There is a HOT debate going on about return to office. There’s a pitched battle between management who says, “You need to be in three, four, sometimes five days a week. And if you’re not signing up to like go hard, then we don’t want you as part of our team.” And on the other hand, we have employees saying, “Look, it’s been three years. I am highly productive working remotely and there’s no way I’m coming back into the office. And if you force me to, well, first I’m going to just not show up and then I’m going to search for a job elsewhere where they get it.”

Everybody Talks About Productivity

This is sort of the debate of our time as we’re transforming the future of work and figuring out what things are going to look like. The problem is that a lot of this argument is centered around the notion of productivity. Managers are saying, “Well, you can’t be productive if you’re working from home, or at least I can’t tell if you’re being productive and I can’t give you the stink eye if I catch you playing solitaire, which I used to be able to do when I could manage by walking around.”

Managers are making the case that there’s just not the right productivity if people are working remotely. And employees are saying, “Are you kidding me? I can be way more productive without all the distractions. And frankly, I’ve been devoting a lot of the time I save from commuting to working, so you’re getting more hours from me each day than you would if I had to sit on a bus for two hours!”

The research has actually answered this debate for us so I’m not sure why it’s still going on. The research shows us that people can be equally and, in some cases, more productive when they work remotely. Fewer distractions, more time committed to the work – we’re getting a lot more for a paycheck than we would if people were coming into the office. That debate is kind of done, but somehow it just won’t die.

The True Fight Is for Control

What’s actually happening and the reason that nobody’s moving off this pitched battle of productivity is that the true fight is for control. Managers, I’m not sure managers ever really had control, but it felt like they had control when people had to march into the office and they could see how many hours they were at their desk and see what was on their screen. It wasn’t real control, but at least they felt like there was control. But in this new scenario, workers have so much more control, at least those of us who work in the knowledge economy and have been working remotely for a few years. We have control over all sorts of things, and these things matter.

So, if you’re a manager who doesn’t empathize and understand why employees are fighting to stay remote, then you need to really work on your empathy. Imagine an employee who has young children and maybe elderly parents, people they need to care for. It used to be that if you needed to take somebody to a doctor’s appointment, you’d have to take a vacation day. Sitting in a pediatrician’s waiting room with snotty infectious kids is hardly what I would call a vacation day.

Control Is Worth Fighting For

In remote work, your kid, your parent, whoever, is probably a lot closer at hand. You can nip out for an hour, go to the doctor and just tack that time on before or after your day without having to take a vacation day.

That’s worth fighting for.

It’s all sorts of other control too. For me, I know this is silly, but there’s research that shows that women perform more poorly in offices of the temperature that we tend to like to keep them. Women do much better when the temperature is about two degrees higher. So, for three years we’ve all had control over the thermostat. We’ve had the benefit in productivity of actually being warm enough, not feeling like our body is telling us that we’re at risk of freezing to death and making it harder to focus.

Now, of course, I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Oh, it’s finally been cool enough, I’ve been able to turn down the thermostat.” But whatever it is, you’ve had control.

It gets even more profound than that if we think about people with neurodiversities, they’ve been able to create an environment that suits them. Maybe it’s multiple screens. We know that many people with neurodiversities don’t take in information orally as well. And the shift to having more things in Slack or on Teams and asynchronous communication has made it much easier for them to process information and to contribute.

We know that the same is often true for people with disabilities. I had a wonderful conversation fairly early on in the pandemic with a participant in a leadership development program who’s visually impaired. She said, “This pandemic has been the best thing ever for me because I’m at home with all of my assistive technologies. When people have to send files in, I have all the tools. I’m taking in more information and contributing more now than I ever have.”

When it comes even to diversity and inclusion, I read a story about an Indigenous woman who’s very senior in her company. She said, “I didn’t realize until I didn’t have to face it, I didn’t realize how many microaggressions I faced in my average work week. Two or three times every week, someone would come up to me and start treating me as if I’m the administrative assistant or the receptionist. And it just wears away at your self-esteem at some point your sense of justice in the world.” With remote work she hasn’t had to face that in a long time.

So, when employees are fighting to create or to maintain some flexibility, they’re fighting for things that matter a lot.

We Need to Define Employee Performance

If we’re fighting about productivity when that’s not the issue, but we’re actually wrestling for control and control matters a lot, the next thing we have to get clear on is that employees aren’t making a totally ingenuous case either. They say, “Well, I’m just as productive at home.”

But that’s only true if we define their performance in terms of their own checklist of individual tasks. And I don’t think that’s why we have people on teams, in organizations, at least it’s not the whole equation. What we need to do, managers pay attention, we need to start defining performance beyond just an individual set of tasks or objectives. When you are a member of an organization, you’re a member of a community.

Your team is a community. Your department, your division, your organization, they’re communities that you belong to. And it’s not sufficient for you to say, “Well, I checked off my list.” How are you contributing to the community? Are there new people on your team? If you stay fully remote are you there to help them get integrated? People who struggle when they’re remote are less likely to ask for help and no one’s there to notice that they’re having difficulty. Well, one of the reasons we expect you to come into the office and collaborate with one another is because you can see things like that and you can help out.

We know that overhearing things can lead to innovation, problem resolution. So, being part of a community requires more than just you checking off your list. But managers have done a terrible job in setting those expectations. We have smart objectives that are so carefully honed to be just what you can be accountable for that we’re afraid of saying that “You get a paycheck, you are a part of this organization to be part of a team, to be part of a culture, and to be part of a community. And we need to contribute to those communities to keep them healthy.” We have a long way to go in redefining what our expectations are of people.

Here’s What’s Non-Negotiable

If we can do that, we can get to the final crux of the return to office debate, which is we can say, “Here’s what’s non-negotiable. Here are the things where we need you in the office to contribute to this community, to overhear things, to catch someone struggling, to make the new person feel welcome, whatever it is.” But beyond that – that small set of non-negotiables of what it means to be a part of our community – beyond that, everything else needs to be way more negotiable than it has been.

What days work for you? What hours work for you? Can we change the setup of your desk so it’s more conducive to the way you work and how you think? Can we create blackout periods in your day so you can actually get into flow and not be constantly distracted? Can we change? Can we have anchor days where there are days where we’re not expected to be productive on our individual tasks, but we are expected to collaborate, chat with one another, connect?

And then can we protect some of those other days for productivity and say, “No meetings, no expectation that you’re responding to email every five minutes.” We need to shift how we work. We need to support people. We need to be willing to negotiate on creating an environment that works for them. Maybe even having zones in the office where you can have the temperature a little higher or a little lower.

We Are Having This Fight All Wrong

We are having this fight all wrong, pretending it’s about productivity when really it’s about control. But when I say that, I don’t say it to mean that employees are wrong to be fighting to maintain some of the control they’ve gained. I think they’re right.

What we need to do is figure out what are our expectations of people? What does it mean to be part of a team and a work community? And what’s it going to take to deliver on that? They become your non-negotiables. But beyond that, there is so much room to negotiate on creating an environment, a schedule, a set of tasks, an interaction style that works for each individual much more customized than it ever has been before.

Only when we figure out that that’s what we’re fighting for, a workplace that has strong communities in which individuals can thrive, that’s the only time we’re going to figure out what the future of work could look like.

I’m pretty excited about that.

More on this: Return-to-Office Miniseries

We are botching the return-to-office transition. We need to talk less about individual productivity and talk more about the obligation to contribute to healthy teams and organizations. But leaders, the price of admission to that conversation is to give up some control so employees can optimize their experience and to reset how the workweek is used so we have less overflow into personal time.

Next Video: Hybrid Work Strategies: Deciding What’s ‘Office Worthy’