As Mike and I were leading Atomic’s return-to-office (RTO) efforts, we hit a point when we needed to make a fundamental decision on how we were going to move forward. We kept our long-term goal of returning mostly to a co-location model, but we substantially changed our approach. We also discovered a leadership framework that reinforced our decision and helped explain what we were experiencing with RTO. Below, I’ll share our story and introduce the framework.
RTO is going to be simple.
In Q1 2021, RTO seemed like it was going to be simple. We had been working remotely for nearly a year. People inside Atomic and the mass media were talking about languishing, isolation, and mental health issues stemming from months of remote work. There was a natural, human desire for connection and collaboration.
We made a well-considered decision: we’d eventually return to our historical and flexible model of co-located working. We communicated why, and we shared a simple timeline for everyone to plan around. Our high-level timeline and rationale were:
- Early 2021: Our offices re-open for opt-in use.
- End of year 2021: Return to our historical and flexible co-located working style (provide everyone time to juggle complex life situations, get kids vaccinated, etc.).
- First half of 2022: Work in our historical fashion for three to six months so that we can reconnect and fully onboard Atoms who were hired during our all-remote phase (nearly 25% of our makers).
- Second half of 2022: Run experiments to tweak our historical model and offer some additional workplace flexibility options based on lessons learned during our all-remote phase.
- 2023 and beyond: Work in a mostly co-located model in the future because our work is cross-disciplined, collaborative, and creative (this article from HBR uses the term “cooperation” and recommends product innovation firms like ours not significantly flex work location or time).
We believe significant co-location time helps with career growth, work effectiveness and efficiency, and value delivered to our clients. We also believed we could do more than we did before covid-19 to offer more workplace flexibility.
In late May 2021, we re-opened our facilities and welcomed Atoms back. We were lucky to have 100% of Atoms choose to be vaccinated, and the CDC lifted their indoor masking recommendation for vaccinated individuals. Everything seemed great. We could return to the type of close collaboration we used to enjoy, and we could start rebuilding social bonds.
We believed our simple plan was on track. Until we soon realized RTO is anything but simple.
RTO is going to be complex.
A few weeks after re-opening, we weren’t seeing as many Atoms coming back to our offices as expected. Mike and I started to hear murmurs that he and I wouldn’t consider additional workplace flexibility options after returning to our historical model for 3-6 months. A few people left the company. They cited a lack of future workplace flexibility and the end-of-year RTO requirement as contributing factors. Some Atoms voiced concerns about workplace safety related to covid despite being vaccinated and the updated CDC guidelines. National news sources began reporting on the growing battle between remote workers wanting to stay home and executives calling for them to return to in-person work.
Mike and I increasingly sensed that RTO was going to be complex. I admit the situation was frustrating. Atomic had withstood an extraordinarily challenging set of circumstances driven by the pandemic. We were ready to get back to normal. We were ready for simple things––like working in our offices––to be simple.
We faced a fundamental decision, and we considered three high-level options for moving forward:
- Stick to our original plan and promote it through tactics like emails, presentations, company meetings, managerial support/amplification, etc.
- Change our plan and announce an accelerated start to some kind of hybrid work model.
- Completely switch gears and back up to probe and better sense what was going on. Also seek feedback on our ideas for a future hybrid model.
Options 1 and 2, seemed easier and faster in the short term. We thought our ideas were sound, and creating clarity sooner had advantages. But these options didn’t allow for authentic dialog, they didn’t engage the entire team in shaping our collective future working modality, and they didn’t create opportunities to better understand the complexity Mike and I sensed.
We decided to move forward with Option 3, and we developed the idea of a company-wide listening tour.
Listening through Complexity
The listening tour was designed to help us hear from everyone in the organization. Using our small company status to our advantage, Mike and I could meet with everyone. We believed there was value in every Atom being seen and heard.
We held our listening tour sessions with small groups of Atoms during July and August of 2021. Using the following format, Mike and I:
- Met with small groups of Atoms so individuals could also hear varying perspectives coming from their peers.
- Started with a segue question asking what people were looking forward to in the summer.
- Set the table for why we were meeting. We asked participants to address the elephant in the room directly. We acknowledged our concern that RTO was more complex for people than we anticipated, and we shared our worry about Atoms leaving a company they otherwise loved due to RTO concerns.
- Asked everyone to write on sticky notes what was going well and what was challenging during the remote working period and the current, de facto hybrid period. We had each Atom talk through their notes and put them on a wall near similar points from other Atoms in their group (we use an affinity mapping exercise in our design process).
- Moved on to share a mental model diagram for future workplace flexibility and asked for feedback and thoughts from the group.
We learned a lot from our listening tour sessions, and we confirmed we were dealing with a complex context. We learned RTO was a change initiative affecting individuals in a variety of ways—and for some people, the change was hard. We heard authentically voiced concerns and priorities competing with our RTO plan that included:
- Considerations related to significant others, children, and extended family.
- Lifestyle optimizations related to diet, exercise, new pets, focus, ideal office setup, commute time, etc.
- Other general behaviors and routines that had become established and were painful to give up or change.
Our listening tour sessions helped us see:
- RTO was an individual journey for each Atom.
- The needlessness and downsides of setting a date for a synchronized change in workplace flexibility expectations (we went remote synchronously for imminent health and safety reasons; we can come back to new workplace flexibility expectations on individual timelines based on individual situations).
- An opportunity to use time to our advantage and engage a cross-section of Atoms to better define some elements in the future hybrid model we discussed during our listening tour sessions.
- The complexity and individual nature of RTO make it more of a management challenge. Leaders should set a high-level direction for RTO, but front-line managers supporting individuals will be necessary for success.
You can read more about our listening tour in this blog post on Forbes by Paul Spiegleman.
We learned these lessons the hard way. As it turns out, our fundamental decision and the positive outcomes we experienced are explainable by a framework.
Here’s why we’re using the Cynefin Framework.
During our RTO journey, my executive coach Ray Befus shared an HBR article with me about the Cynefin Framework. Pronounced, kuh-nev-en, the Cynefin Framework helps leaders understand the context in which they are operating and suggests how to respond based on the context.
The Cynefin Framework includes five contexts:
- Simple: Stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships.
- Complicated: Cause-and-effect relationships are discoverable but not immediately apparent.
- Complex: Flux and unpredictability. There are unknown unknowns. Answers are emergent.
- Chaos: High turbulence, no clear cause-and-effect relationships, high tension, lack of time, and many decisions need to be made.
- Disorder: You don’t know which of the four other contexts you are actually in.
Fact-based leadership is effective for simple and complicated contexts. Pattern-based leadership is effective for complex and chaotic contexts.
Pattern-based leadership when facing complex contexts:
- Probe, sense, respond.
- Create environments and experiments that allow patterns to emerge.
- Increase levels of interaction and communication.
- Use methods that can help generate ideas.
The Cynefin Framework helped us see that our initial RTO plan and efforts were using fact-based management tactics in a complex context. We worked more effectively after making our fundamental decision to use pattern-based tactics that were suitable for complex contexts. We initially made the transition based on intuition, but the Cynefin Framework helped validate and maximize the effectiveness of our new approach.
Our most important takeaway from the Cynefin Framework is stated directly in the HBR article about it:
“Good leadership requires openness to change on an individual level. Truly adept leaders will know not only how to identify the context they’re working in at any given time but also how to change their behavior and their decisions to match that context.”
Mike and I will continue to use the Cynefin Framework as we face future challenges and opportunities.
Please share in the comments below if you’ve used the Cynefin Framework in the past or if it has prompted you to reconsider your approach to a challenge you are facing.
- The Flourishing Triangle: Why Remote Work is Kryptonite for Positive Connections - July 25, 2022
- Pack Your Higher Purpose for the Long Haul - July 6, 2022
- Return To Office – A Time for Context-Based Leadership - May 16, 2022
- Resilience Doesn’t Come From Being Resilient - August 11, 2021
- Pursuing Social Excellence through Co-located Work - May 10, 2021