A few weeks ago, I did something that would have been unheard of just six months ago. I went into the office. Twice! And for me, that’s where the magic happens. I felt energized by my colleagues, went for an impromptu lunch, and had an unplanned brainstorming session about an upcoming staff retreat. We laughed and joked, told and listened to personal stories, and let our guard down — all things that happen in between formal meetings. All things that just aren’t the same over Zoom.
Anyone who’s spent any time with me at all, even in passing, knows I’m an extrovert — a self-proclaimed people person or “peoplistic”, as my former team in the Philippines called me. I thrive on social interaction. So to start my job at Miller Center last July entirely remotely was, to say the least, very weird.
But while I’m ready and excited to get back to the office, I recognize that not everyone on our team is — for a variety of reasons. And there are distinct advantages to working from home, even for me, in spite of my craving for contact. No commute! Greater flexibility and more time with our children. And it’s simply easier to make those 7:00 am international meetings when you can roll out of bed, still in pajama pants, only having to be presentable in the Zoom window.
Besides the convenience factor, perhaps the most clearly defined divide on returning to the office is where people fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. While we often think of introverts as being shy and extroverts as being outgoing, that’s not always the case. A critical measure is what energizes people. While extroverts draw energy from social interactions, introverts need downtime to recharge. And this has big implications for returning to an office environment. A recent BBC article notes, “Remote work offered ‘quiet deliverers’ who flew under the radar in the office a chance to really stand out,” citing a more conducive work environment and different skill-set requirements in a remote world.
That said, I truly believe it’s time for us to return to the office as a team in some way. It’s not an issue of productivity — which hasn’t suffered at Miller Center. In fact, productivity has arguably increased during remote work. This greater productivity has been widely seen by other organizations, particularly early in the pandemic, although over time, the results are mixed. A 2021 Forbes article notes that some of the perceived productivity is actually attributable to working longer hours. It also cites evidence that while productivity improved for certain types of work — both truly individual and rote work for instance — it may have decreased for both collaborative and more complex work.
Either way, where Miller Center has suffered most is less about productivity and more about connectivity — personal connections and trust. I’m a firm believer in building trust-based teams, and that’s significantly harder to do in a remote world. Coming in as the new executive director a year ago, it took much longer to build psychological safety and comfort within the team than I’ve experienced in the past. And that includes previous experiences joining teams that were pretty dysfunctional when I got there. The team at Miller Center is honestly one of the best I’ve worked with, but working remotely simply makes it harder to build trust. Other organizations have reported eroding trust without in-person contact, even among staff members who’ve long worked together.
While these are important considerations, all of us at Miller Center recognize that we’re lucky to be in a position to even have these conversations. Both here in the US and around the world, we’ve watched as countless people have lost their jobs and livelihoods, making this debate feel especially privileged. Many others have obviously not had the option to work remotely. We’re incredibly grateful to all the first responders who continue to work tirelessly to care for the sick and keep us safe. We also understand the sacrifices of grocers, factory workers, delivery drivers, and others — many working in low-wage jobs — that make our remote lifestyles possible.
Remote work, spurred by the pandemic, is also amplifying racial and class divides. Research from UCLA substantiates this, noting that, “Telecommuting, which was once a relatively rare phenomenon, has become a major factor in moderating the economic impacts of novel coronavirus, such that…race and class discrepancies now have life-threatening consequences.”
Still, as we approach returning to our office at Santa Clara University, barring further delays from the Delta variant, concerns and trepidation are real, as are excitement and longing for social connection. While I firmly believe we need to come back together for the health of our team, I understand the need to strike a balance for the diversity of feelings and opinions among our staff.
So we’re running an experiment to try to honor all the different perspectives and diversity of our team. We’ll return to the office three days a week — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — and work remotely for two. We’re working on being intentional about clustering meetings when we’re together in the office, providing quiet spaces for deep work, and limiting meetings on remote days. We also believe that opportunities for quick, in-person collaborations will reduce the need for so many scheduled Zoom meetings. To maintain a sense of fairness, our leadership team has agreed not to negotiate individualized plans at this point. And we’ll see how it goes. We plan to run this experiment through the end of 2021 and then reassess.
We recognize that work looks different now. Drawing on the spirit of innovation that we’re surrounded by — both in Silicon Valley where we work and among the social entrepreneurs we work with around the world — we aim to innovate a solution for the future of work at Miller Center.