Reading Time: 7 minutes
Our law library has been operating in a hybrid mode deliberately for over a year now. It was one of the first things I focused on when I arrived. Staff had been operating in a hybrid model through the pandemic upheaval so one choice would have been to return to pre-pandemic staffing (everyone in a physical library building, 40 hours a week). Or we could do something different. So we did something different. Hybrid is great but I can see why CEOs are asking for their people to return.
Tl,dr: it’s not the staff who are the problem
This past summer, with a year of hybrid work under our belt, I asked everyone how it was going. What was working? What wasn’t? The feedback was uniformly positive. That wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was still worth asking. Usually after a year, you will have already gathered feedback and have a bellwether for outcomes.
The most difficult part, inevitably, was not the policy itself although that had its challenges. Like any good law librarian, I opened up one of our online legal forms subscriptions and found some state-specific templates. Then I customized one, got feedback from our staff, customized it some more, and took it to the governance Board.
The biggest hurdle for me was the equal v. fair question. I’ve got pretty good spatial awareness but I’m not always exact in my actions. In our family, we fall back on “one person cuts, the other person chooses” when it comes to cutting and sharing treats. It is hard to be exactly equal. The same thing with parenting kids. Not every kid wants or needs the same things so treating them all the same may be equal but it isn’t necessarily fair.
We knew that not every role had the same flexibility for remote work. You can’t shelve print books remotely. We have a security officer. There was no functional way to make every role equally hybrid. Some people have to be in the library more than others although all but one role (the security one) has a remote option if the person in the role wants to use it.
The policy was useful because it laid out what was expected for everyone. It provided enough flexibility for us to adapt roles to the operational needs. At the end of the day, the work is done or it isn’t done. We seem to have found the sweet spot where there’s no immediate need to revisit our policy but we did a lot of early thinking (about technology, about indicating presence) that seems to have paid off.
The Practice: Present and Accounted For
I think about work a lot. It’s usually the first thing on my mind in the morning as I prepare for the day. If I go for a long walk, before long, work will intrude on my thoughts. Walks are often great ways to find inspiration and also think bad ideas to their conclusion and toss them. I don’t say this for praise; I expect everyone thinks about their work beyond the hours that they spend paid for it.
Which means that for most of us there is a tension that is important to keep in mind that, at least for me, is a struggle. Our employers may only compensate us for the “work hours” but when you’re a knowledge worker, your mind doesn’t always swipe in and swipe out on a regular clock. In fact, I often do better thinking when I’m not in the office.
As a director, though, I do feel a certain sense of needing to be present. That’s not great. Because presentee-ism is one of the enemies of hybrid work. There’s presentee-ism caused by poor health care options but I’m really focused on jacket-on-chair presentee-ism as documented in this work/balance report for the UK legal profession. The kind that rewards being visible in the workplace rather than what one does with one’s time.
It’s not my staff. One thing that has not been a concern for me is what people are doing when I can’t see them. I think I’m a very project- or output-oriented manager and so I don’t really worry about what happens between outputs. If the output is poor quality or late or not what was discussed, then we sort that out. But it’s not usually a reflection of where the work was done or what time of day it was done.
It irritates me, then, when I personally feel like I should be in my office. I know myself and my ideal working conditions. For example, to write, I usually sit and listen to music without words. Ideally without headphones but my office is surprisingly noisy due to street traffic (sirens, construction engines that shake the windows, etc.) and I have brought in a pair of headphones to help with focus. I have a standing desk though (at home and work) and stand most days as I work through the other types of items I’ve got on the go. Things that don’t require long periods of focused concentration, like email or paying bills or what have you.
One thing headphones help with is to improve the likelihood I’ll stay in flow. For me, it’s not sound that interrupts, but it’s the variety of sounds. Headphones can help override that variety. I’ve also turned my desk so that I can see people at my door but they can also see me with headphones. And, if I am really in need of focus, I can close the door. It’s an occasional pleasure just to be able to focus.
But there’s also the squishy part of leadership or management. I feel like I need to be available—and in my office—in case staff need to get to me. This is an acceptance that interruptions could happen, and so I often plan my days around smaller activities that can be accomplished despite interruptions. I use the word interruption not as a negative but merely to note that activity A is underway when interaction B occurs and A has to stop. Interruptions are normal and healthy. There are times I’ve been working on A too long and an interaction is just what I need, whether to just look up and out or to go for a quick walk. Sometimes the interaction sparks a new service or idea. I don’t ever want to be closed to interruptions.
In the phrase present and accounted for, it’s the accounted for that bugs me. It’s entirely in my own mind. No one on my staff has ever tapped their watch as I walked by. We have presence identifiers at a macro level. Staff who are taking leave or off site put it on a shared Outlook calendar. We also have a magnetic whiteboard inside our entry door where we have 4×7 photo magnets (like you put on a fridge) that show whether we’re in or out, in case there’s a fire or emergency. Someone looking for me would know whether I’m in, virtual, or away. So it’s more in my own head that I’m aware that I might be “late” if I’m not in my office by a certain time or I might appear to be skiving off if I leave before a certain time.
I’m physically there. But I’m not all there.
Present in the Moment
My ideal day would start at 5am and end at 2pm (I’m definitely a lark). I tend to schedule morning meetings because that’s my peak alertness that coincides with work hours. By 2pm, I’m mostly clock watching. I can engage, but it’s not my best work. The hardest days are those that include an evening event where I need to not only get over my social reluctance but also be coherent well beyond my normal schedule.
That worries me too in part because I can imagine what it would be like for someone who reported to me. I’m physically present but I’m not always mentally present. And I’m only doing it for visibility reasons, because of expectations of being seen to be somewhere.
I can also picture the chief executive officer who thinks, well, I feel as though I need to be here, everyone else should feel that need too. If a leader is going to feel physical presence is needed for them, then why not for everyone? I don’t have that perspective or struggle but I can see how someone might land there.
I read recently about the 85% rule. We’ve seen it play out at Alphabet’s Google, where staff were able to work on passion or side projects 1 day of 5. Researchers found that targeting learning difficulty so that accuracy was around 85% was optimal. I think the whole sports-coach-pep-talk “give it 110%” is right in concept and wrong in numbers. When you are running full tilt, you should be hitting 100%, and so when you’re not, you’re somewhere below that. Like maybe 85%.
I have coached soccer for young kids (I think both teams were in their 7-9 year old groups). I was much more supportive of effort than worried about victories. It’s a good age to teach, since you are focused on giving everyone a turn. Sometimes it’s a turn to score and sometimes to flub. But even a completely missed kick was worth a cheer from me for the effort it took.
One takeaway for me about the 85% rule is that my sense of being physically present but not mentally engaged is probably not that unusual. To thine ownself be true. I know when I’m most capable and just need to mentally square that with the reality that it doesn’t overlap the rigid hours of the work week.
More recently I have tried to start working a day a week away from the office. It allows me to start my day early, well before I would have started my one-hour walk commute to my office. When I’m in the office, I will often stop engaging with email after about 2:30pm and do reading that I’ve saved up. This is a luxury: I remember working in law firms where the last minute requests didn’t end until after the workday had.
I’ve noticed I’m often reading and something will spark an idea so I will then walk to the computer to do something than go back. It’s highly fractured time but between information skimming and either taking notes or sending emails or posting something on Teams, it seems a good way to use that time when my mental faculties are waning.
This works well for me too because I tend to have a long arc communication style. I will set ideas loose as though I’m pushing little boats off into the river in the hopes that they’ll get to where they’re going. I can send them when I’m not at 100% mental acuity and then look for the response when I’m in the next day or whenever and I am feeling sharper. Another benefit to asynchronous communication.
It has helped for me to remember a former boss. I would often walk into their office and they would be sitting there with the daily newspaper open on their desk. Paper-based doomscrolling. The image reminds me that people I respect and who managed their organizations well had similar mechanisms for adapting to being present without necessarily always being in flow.
I have often suspected that they were just being available (as I was often walking in to get information or bounce an idea) and were aware that they were unlikely to get deep work done, but that shallow work also needs to be done. I need to be present and deliberate and not worry so much as to whether I’m accounted for (unless there are donuts in the lounge).