By: Tamara Sanderson
co-author of the upcoming book, Remote Works
I’m not a psychologist, though I do moonlight as an armchair therapist. My bookshelf is stocked with psychology textbooks, my conversations littered with references to Carl Jung. I toyed with the idea of returning to school to get a PhD in psychology, but instead, landed on writing about the future of work and organizational design—with a side of psychoanalyzing.
I kid, but, as I read the dialogue on LinkedIn about the “great return to the office” and subsequently, “the great resignation,” I can’t help but think about the underlying human motivations. Why is this such a heated topic? What’s not being said?
In search of some guidance, I cracked open one of the behavioral psychology books, Judgment in Managerial Decision Making by Bazerman and Moore to shed some light on the digital “water cooler” conversation of late: to go hybrid or not, and landed on three “S”s: Satisficing, Sunk Costs and Self-Serving Reasoning.
In the 1950s, the nobel-prize winning economist, Herbert Simon, dove deep into the murky waters of decision making, where he essentially saw the world divided into two parts: the study of prescriptive models (e.g., how optimal decisions should be made) and descriptive models (e.g., how decisions are actually made).
Think of this as the difference between our ideal and our reality, how we look on social media compared to in the bathroom mirror, how we imagine ourselves when we sign-up for a gym membership on Jan 2nd compared to how many times we actually set foot on the elliptical.
Herbert discovered within his bounded-rationality framework that when individuals attempt to make rational decisions, they often come up against the time and cost constraints of limited quantity or quality of information. This leads us to “satisficing”—simply searching until we find a satisfactory solution that will achieve an acceptable amount of performance.
When I hear that “hybrid” is the direction of late, a part of me wonders, if this actually is the best decision for the organization, or rather, is it a way of satisficing. Hybrid will work—because we know that employees have worked in an office before, and since the pandemic, have test-run working from home—but is it the optimal decision? Or, instead, is it a way of kicking the proverbial “can” down the road, or finding a way to satisfy the “stay-at-homer’s” and the “go-back-to-the-officer’s”?
Imagine it’s a squelcher. 103 degrees out, and your children are both cranky. You can tell you’re starting to get a sunburn, and you and your partner look like you’re watching paint dry, even though you're at a play-off baseball game. You paid a hefty price for the tickets two weeks ago, but no one in your family is enjoying the game. Do you stay for the rest of the game, or do you go?
Or, perhaps, you have a lemon of a car that's needed new repairs every few months since you drove it out of the used car sales lot a few years ago. Do you keep investing in the car, or do you say, enough is enough, and move on to different transportation choices?
It may seem like an easy decision as a bystander—leave the game early, sell the lemon—but as humans, we often are faced with inertia and emotional attachment to our past decisions. Perhaps, we hope that the game will get better and that the kids will stop fussing. Or, that the car will finally work, after this one last repair. Although we’re often told as children, like The Little Engine That Could, to keep trying, in reality, at a certain point, this persistence can cause a great deal of time, energy and money to be invested in a previously selected course of action, under different circumstances. As John Maynard Keynes, another economist, once said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
As a society, we’ve invested a lot of time, energy and money into office culture: the nice, newly renovated building with the ergonomic chairs and espresso machine; the house in the neighborhood that’s commutable to the office; memories of office culture, like the beers you used to grab on Friday’s after work, or the ping pong table in the corner.
These artifacts are important because they mark moments of our lives. Decisions that were made, relationships that were built, companies that flourished. But, as decision makers, it’s important to not conflate the two. Our reference should be the current state. If you were to start your organization over today, what mode would you choose? If it's hybrid, awesome. If it’s not, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.
I’m currently co-writing a book, Remote Works, with a friend, business partner and fellow adventurer that I met in Cape Town while we were both working for fully distributed companies, Automattic (WordPress.com) and DuckDuckGo, respectively. Remote work fits me at my current stage in life. I enjoy the freedom and autonomy that come with remote work, when done well, and I tend to be more effective and productive. Also, as you can imagine, I enjoy writing, which means asynchronous communication comes naturally to me.
At another stage in my life, all I wanted was to be in the office. I moved to San Francisco in 2010 to join Google, and I loved being on the campus. My co-workers were my closest friends. The food was great, there were free events, like TGIF happy hours and speakers, like Sandra Day O’Connor. I was energized by seeing engineers practicing juggling in the field during their lunch breaks,and by the ideas, optimism and maker culture that permeated the campus.
As you can see, I’m biased, and I have very specific reasons on why I prefer remote work now, and preferred in-office work then. This is natural and expected and so very human.
What we often don’t take into account, is how these self-serving biases might impact our decision making, for ourselves, but also, for the wider organization. The only way we can begin to see this is through the practice of awareness. Questions help.
Making Better Decisions
Now that we’re all aware of the three “S”s (satisficing, sunk costs and self-serving reasoning) that can cloud our decision making prowess around organizational design, you might be thinking, well, great, but now what? We need to make a real decision about how we work, and right now, there’s three options on the table: remote, hybrid or traditional.
Let’s learn from the negotiators.
First, understand each side’s interests. By asking questions, you can start to acknowledge what is important to each side of the “where to work” equation. For example, perhaps the executive who wants employees back in the office, feels like he or she lacks control, or feels more comfortable working in the way they’ve grown accustomed to while climbing the corporate ladder. Or, maybe there’s a certain set of employees that would like to come into the office on occasion, largely to socialize and have a new atmosphere to work from. Once you understand these motivating factors, you can start designing simple rules that take into account multiple needs. In this scenario, maybe the office turns into a coworking location where you invite clients and community partners to pop-by. To manage the needs of the executive, there’s simple rules put in place to visualize work, so that even if employees are working remotely, it’s easy to see what’s being accomplished across the organization.
Second, find new ways to unlock value. Think of this moment as an opportunity, not a crisis. By changing the way we work, there’s ways to be more effective, as well as attract talent that might not have been in reach before. In our upcoming book, Remote Works, we detail the 5Ws and 1H (Who, What, When, Where, Why, How) of what’s changed between traditional work and remote work, and then outline ways to capitalize on the opportunity. Perhaps, you can now hire more talent internationally, or you’re able to use money saved on real-estate to invest in a different set of employee perks.
Third, remember, it’s not a fixed pie. How many types of pie are there in the world? Apple pie, pumpkin pie, rhubarb pie. There’s cream pie and custard pie and meringue pie. I could go on, but now, I’m getting hungry. The point, though, is simple; there’s more than three ways to work: remote, hybrid, or traditional. By finding out “what needs to be true” about your work, you can start designing exciting alternatives that make your organization unique and special. Maybe each department gets to decide their unique way of working, or you take time to interview employees across the company, to get a better sense of what matters to them, and how they like to get their work done.
Still feeling stuck? Get inspired instead. Take a look at Gitlab’s Guide to Remote Work, Zapier’s Guide or Quora’s Manifesto. Or, take a peek at the career pages of companies like Doist, Mural, Automattic and DuckDuckGo. Try out some design thinking exercises to get the creative juices flowing.
When we can think of this time as a moment for creativity, rather than a moment of chaos, it’s bound to unlock something new within your organization. Next time, when you hear about "the great return to the office" or "the great resignation," I hope you take it as a moment to pause, reflect and dig into the underlying motivations. Lots of questions, and ultimately, the answer lies inside.