 2nd why — because I can focus better
  • 3rd why — because there are fewer distractions
  • 4th why — because the office is too loud and I’m pulled into too many meetings
  • 5th why — I need silence and no interruptions to do my work more efficiently

All of these reasons are completely understandable, but using the five whys forces you to see that working remotely might not be the only solution.

These issues could, for example, be addressed with a quieter office space and a rule that limits the number of meetings throughout the day. So you staying at home or coming into the office might not be the root cause, but rather the company’s culture.

But let’s see how it works for management:

Why do you want your employees to come to the office?

  • 1st why — because I don’t think they work as hard from home
  • 2nd why — because I believe they will be too distracted at home
  • 3rd why — because their cat demands attention, the dishwasher needs to be emptied, and their kids are running around
  • 4th why — because that means they won’t spend all their time on their work
  • 5th why — and that means I’m paying 100% and only getting 50% work back

‘Butts in seats’ isn’t a solution to not having control over productivity. Instead, just focus more on output rather than hours or being physically present.

Implement a clear KPI and OKR system and make sure you’re happy with those goals, and then when employees meet those goals… who the hell cares about hours worked?

And if you’re worried about morale being low due to lack of face-to-face interactions — or see more confrontations and criticism happening — then organize more events at the office or create other reasons to entice people to get together and interact more with each other.

If we break it all down, I think the primary reason people want to work from home is comfort. And the reason managers want their employees close to them is control. But both comfort and control can be achieved by other means if we’re all able and willing to look at the root cause of our desires.

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