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Why CEOs Resist Remote Work (Hint: They Feel Powerless)

Leading a remote team is not the same as leading from the office. Here's to reframe your approach to a hybrid workplace culture.

By Gustavo Razzetti

January 12, 2022

Five ways to reset your ideas about the workplace and thrive in a hybrid environment

The evidence is overwhelming: when done correctly, remote work increases productivity and work enjoyment. A study by Harvard Business School shows that the shift to working from home did work. Actually, many professionals have experienced growth both professionally and personally.

Additional research shows that over three-quarters of employees wish to work from home at least half the time. Almost 50% of respondents say they'd quit their current job if they were not allowed to work remotely for at least half of the workweek.

Yet many leaders resist remote work and force employees to return to the office. Even Netflix's CEO wants people back in the physical workplace, despite not having an office himself.

So, where's the disconnect?

Why CEOs Fear the Hybrid Workplace

I've spent a lot of time trying to answer this question in the past few months. Not only by talking to my clients, but also by interviewing leaders for my book Remote, Not Distant.

The recurring theme is that most CEOs believe their workplace culture has suffered during the pandemic. They think it's impossible to keep it alive remotely. Senior leaders still believe that culture only happens in the office, requiring employees to see each other and have impromptu interactions and casual conversations.

While I agree that those elements are vital, it's not enough of an argument to bring people back into the office.

The psychology behind CEOs' resistance blames cognitive biases for this unfounded behavior. On the one hand, the safety bias pushes executives to worry about the difficulties associated with WFH. On the other hand, the anchoring bias promotes a faulty tendency: executives stay anchored to their past experiences and information.

There are many more biases in play.

In my experience helping organizations thrive in a hybrid workplace, cognitive biases definitely play a role. But there's something more. Leaders feel powerless in a hybrid workplace – they miss being in control.

Remote expert David Tate said it best: "When fearful CEOs talk about workplace culture, they're really talking about workplace control."

Leading a team in a hybrid workplace is like visiting a foreign country. It doesn't just feel weird, but also threatening.

The fact that employees are not at the office creates a perceived loss of control. Most leaders use visibility as a performance KPI: presentism, working long hours, or being in back-to-back meetings equal productivity.

Or so they thought.

Controlling leaders have become more controlling during the pandemic. That's why most people are overwhelmed. Remote work doesn't drive burnout per se. Its leaders' desire to be in control that has added an unnecessary burden to people's workload.

Research shows that we are intrinsically motivated when we feel we have power over events in our lives.

The pandemic disrupted this sentiment for everyone. In the case of leaders, it became even worse. Distributing power is vital to succeed in a hybrid workplace. Distance is not an obstacle but an opportunity to decentralize decision-making and increase speed.

But first, you have to trust people.

Organizations are facing a unique opportunity to reset their culture. Like it or not, a  hybrid workplace is here to stay. Rather than fighting the new reality, leaders must embrace the best of both worlds: in-person and remote.

Consider the five ways to reframe your notion of culture.

Let Go of Power, Become a Facilitator

Most executives feel they lost their superpower when their teams went remote. The positional power of their corner office quickly vanished. They became just another small rectangle in a Zoom meeting.

Keeping culture alive is not the real problem; power is. Leaders are afraid that their charisma and influence have lost importance in a virtual setting. Or worse, maybe their impact on culture wasn't as significant as they thought.

Resetting leadership starts by unlearning everything you know about how to lead. Managing in the office is not the same as managing remotely. Start by letting go of wrong practices.

Rather than managing by watching – or wandering around, as Tom Peters said –  focus on facilitating the right system.

Are you willing to embrace your vulnerability and say, "I don't know"? How do you feel about letting team members co-create the new culture rather than dictating the terms yourself? Are you open to maximizing the benefits of a remote environment even if it means your role feels less critical?

Adapting to a remote-first environment is like visiting a foreign country. It's okay if you feel lost. To understand the new space, you must learn a new language, behaviors, and culture.

Instead of dictating the new approach, co-create it with your team. Fearless remote leaders facilitate better conversations – they encourage people to ask better questions and find the answers together.  

How shall we ask for help as a team? Or have fun virtually? How can we continually build trust remotely? How can I help you remove the organizational obstacles that get in the way?

Leading as a facilitator means overcoming the desire to be in charge. Let go of control. Your role is to help the team define a shared future, facilitate ongoing conversations, and ensure no one is left behind.

The Office Is the New Offsite

Don't judge your window for its view – judge what you see instead.

Blaming a tool means focusing on the symptom. That's the issue I have with the term Zoom Fatigue. The root problem is your company culture – Zoom has simply amplified what was already broken.

Organizations suffer by continuing to apply an old mindset to the new reality. Remote collaboration is asynchronous-first. Your team can work from wherever and whenever they can and still get things done.

In a distributed workplace, collaboration is no longer office-centric.

Mårten Mickos, CEO of HackerOne, said, "It's funny we call it the virtual world. We think it's something unnatural. However, civilization is flipping. The natural way will be this (remote) and in-person will be the unusual one some years from now."

Working from home was usually seen as an anomaly. But the default mode will change. Soon, the office will be the exception.

Jason Fried, Basecamp's CEO, believes that the modern office has become an interruption factory: we can't get work done at work anymore.

The open office is dead. They're noisy, full of distraction, and lack privacy – conflict is hidden behind closed doors. It was meant to be a space for collaboration and transparency, but the reality was anything but ideal.

Reset your idea of the office – it's the new offsite. The office should become a quiet space for special occasions, such as brainstorming, launching a new team, celebrating a big win, or running design sprints.

Funnily enough, the same architects that created the open office frenzy are working on what the future will look like. Hint: it will include the library – a quiet space for deep work and research – the plaza – a lunchroom to socialize with colleagues –, and the avenue: a transitional space to stimulate impromptu conversations.

Supercharge the Trust Battery

Working in a hybrid environment requires trusting employees more than ever. This is critical for success.

Tobu Lütke, CEO of Shopify, popularized the idea of the trust battery. He believes that when a new colleague joins your team, the trust battery between the two of you starts out at around 50%. Each time the new colleague acts in a positive way, the trust level increases.

The trust battery is slow to charge yet quick to drain.

A hybrid workplace demands massive coordination. Organizations need to take trust to a new level: 50% is not enough – they need to supercharge the trust battery.

"Work appropriately" is GM's new norm to deal with hybrid work. This play-off of the automaker dress code ("Dress appropriately") promotes both trust and flexibility. The needs of each employee, project, and team are different. GM trusts people to find the best solution.

In most companies, you must earn trust to earn benefits. But in a remote environment you don't have the luxury of time.

Atlassian offers new employees a holiday before they even start working. New hires receive a travel voucher for a "Holiday before you start." The message is loud and clear: "We hired you because we trust you."

This rule is more than just a perk. It's an act of empathy. Atlassian acknowledges that changing jobs is stressful. Treating people as human beings helps them start their new jobs reenergized and more excited.

Building trust requires taking the first step – be the first to supercharge the trust battery.

Virtual Friction Doesn't Hurt

Conflict is a necessary force for growth. Teams that embrace tensions rather than run away from them are more successful. That's even truer in a remote environment.

When working in person, it's easier to spot weak signals – the symptoms that something is bubbling up or already broken. In a virtual space, signals are harder to read or confusing.

Even worse, research shows that conflict in remote teams can escalate more quickly than in collocated teams.

The solution is counterintuitive: encourage people to address conflict in the open.

GitLab, the paradigm of remote work, believes that transparency is vital but not enough. It prioritizes open discourse even over private discourse. GitLab employees must address conflict out in the open.

As a leader, get ready for things to get ugly. It's not easy. However, a small dose of virtual friction is always better than letting tensions fester.

GitLab's solution? The "short toes" principle: no one can step on someone else's toes if all employees have short toes.

Always assume positive intent. If people say something that might feel uncomfortable, don't make it about you. Recognize that everyone's looking for what's best for the company – not to step on your toes.

There's No Such Thing as Too Much Communication

Employees are usually lousy when it comes to writing or sharing information in a physical space. We tend to infer a lot, talk in bullet points, and assume everyone's taking notes or recording agreements.

Miscommunication is a much bigger problem than we think.

That's why Amazon banned PowerPoint presentations many years ago, replacing them with the "memo" – a well-written document with actual sentences. It provides a clear perspective about a topic and background to make smart decisions.

A hybrid workplace requires an obsessive approach to communication and conversation curation.

GitLab recommends a handbook-first approach. Document everything in the handbook before it's even implemented. While it might feel time-consuming, the effort saves a lot of time and minimizes mistakes and friction.

Documenting everything is about creating a single source of truth. Instead of asking people for something, you look for the answer in the system. This saves headaches and time. Most importantly, you don't need to interrupt others.

When employees have to write everything down, it forces them to reflect more. Documentation helps neutralize emotions. Everyone should be able to answer everything with a link.

Curated conversations reduce conflict, too. Correct people with a link to the handbook versus your personal opinion. That's one of GitLab's most powerful lessons.

It's Time to Reset Your Culture

Succeeding in a remote-first environment requires new principles and rules. Start by reframing the notions of leadership, the office, trust, conflict, and communication. Be ready to reset your culture.

Leading a remote team is not the same as leading from the office.

Measure output (results) rather than input (visibility). Have a handbook-first approach to documentation. Treat the office as a place for deep work, not a distraction. Promote conversations in public channels, coaching your team to address conflict in the open.

Most importantly, supercharge the trust battery – take the first step.

Do you need help to evolve your culture and thrive in a remote-first workplace?

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