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RTO: Firms are missing the “interest”

Take the office out of the mix

The Return-to-Office (RTO) issue has dominated the headlines for months. Anybody else as exhausted on this topic as I am? I have avoided stepping into the fray for a number of reasons, in particular because it doesn’t affect me. Also, there are so many differing opinions, why heap onto the pile.

However, I would like to share an observation and offer another way to look at the situation.

Interests vs. Positions

Interests and positions are old negotiation techniques. Let me explain by telling a story.

Jack and Jill are husband and wife. Jack loves football and spends a majority of his weekends watching football on TV. Jill would like to spend more time with her husband and regularly asks or comments, “Do you have to watch football today?,” “Don’t you ever get tired of watching football?,” “Football again?!”

Hours spent watching football becomes a negotiation between the couple, and Jill never feels satisfied. After awhile, Jill’s frustration boils over, and one Saturday, she declares, “That’s it! I want a divorce.”

Oh, the irony. Jill’s interest was to spend more time with her husband, and now they’re on the path to be permanently apart. What happened?

They became consumed with the position (watching football) and completely lost sight of the interest (spending time together). I can’t help but wonder if this is what is happening with RTO.

We’ve gotten fixated on how often to be in the office (position) and don’t seem to be truly focusing on the interest(s)—relationship building and maintenance, collaboration, culture, etc. When you focus on the interest, it frees up your thinking to find creative ways to accomplish it.

Let’s take relationships. Relationships grow by learning about one another and having shared experiences, and they can happen in asynchronous, 1-1 and group settings. Here are a variety of ways to accomplish the interest:

  • Each time a new person starts, they complete a “personal interests” questionnaire that is then shared with the people that person will work with. A folder is kept of all past questionnaires so the new person (or others) can go back and look at them.

  • At the beginning of team meetings, the partner/manager asks a “fun” question to learn more about each other, e.g. “Pineapple pizza. Yay or nay?,” “Favorite rock anthem song?”

  • A practice group organizes bi-monthly, rotating coffee chats with three people. The trio can decide where they would like it to be—virtual or in person.

  • Personal interests or milestones are celebrated within the team, e.g. arrival of a new baby, completion of a marathon, support for a charity, etc.

  • 1:1 check-ins are conducted weekly or bi-weekly with partner/manager and team member.

  • If a team is co-located geographically, the partner could mix up the location of team meetings—virtual, in the office, fun offsite venues.

Look at what can happen when you take the office out of the equation. So many more ideas manifest. Encourage conversations with your leadership teams to explore the interests behind being in the office and then explore how and when the office makes sense, if at all.

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