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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What’s Eating Brother Elon?

Let’s start with what needs to be said before all else: I am an enormous fan of Elon Musk. I think he is quite likely the most important and visionary entrepreneur today leading the way in technology, business, and innovation. He walks in the American continuum of Edison, Disney, Gates, and Jobs.  I wrote as much in a post dating back to 2014.

So when a guy as brilliant as Musk goes sideways, I start to ask myself some questions. Like, what’s up with all the weirdness?

Clearly I have no ability to understand what’s going on in this amazing individual’s life, other than to observe the monumental toll that stress can take on even the mightiest of titans. To guess at what might be at the root of Musk’s recent unpleasant run in the headlines would seem a fool’s errand.

While I am unable to fashion an informed evaluation of why Musk appears in many ways to be undermining his own success of late, I am thinking about the learning that might be had from observing his stress. I am reasonably certain he will have no interest in my reflections of what his behavior could be telling us, but perhaps this will provide a mirror for others on what some of this means and how it possibly could be addressed.

Here are five thoughts on that.

Focus Is No Small Trick

Can one person really be an effective CEO at more than one company? It’s hard enough to be a decent CEO period. Now add longevity to the CEO run and enormous competitive forces, and you start to wonder if running both Tesla (after integrating SolarCity) and SpaceX is remotely possible. Let’s also not forget that Musk is additionally CEO of Neuralink and The Boring Company. If you have ever been CEO of a high-growth company or even know one, you are aware that the job requires super-human energy, and even then the clock is always ticking against the corner office. Musk is beyond super-human, not only as a leader but as a founder who tackles some of the most difficult problems of our day. Will he succeed at all of his goals? I am sure a lot of investors and customers are counting on that, but wouldn’t the odds be more in his favor if he narrowed the scope of his personal agenda and delegated authority with a much broader brush?

A Competitive Advantage Is Not Forever

Tesla has created leading-edge, clean-exhaust automobiles. These electric vehicles are as beautiful and luxurious as anyone could have imagined. Most Tesla owners are evangelists for the company and fiercely loyal to the brand. There is no question that Tesla has been an inspired market leader, but all it takes is one visit to the showrooms of other luxury car companies and you start to see that high-end electric cars are on a fast path to becoming commodities under many brands. BMW and Jaguar already are introducing competitive product lines. Others are on the way. Staying ahead of the pack is its own form of madness and a lot less fun than introducing first-of-a-kind category killers. Can playing king of the hill without a summit in sight have a troubling impact on the psyche? How can it not?

Production Efficiency Is as Difficult as Innovation

Why hasn’t a new auto manufacturer in the U.S. survived at scale beyond the Big Three? The bulk of car buyers want cheap—most consumers don’t have an option to spend more, so the entrenched behemoths take small margins to achieve broad sales and then make money in other ways like service and financing. When you are playing with other people’s money, the demands of Wall Street can be insanely demanding. It’s hard to make big bucks selling very few cars. While Model S and Model X are both category-defining luxury cars, they remain low-volume production units with difficult margin economics given their scale. Model 3, the low-cost mass-market entry, is supposed to change the scale of Tesla, but realizing the dream of high-volume, low-cost, low-margin automobile economics seems precisely what is eating away at our hero. Is the problem perhaps not solvable with the reality of capital constraints all businesses face? Is there another business model beyond manufacturing that Tesla might want to explore with respect to the investment burden they carry?

Health Matters

A lot of people at the upper echelons of business take pride in working themselves to death, or at least appearing to do so. I will admit I am personally not beyond this criticism, and have winced more than once when listening to colleagues celebrate the notion of work-life balance even in the most competitive environments. Many leaders demonstrate manic obsession in their devotion to their enterprises, and it is hard to argue a company can be at the top of its game with a standard forty-hour work week. That said, no matter how much we wish to argue the contrary, we are human, our bodies have limits, and when we cross our own lines of practicality, we can become counterproductive. Sleep matters. Nutrition matters. Some relief from stress is necessary to be consistent in exercising good judgment and productive reasoning. When our vitality breaks down, it is only a matter of time before we collapse or the responsibilities we own become compromised.

Authenticity Does Not Require Unrestrained Drama

The modern workforce is not put off when a boss exhibits some vulnerability. Relationships defined by org charts actually can be strengthened when a manager exhibits humility toward his or her own limitations. Leaders who acknowledge that emotions and potential exhaustion set them on a level playing field with peers and subordinates can foster a dynamic environment of trust and support. That doesn’t mean employees and other stakeholders want executives to ramble, wander, or become media fodder. Remember that old saying, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Random proclamations to shareholders and needlessly quirky public appearances can leave deep craters on the social graph. All organizations want some form of predictability in the leaders they choose to follow. When they lose confidence in top management because of repeated, silly, and unnecessary antics that can demoralize their aspirations, they can make another choice. They vote with their feet.

I am rooting for Elon Musk to win, for SpaceX even more than Tesla, because he has proven that not only government bureaucracies can build dependable rockets. That is forcing innovation around reusability in space exploration and keeping admirable government spending on otherworldly travel in check. While I probably can’t put a dent in Musk’s corrective arc (which I want to believe is on the horizon), perhaps I can open the eyes of a few mere mortals to the underlying tension of his story. Perhaps your story of stress and self-expectation has similar subplots of immovable market forces. What could you be doing to course-correct that might give Musk reason to pay attention?