Be In The Room

Over the past weeks, several major companies have announced various return-to-office policies. That means a requirement to be in an office some number of days each week. Thus far I have resisted sending a similar memo because I think for the most part this is best left to the judgment of department leaders who understand their goals, More than that, I am counting on the good judgment of individuals to make sense of advancing their career horizons.

Let me offer this one bit of advice: If you have the opportunity to be in the room and are not taking it, you might be doing yourself an enormous disservice. The time you spend at home may make your current life easier. I have significant doubt it will make your future more successful.

In my experience, there is no substitute for being in the room. It is where true bonds are created. It is where you can see in person how difficult challenges are met. It is where your gifts can be shared and recognized not just by your peers and boss, but by your boss’s boss, and anyone up the chain who might poke in their head and see you in action.

That’s not office politics. That’s reality.

Willingly giving up a chance to be in the room is a choice you make at your own risk, to the extent you have the choice. If you still have that choice, consider what you might be giving up in exchange for those nasty commute hours and a refrigerator full of your own preferred food.

Several decades ago, I was a recent college graduate desperate for an opportunity. I offer the word desperate quite deliberately. Despite a bachelor’s degree in the humanities from a known college, a string of paid jobs and internships, and a resume filled with extracurricular projects, I was just another unknown job applicant in a huge pool of recent college grads. The economy was in rough shape. It seemed no one who mattered even wanted to talk with me, let alone hire me.

All I wanted was to be in the room.

Like so many others, I ceaselessly kept at it and eventually got interviews. After many of those I got hired into a lousy job, then another lousy job, then several other lousy jobs, then finally a good job that I believe started my real career. At no time during that arc or any subsequent arc did the notion of willingly working remotely ever cross my mind, although one of those jobs happened to be such four out of five days each week because they had no desk for me. Any time I was able to be at work I considered it a catapulting privilege to be among accomplished, ambitious colleagues.

I never forgot what it was like being in a small apartment waiting for the phone to ring for an invitation to be in the room. I also can’t imagine doing what I do today without those many decades of watching other people perform their jobs across the spectrum from expertly to incompetently.

Every chance to be in the room for me has been a chance to learn. At the same time, it has been a chance to collaborate, creatively engage, and be a part of innovation.

Have I taken solo work home to review evenings and over the weekend regularly? You bet.

Do I believe there are times when telecommuting makes sense? Absolutely.

Do I see the internet as an unrivaled tool to share ideas globally among people who might never have the chance to gather under the same roof? Without question.

Would any of it convince me that forgoing an opportunity to be in the room for comfort, convenience, or an alleged increase in productivity was a reasonable trade? Not on your life.

Working alone may increase efficiency. I don’t see it increasing creativity.

Covid-19 response was an anomaly. Did it teach many of us a new set of behaviors, that we could accomplish things remotely if it was a necessity? It certainly did. Is the continuing right to work remotely an entitlement that is the result of that learning? Well, not exactly.

I suppose in an employment market where talent has unlimited options, the benefit of working remotely might be a trading card that management can offer to attract team members. Yet if management is only offering this benefit because it has no choice if positions are to be filled, how positive do you think management feels about that? Hiring managers want choices just like you want choices. When anything becomes a mandate, it often does so with a nagging amount of reservation.

One of the things I noticed when Covid first grounded us was how quickly and well our leadership team adapted to remote meetings. In many respects, I think it is the reason our company succeeded and curiously accelerated during Covid. Many colleagues at other companies weren’t as lucky. Some tragically saw their companies in demise, not only as a result of unprecedented business conditions but of the challenges in responding to those conditions with untested practices.

The more I thought about this, the more I was convinced that we succeeded because of the years we previously spent together in the room. Those many years of collaboration established a solid foundation for crisis management we could apply remotely. We were able to talk in shorthand because we had established that shorthand. We were able to use humor because we knew each other’s sensibilities and sensitivities. I couldn’t even imagine the idea of trying to onboard a VP into a remote setting, where I knew others were trying and failing at this.

Our team knew this management paradigm was intended to be temporary and that we would be back in person as soon as practicable. Personally, I couldn’t wait and was back in the office as soon as I could. We also didn’t overreact. We knew that five days a week in person for everyone no longer made sense because it had never made sense. It was obvious that forty or so required office hours was too broad a brush. We knew workplace equilibrium would work itself out, while we counted on individuals to make sense of their careers in tandem with company needs.

Moderation always seems like a better approach to consensus than absolutes. Individual decisions always seem preferable to sweeping mandates when inspiring people’s best work.

I had a sense that every individual would come to understand the value of being in the room. To be in the room is to absorb the skills you will call upon to address the next set of challenges you will face. To be in the room is a gift, perhaps not every day, but on the days that matter and will stay with you for a lifetime.

You may be arguing with me in your head. You may be telling yourself this is a new day, a different generation, a wiser and more inspired collective that embraces work-life balance and knows to mistrust corporations that don’t have their best interests at heart. You might be convinced that because technology advances have made remote work viable, we’d be silly not to ride the horse in the direction it seems to be going. You might be right, but I am always reminded of those very dangerous words that creep up every time I think they are going away forever: “This time is different.”

I have written before about leverage in getting your way. It can be an effective tactic as a matter of last resort, but it is seldom a path to trust, long-term relationships, and compounding progress. If the only reason you are allowed to work remotely is that you think your employer has no other choices, I wonder whether you really want to work for that company. If there is a mutual understanding about workplace arrangements that benefits you and your employer in agreeing to a schedule that helps you with childcare, quiet time to think on your own, and still leaves room for in-person collaboration, that’s one thing. If either side is making a demand of the other, that seems like a shaky platform to advance together.

Some types of professions like software engineering seem particularly well suited to remote working as has been evinced by decades of sharing libraries and contributing to enterprise projects, where most of the engineer’s time is spent on individually created program code that is later assembled with other modules. Even then, when I see software engineers in a room with marketing and finance professionals, I often see exponential progress in shorter windows of time.

Don’t undervalue intangibles. Learning to read a room can help you secure unexpected allies to support a controversial strategy. The most unassuming bits of advice acquired from unfamiliar colleagues in the breakroom can be life-changing. Lifelong friendships emerge and develop from unplanned acts of empathy and compassion. You can say all of that plus mentorship and coaching are available electronically and you’ll be right. The in-person impacts you might be underestimating are tone, degree, and happenstance.

When we are together, we learn from each other. We have peripheral vision that lets us see not just what Zoom or Teams puts on the video screen, but what catches our attention in the corner of our eye. We take in winning and losing arguments and approaches. We have the unique opportunity to establish and build company culture.

My advice: Don’t wait for the company directive, don’t even wait to be asked politely. If you have the opportunity, be in the room.

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Photo: Pexels

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The Upper Hand

Think you’ve got leverage? You might. Now think hard about whether you want to exert it.

The success of a business reveals itself over long periods of time. The same is true of a career, even more so.

At any given time, circumstances may go your way. Cheesy television shows that gloss over the true workings of business may suggest this is the time to seize control of a weakened opponent, play the hard angle of opportunism, lower the boom on the boomless.

Certainly that’s one way to play the game.

You’re a property owner and the market is tight. You can play hardball with potential tenants. Maybe that works and they sign the lease without much choice.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

You’re a well-educated graduate entering the job market where positions that capitalize on your skillset are abundant. You are offered a very fair salary at an employer where you can grow, learn, and evolve your talent. You ask for 50% more. Maybe they say yes because they have a job that needs to be done right now.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

You’re a broker of commodity supplies suddenly in demand for construction or renovation. Longtime customers ask for your support in quickly completing a needed project without breaking the budget. You tell them you’d like to help, but new customers are willing to pay three to four times what you’ve been paying for the same materials you have stockpiled in inventory. Maybe you get the new asking price from your original customer and your margin soars.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

Here’s my take: You’re blowing it.

In all three of the above examples, the true price of hammering home your isolated moment of glory far exceeds the devil’s bargain you might be invoking.

You are sacrificing the establishment of trust.

You are shredding the notion of loyalty.

You are establishing a set of ground rules where the nanosecond leverage shifts, you are going to get swatted with a mirror version of the upper hand you thought was so nifty.

Think I’m wrong? Think business is just a cycle of gamesmanship where everyone longs for effective application of the upper hand? If that’s you, I am sure you are confident in your convictions. Relish the spoils of your conquest, but do us both a favor: Seek others who are like you and leave the rest of us to apply a much longer view.

Deals are short. They come and go. Want to win every single dispute, argument, and arcane point of negotiation? Try to build a brand, reputation, or legacy on that.

One day you will lose the upper hand because no one has it forever. When that day comes, you will get what you get. You put it in motion, you own it.

Am I suggesting that you should rollover and take less than you are due in any meaningful negotiation simply to be nice? No, that’s not the takeaway. Always figure out what you need, convince yourself through the other side’s eyes that your position is reasonable, and then fight for it with cordial determination. At the same time, consider the possibility that the few pennies you may choose to leave on the table today might be a stealth investment in a future windfall you can’t yet see, but might have the foresight to envision.

Being clever is seldom obvious. There are too many other clever people always around you. Being consistent in your values with an obsession for integrity is way more valuable and easier to benchmark.

Wise investors know that equities trade in cycles over decades with an upward trajectory. Timing the market is a fool’s game. You play long. Same with customers, same with brands, same with careers.

Seriously, why?

Because in the next down cycle, you are going to need help. You are going to need to pick up the phone and humble yourself. The question is, will someone answer?

I often say that one of the few good things about getting older is that you’ve accumulated the experience to navigate events with a framework for predicting a myriad of outcomes. Challenges are both temporal and lasting. Knowing the difference provides you with context for better decision-making.

As I also often say, the great tragedy of too many careers is that the learning you wish you had in your earlier years doesn’t come until much too late, and then you’re out of time.

Get ahead of the pack. This won’t be the last boom. A bust is coming. No one knows when, only that it absolutely will happen.

Then another boom and another bust. Rinse and repeat. Those are variables. The constant is you.

Play the long game. Build your network with reciprocal give-and-take. Be the kind of person in business people want to call all the time, not just when either one of you has a temporary advantage. The inspired upper hand is less about brute force, more about wisdom.

I’m 100% sure that’s a great idea.

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Photo: Pexels