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The Space in Between the Conflict of WFH vs. RTO Holds the Answer

Where's the Cosmic Parent

It seems like we've been in some intergalactic feud since 2020. If you're the parent of children or have been around kids, you may recognize the situation. First, the adult cleaned the room and put the toys away. Then, the next time the kids play, a power struggle ensues. Who gets to play with what, when, and where. Reluctantly, the parent fights the urge to smack the hands of said children to wake them up to the reality that it's more fun if everyone plays together. And Hey! Be grateful you have toys!! Finally, when they can't figure it out independently, the parent steps in to put some space between them. Go to your rooms!

If only a cosmic parent would step in this family feud happening in businesses around the globe between working from home and returning to the office. After two years, you would think a higher intelligent being could settle it by now. But the recent return to work mandates kicked off by Elon Musk of Tesla has created an inflection into the ongoing power struggle. I suspect his and subsequent RTO mandates are adding fuel to the fire because employees recognize the injustice of the RTO move. Executives can get employees back to the office or achieve expense-cutting goals ahead of an impending recession thru their implied resignation. And if employees refuse to return well, that's even better. Now executives don't have to pay severance packages to people they were planning on laying off. It's potentially a BOGO. 😏 It's possible that cosmic parent slap on the hand (aka karma) may still be on the horizon.

The futility of fighting polarities

Nonetheless, the fight continues. Employees have their reasons for not wanting to return to the office. And employers have their reasons for getting employees back. Both entrenched in a battle of polarity to their death. Or so it seems. 🤦🏼‍♀️ It's a polarity that few have taken the reins to manage very well. Barry Johnson highlights the necessity of managing in this quote.

Polarities to manage are sets of opposites that can't function well independently. Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a "solution" and neglect the other. The objective of the polarity management perspective is to get the best of both opposites while avoiding the limits of each.

Seeing that, as Barry points out, "it can't function well," let's add up how this is paramount to organizations' very survival. So let's make a list of functional issues that began in 2020 through now and into the foreseeable future that seek to take the sheer life force from organizations.

  • The pandemic itself (isolation, distancing, sick leave, etc.)

  • Mask, vaccine, and other required government mandates

  • A scramble of digital transformations (the majority of which failed at some level)

  • The breakneck speed of change might not have broke necks but indeed broke the mental well-being of humanity (which led to 👇🏻)

  • The great resignation (which is still going strong)

  • The cost challenges and choices made as a result of all of the above

  • The impending recession and the additional difficulties and options it will entail

Do we want to fight this battle to the death (of our organizations)? Is there a need to go further? Not in my opinion. It's time to stop the power struggles of polarities. It's time to stop bickering like children and recognize that we are all humans with needs. Even in the world of work, employers and employees alike have shared needs - a desire to thrive in their work. A safe, accepting, enjoyable, and profitable workplace allows them to use their gifts and talents to serve a higher purpose. But isn't achieving that far more important than where someone sits? If we continue to bicker about the trivial, we are likely to find ourselves battle-worn and exhausted on the floor, only to look around and find there is nowhere left to sit. The business has closed its doors. Innovation, not internal war, is the way forward. Here are a couple of innovative quotes that make the point better than I may have

Innovation comes from people who take joy in their work. -W. Edwards Demming
Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity - not a threat. -Steve Jobs

Innovating in the space between polarities

It's time to cease the battle of polar opposites and begin to look at the space in between. Neither the employer nor employee side provides the starting point for innovation. The place where all possibility exists lies somewhere in the space in between. First, a little philosophy to drive home the point.

We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.― Lao Tzu

This age-old philosophy holds true in many of today's innovations. It is the absence of the cord in the wall that made the cell phone. Advancing again it was the absence of the keypad that made the iPhones innovative. It's the absence of hotel rooms that created Airbnb. The absence of taxis created Uber. You get the point. It's not so much about 'what is' as it is about 'what isn't' that makes something innovative. So it's not so much about where people sit that gets the work done in new and innovative ways. It's about the space within the being. So what is it this non-being within each of us (what I refer to as the human spirit) need? Well, isn't it obvious? SPACE.


Although we can scarcely remember pre-pandemic the pace of work was frantic and unrelenting. While the pandemic may have hampered external (non-work) outings it continued to escalate work to relentless and unsustainable levels. Successfully innovating the future of work will mean that work is more sustainable for humans. The energy flow of work will more closely match the energy flow of humans. Which isn't non-stop 40-50-60 hours. When we continue beyond our energy levels we suffer both mentally and physically.

P - space for PRIORITIES

Ten back-to-back meetings (either online or in-person) are not the priority. Neither is the next internal transformation when the last several change initatives are still wasting precious time and resources because no one cared to consider all the stakeholders. Priorites are the needs of humans. People, not products create economic value. Whether that is the needs of people within or outside the organization, people come first. No people, no profits.

A - space for AUTONOMY

Autonomy is one of the single biggest needs of humans. Work from home has given employees this single need in ways that in-office work never even cared to consider. Design autonomy into in-office work and the battle may all but disappear.

C - space for CARE

Humans require care. I even have a video on 7 ways self-care leads to innovation. The majority of office setups barely allow trips to the restroom without interruption from a colleague following you in to ask a question or waiting outside. Lunch is often more of the same. Heaven, forbid you have to run out for a doctor appointment. It's near impossible to make it out the door without dodging your boss or others with "just one more question".

E - space to ESCAPE

In our 24/7/365 always-on world, there is no place to escape. A workplace that doesn't offer a place to process thoughts, and emotions, much less space to allow creative ideas to flow no longer works. We've already established even going to the restroom can be a challege. There is no doubt that the future of work is creative which means the space to escape for a bit is a new work imperative.

Impending cosmic slap or designed space

In conclusion, the choice is up to today's leaders. Leaders and employees can continue the WFH vs. RTO battle and face the potential cosmic slap or choose to come together and begin to design a workplace that provides the space humans needs. Begin asking questions about how you can create the above S-P-A-C-E together with your employees. And if you need an intergalactic guide with a clear perspective of space and one that is astute in realms where leadership and design thinking intersect, I'm here to help.


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