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Cynthia Wisehart on Going Back to the Office

The back to the office debate, like most things that are breathlessly hyped in media and glibly discussed in high level corporate meetings, is not actually binary. The either/or handwringing is just another measure of how addictive binary conversations are. The binary frame can be forgiven in engineering—”if this, then that” is an actual thing because programming is still largely binary. By design. It’s zeros and ones.

But human life is not zeros and ones and work isn’t either. Pandemic shook up a lot of assumptions in the workplace, in every place. That had some upside. And yet, as things settle in after our years of trauma and adaptation, the pull of binary sucks back in. The panicky discussions of which one thing is “right” start anew. It’s like we can’t find our bearings unless it’s either/or.

Sure there’s discussion of hybrid work, but even that is a kind of binary conversation—the near end and the far end, in the office or at home, in the conference room or remote. Which of two things do we choose so we can lock things down and have accountability?

What’s missing from this conversation is that hybrid is about the work. What kind of work are you doing? Today? Next week? In this classroom? On this project? At this stage of this project? With this group of humans and their talents, shortcomings, and needs.

One of the big missed opportunities of hybrid is the chance to understand that all stages of work are not the same. I think integrators know this a little better than most because we do project work that goes from planning to designing to commissioning to user training. Each of those stages is quite different in who talks to whom, where you work, how much collaboration you need, how much focus.

But your customers’ needs are more similar to AV projects than it may seem. Most workplaces do creative brainstorming, and focused execution, and postmortem review, etc. There are times when in-person, seat-at-the table interaction is everything. There are times when productive focus is vital. There are times when people need proximity to reconnect and rechart a course, there are times when people need to simplify their work environment, or multi-task it with other life needs. When I worked in theme park design, I loved our free-wheeling open office, but I would spend a week in the bathroom when I had a writing deadline. When we were designing it was one flow, on site it was another, in the studio, yet another. Same project, different stages.

This is the norm and so is the ebb and flow of human energy in a team. Part of leading is figuring out who to harness and guide the flow—in motion. It’s not supposed to be set and forget. So when you are talking to your customers, maybe talk about how AV can enable all the forms of work, all the seasons and chapters of constant, ongoing enterprises being executed by humans who need different things at different times to do work that can’t always be the same.

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