Fine line: Finding the balance between freedom and control

You are being told that your organisation is facing a series of binary workplace options. This is wrong and misleading. In fact, the future of workplace has more opportunities available to it than ever before.

But first, forget the idea of future-proof. How many 2020 real estate plans, carefully crafted in 2019 or earlier, planned for the seismic impact of a fast-moving, global pandemic?

The future is many things. But at its core, it is uncharted and unpredictable. And so, if the pandemic has reminded us of anything, it is that future-proofing is really just measured guessing. And if you are going to guess, you’d better guess a few times and consider the many and varied implications of each.

Historically programmed with binary options, this is where the real estate and property industry struggles. Do we stay or do we go? Open plan or cellular? Now home or office. And now we have the office haters. Pitching office against home, they smugly remind us that their predictions of the demise of the office as the place where workers go were published years earlier for all to see.

Why do so many struggle to entertain blended, multi-coloured middle grounds, where collaged solutions are crafted not for procurement simplicity, but in response to multi-dimensional user needs?

Society seems to be adopting a similarly binary analysis of its challenges. Mask-wearers curse the mask-haters. Vaccine takers are bemused by the vaccine sceptics. And chances are, you are about to start telling them about your plans for their workplace future.

In the coming days, weeks and months, organisations will have to carefully consider where they sit on these topics. Do they believe the provocateurs who say that they don’t need offices and leases and headquarters? And that a newly nomadic workforce will develop the skills to stay at arm’s length, crafting their own workspaces at home or elsewhere? Or do they side with the traditionalists who are backing colleagues wanting to be together in collective endeavour, socialising over pizza or beer when the moment is right, not just when it has been scheduled?

Workplace does not have to settle for this binary match-up of traditionalist versus provocateurs. It is a time for opportunists from any camp to explore any number of scenarios somewhere in between these two extremes. Where employees are given a choice.

This is drawing CEOs to the media conversation like moths to a flame. But it is dangerous territory: cast out as dinosaurs if they dare to say they want colleagues back in offices, or seen as cash strapped if they say they want to dramatically reduce their real estate footprints.

Choice could well turn out to be the thing of competitive advantage in these debates. Because office haters conveniently ignore the fact that up to a third of employees in any given knowledge business do not have a space at home that can properly support them working. If their leadership team decides to opt for a ‘remote-first’ strategy, where do these folk go?

Or what of those employees who enjoyed an outstanding workplace experience pre-pandemic who are desperate to be back in those workplaces – places that brilliantly supported them alongside their colleagues? These spaces consistently report the highest levels of enjoyment, pride, productivity and knowledge transfer. And here, when asked, employees choose to be back four or more days a week.

So, herein lies the problem with choice. These employees choose four days, where employees with poor pre-pandemic workplace experience choose one day or less. The average, as is postulated in so much of the future-gazing media, may be 2.5 days per week. But that does not make it the de facto solution for all. Drag an employ back 2.5 days a week to a poor workplace and you will have dissent. Restrict one from coming to a great workplace for more than 2.5 days and you will have the same.

And what awaits if you offer them, or team heads, complete choice? Past experience means will almost certainly gravitate employees toward the middle days of the week, leaving offices empty on Mondays and Fridays. So, to what extent can employees be nudged to make decisions that are right for them and for the organisation and its spaces?

In 1954, science fiction writer Philip K Dick published The Adjustment Team – a tale of a real estate salesman Ed Fletcher’s uncomfortable brush with existentialism. It was one of a number of his short stories that painted a distorted picture of future worlds and that Hollywood would much later latch onto to inspire a slew of blockbusters including Bladerunner, The Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall, The Matrix and most recently, The Man in the High Castle. The Adjustment Team was turned into the much-overlooked 2011 science fiction thriller The Adjustment Bureau and explores key concepts from the book around choice and free will – or the perception of free will. In the film, “the Bureau” enacts adjustments to keep humanity on track. It is a filmic mashup of the New Testament and Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s Nudge.

Yet, in the film, the Bureau is a guiding force, not the micro-manager. At the head of the Bureau is the Chairman. She sets the plan and – armed with Moleskins and complex pathway maps – her case officers ensure adherence, steering or nudging their subjects towards pre-determined outcomes to “stay on plan”. These nudges are for the benefit of the individual, and the collective. Problems start when one of the overworked case officers falls asleep and misses a vital nudge.

Except in The Adjustment Bureau, the central character pushes back. He doesn’t accept the plan. He lobbies that his version of fate can work in a way that benefits him, his co-star and society. British actor Terence Stamp delivers a stunning monologue that describes exactly why mankind struggles to compute the subtle differences between free will, soft determinism, and chance.

“You don’t have free will, only the appearance of free will.”

Of course, employees are not subjects in a game you can pick up and move around to follow pre-programmed paths. But organisations cannot simply ignore that a year of home-based working has changed employee predispositions. Of course, work is a thing you do. But for millions it is also a place you go. So where do employees want to be guided and where do they want free will? The flipside to the protagonist’s revolt in the film is that infinite free will is an affliction as of itself. It prioritises the individual, but an organisation has inherent collective aims.

The first practical repercussion of this is load-balancing your office space. We wish you the best of luck if you intend to allow employees free choice as to how often they return to the office. We offer even more good luck if you start to mandate which days you will allow those wishing to return, to return. Mondays and Fridays will become the middle seat on a budget airline – empty or assigned to a begrudging and/or frugal latecomer. Organisations imposing Orwellian brand values will inevitably damage their employer brand.

Being future-ready relies on a series of acknowledgements. First and not least, that the average pre-pandemic office did a pretty poor job of supporting the employees it accommodated. Next: that trusting employee free will and gifting ultimate choice might take you on a path where employees are allowed to colour outside the lines.

But workstyles have changed. We can either learn from the last 12 months and spark a renaissance or return to a dark age. Senior management’s job now is guidance and a strategy that prepares for adaptation.

Like the Bureau’s Chairman, organisations need to possess a plan, provide a foundation and then go for it. Decisions can be made as you progress, but keep a finger on the pulse of your employees’ needs. The point of the Bureau is as a guiding hand for success and achieving potential. An adjustment is a leg up to a collective aim.

Read more academic insights
Back to Leesman Review