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Feb. 1, 2022

129 Four Critical Factors in Leading the Transition Back to the Office and Navigating the Hybrid Future of Work | Mahan Tavakoli Partnering Leadership Insight

129 Four Critical Factors in Leading the Transition Back to the Office and Navigating the Hybrid Future of Work | Mahan Tavakoli Partnering Leadership Insight
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In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli shares his insights about the future of work, the upcoming transition of many organizations back to the office, and strategies to make hybrid work a success. Mahan also shares how leaders can think about changes experienced by their team members over the past two years as they build for a better future of work. Finally, Mahan shares four critical factors leaders need to consider in the hybrid future of work.

Some highlights:

- Why there is no "going back" to the office and working the way things operated before the pandemic

- Understanding liminal experiences and the relevance to work

- How leaders can use this transition as an opportunity for a better future of work

- The four critical factors in designing a better future of work

- Why the number of days in the office is NOT the most vital issue to address in hybrid work

- How to boost collaboration and productivity

- The impact of hybrid work on inclusivity 

Also mentioned in this episode:

Laura Empson, University of London

Nicholas Bloom, Professor at Stanford University

Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy (Listen to Aaron's episode on Partnering Leadership)

Spell Increased Team Performance with Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) Webinar

Measure What Matters: OKRs: The Simple Idea that Drives 10x Growth by John Doerr

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:


More information and resources are available on the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli:

Welcome to partnering leadership. I am really excited to have you along with me on this journey of learning and growth. Where on Tuesdays, we have conversations with magnificent changemakers from the greater Washington DC DMV region and Thursdays with brilliant global thought leaders, primarily leadership book authors.


As you know, once a month, I share some of my own leadership perspectives and insights with the partnering leadership community, and this month, wanted to talk a little bit about the future of work and hybrid work. A lot of the clients I'm interacting with, and many of the business leaders in the community are stressed beyond belief about that future of work.


I thought I would take a few minutes to share with you some of the considerations and perspectives that you need to think of about, as you plan that future for your team and your organization. I'm mindful that there have been people all throughout the pandemic that have been working in frontline roles, whether in hospitals, in restaurants, in retail outlets, and in many instances, What I'm going to talk about does not relate specifically to them, this relates to the organizations that were working virtually during the pandemic that are at almost a crisis point, trying to figure out how to transition to the future of work. 


And in thinking about this transition, a lot of the conversations are on the shallow end of the spectrum. People are wondering whether we should mandate that everyone comes back to the office three days a week or four days a week. Whether teams should be together only on Mondays and Fridays or Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

There are also even clickbait articles with whether the workweek should be four days a week or three days a week only, And I'm pretty sure we're going to see articles saying we should all be working half a day a week.


Those are not the real issues that most of the leaders I interact with are struggling with right now and need to be thinking about in designing a better future of work. 

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that the past practices in work weren't very efficient. Weren't very effective. Most of the practices, both with respect to leadership and our approaches to work were legacies of the industrial age. what a beautiful opportunity we have right now after this horrible experience that all of us have been through to rethink that future of work, to rethink renew and reinvent.


And in order to do that, we need to understand that all of us, including all of the people that we interact with and all of our team members, have been through a traumatic experience. Professor Laura Ebsen says that the epidemic has served as what the anthropologists call a liminal experience.


This is a term that was originally used to describe a cultural Rite of Passage. When young members of a tribe were tested to their limits, both physically and mentally to prepare them for the transition to adulthood. It's a powerful concept that can also be applied to significant transitions in our organizational lives, in our personal lives, including the experience we went through over the past two years.


Professor Laura Ebsen talks about three core characteristics of liminal experiences. And think about these applications to what we experienced over the past couple of years.


She says first and foremost, they involve a forced and prolonged separation from our normal life. For all of us, regardless of what we do, we really experienced that separation from what we consider to be normal.


Second, she says liminal experiences. Although they involve a prolonged break from the familiar, they are disturbingly different and confusingly similar. Just think about how our work lives. In many instances, especially for people that work remotely continued interacting with some of the same team members and same people. But in such different ways through screens where we couldn't necessarily connect with them on as much of a human level, as hard as we tried. 


And third professor Ebsen says when liminal experiences come to an end, Those who have survived return transformed. Let me repeat it. Those who have survived return transformed. And this is one of the most important things for all of us and all leaders to understand we have changed. And so have our people. 


We need to consider that in thinking about the return to the office and the future of work. I repeat that the first step is to acknowledge that we are not going to the past. Can't wipe out the experience of people from these past two years and it's only after we accept that, then we can rethink the return to the office and the future of work. 


After that, you might ask now what, well now the hard work begins. Some organizations will choose to go fully back trying to restore routines that they had before the pandemic.

I'm not here to say that you can't do that some will and that can work. It has its potential costs in the short term, but I believe there will be bigger disadvantages and costs in the long term. 

One of the CEOs I was meeting with recently, he said we are an in-person company. All of my team members need to come back to the office full-time.


Even if you choose that, keep in mind that your people have changed over the past couple of years and the world of work is going into other direction. while there might not be as big of an impact in a short term, the way the world of work is evolving, those organizations will be at a disadvantage. then what, at least for organizations and roles that have the option the future of work has changed. What do we do now? It's not as if employees all want the same thing. That's complicating the factors even more.


In a study by Nicholas bloom of Stanford, 32% of employees said they never want to return to working in the office at the other extreme 21% said they never want to spend another day working from home and the rest in the middle. People wanting different versions of hybrid from two days a week to three days a week to four days a week. one of the key points about this is that there won't be any easy answers that I can give you or anyone can give you that will appeal to everyone in every organization. 


That's why you need to consider your options based on what works for you, your team, and your organization, and get your team members involved in the conversations as you do this. There are four critical factors that organizations need to consider in rethinking work and designing a much more effective, purposeful future of work.

And these four elements are intentionality, flexibility, productivity, and inclusivity with intentionality. 


The point is that the future of work requires deep questioning of assumptions. Aaron Hurst had written a great LinkedIn article about the uselessness of the water cooler conversations that organizations were starting to do virtually saying there must've been some benefit in water cooler conversations. Let's now have virtual water cooler conversations. Not asking whether there was any value in water cooler conversations and what was the value? What are the assumptions that go into that can help us create that future of work? 


Intentionality means we need to ask deep questions about every one of our assumptions. Another element on intentionality is with respect to culture. Keeping in mind that culture was never in your building, but now it definitely isn't in your building. 


Also, keep in mind that a lot wasn't working with organizational culture, but 30% of employees were fully engaged. don't glamorize the past.

Think about how you can intentionally set a more positive, effective culture for your team and organization for the future, don't try to what you did in the past. Create that future with intentionality. The first element to consider is intentionality with respect to deep questioning of assumptions and all aspects, including your organizational culture.

The second element is flexibility. And with flexibility here, I'm not talking necessarily about how many days a week people come into work, but flexibility means an ability for teams to experiment with that intentionality that I mentioned before and see results of that experimentation.


This future of work will require a lot more experimentation, there needs to be mindful experimentation with respect to how teams work with each other, in that flexibility. What's important is the elements that I've talked about repeatedly, which is clarity of that outcome, clarity of the direction, flexibility on how to get there.


Flexibility is thinking through how you want to approach collaboration, how you want to approach the work, coming up with a hypothesis coming up with measures for that hypothesis, and then determining whether the hypothesis is true or not and moving from there. flexibility requires the of testing of the assumptions all throughout.


Another main element that I mentioned is productivity. And with respect to productivity, a lot of organizations were ineffectively thinking about work before. That's why I'm a big advocate for objectives and key results objectives that are inspiring to the team and stretch the team and then specific key results measures aligning the individuals and aligning the team toward achieving those objectives. That is a powerful system to make sure that teams and individuals stay productive and aligned with each other in producing results.


I will link in the show notes to a webinar I did a couple of years ago for Georgetown on objectives and key results. Measure What Matters is a good book on it and happy to answer any other questions on that.


And then finally inclusion is one of those things that is really important to think about. There are a couple of biases that can come in with respect to inclusion when we are looking at different ways of working with each other in this future of work, especially for organizations that think about a hybrid future of work. 

One of the concerns in managing a hybrid team where some people are at home and some people are at the office is the likelihood that there will be an office in group and a home outgroup.


For example, employees at home can see glances or whispers of people in the office conference room, but can't tell exactly what's going on. And even when companies try to avoid this by requiring office employees to take video calls from their desks, employees still can feel excluded. So it's not as if telling people all go to their desks and have their zoom calls helps those people that are at home feel differently. Along with that, if the managers and the senior leaders are always in the office and part of the in-group and a certain category of employees are the ones that choose to be remote more often that can lead into an in-group/out-group bias. 


One other part of this to keep into consideration is the impact that work from home can have in diversity of the office. It turns out that people who want to work from home after the pandemic and who is more likely to work from home is not random.


Research shows that women who have young children are more likely to want to work from home than men are people in the middle stages of their careers and lives are more likely to want to work from home than younger professionals are. 


Think about this. If that's the case. And if there is an advantage to being in the office then by default, without thought we would be putting women and professionals with families at a disadvantage because they choose to take advantage of the opportunity to work from home however many days they're allowed to do that while others, without the responsibilities, will be in the office all the time.


Nicholas Bloom, whom I referenced earlier, had done a lot of studies on remote work, working with multinationals and in one of the multinationals, they randomized 250 volunteers into groups that worked remotely for four days a week.


And then another group that remained in the office full-time, they found that employees that worked from home had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months compared to their colleagues. That's a huge promotion penalty. the work at home employees were at a big disadvantage. 


Think about it this way. a single young man could choose to come to the office five days a week and rocket up in the organization while a woman or a man with children, wanting to take care of them and chooses to work from home a couple of days a week. We'll be held back. in some respects, we would be going backward, not forward.


In addition to this, there have been studies and surveys showing that people of color are less likely to want to spend time in the office. So they will take advantage of the opportunity to work from home. In this instance, they will be put at a disadvantage again.


Think about in most areas who are the people that have the longest commute into the office. Usually the lower-wage employees. They will be put at a disadvantage rather than the people that have the income level to be able to live right close to the location of their office in many instances, right next to downtown. 


There are no easy answers though. I'm not telling you. There is one approach. There are many approaches, but you shouldn't focus on it purely based on number of days that people have to work together in the office. That is a backward way of looking at it. That is the easiest part of this whole puzzle. The number of days that you think people should be at the office. And I know this causes a lot of anxiety and stress for leaders. As you're looking to tackle this, I'm always available. mahan@mahantavakoli.com there's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com more than happy to answer any questions. They will both help me in guiding future conversations with the thought leaders and future solo episodes. And I look forward to giving you support as you manage through these challenging times. 


Don't forget to follow the podcast on your favorite platform and please leave a rating and review. When you get a chance on apple, you can do that on the bottom of your feet. There is a star rating, and you can leave a review and Spotify has just added a star rating on top.


Really appreciate you coming along on this journey. We have a lot of great conversations ahead and wishing you much success as you transitioned yourself, your team, and organization into this future of work.