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Product Management and the Return to the Office

The debate around returning to the office pits companies against employees, each holding opposing views. Companies argue that being in the office allows for random interactions that drive innovation, while employees argue for a better work/life balance. Both sides have valid points, but they're often focused on their own needs with little consideration for other perspectives.

Companies argue that random interactions drive innovation, which sounds good on paper, but for which there is little evidence. It seems more likely that managers want employees in the office where they can be watched. And besides, they leased all that space! They have to find a way to use it.

These arguments don’t matter to employees.

Employees argue in favor of work/life balance: We bought a dog; my mother is sick; I like having meals with my family. And I hate the commute.

Alas, these arguments don’t matter to employers.

Both are focused on their needs with little consideration for other perspectives.

What’s needed in this discussion is some basic product management.

What problems are you trying to solve?

Before requiring employees to come back to work, companies must understand why people come to work in the first place.

Office ≠ Equipment

It used to be that the office was where the equipment was. Years ago, equipment was expensive, so people had to go to an office to access it. Computers, copiers, phone systems, and high-speed internet were only available in a real office. Nowadays, many employees have nicer offices and better equipment at home than at work (although that’s not the case for everyone).

Plus, there’s already an expectation that employees will work from home in the evening and on weekends to keep up with email and last-minute tasks.

Before deciding on new working standards, do what product managers do: combine interviews with surveys. Engage with your managers and employees to understand the problems they’re facing. What you’ll likely learn is a desire for more collaboration and workplace flexibility.

It’s not access to equipment that requires a corporate office. It’s access to people.

Office = People

The primary problem businesses should focus on is getting employees to engage with one another productively.

Years ago, one of my technical teams complained to me about their workspaces. Small cubicles in rows, just as you’ve seen in every depressing office scene in a movie. What they needed was a collaboration space. Over a weekend, a group of us reconfigured their cubicles from 8 small cubicles to one large workspace. I even gave them a small conference table from my office. In the new workspace, they could have a meeting instantly without booking a conference room. And their productivity soared.

Plan for hybrid

The office we need today needs more meeting spaces than personal spaces.

All meetings today are hybrid, so companies must design workspaces with the assumption that some participants will be remote. You need screens for presentation materials, a virtual whiteboard, and cameras and screens to engage the remote participants. You need larger rooms for large groups and smaller rooms for small groups or breakouts. And you need enough rooms that scheduling them is easy.

Here's something everyone can agree on: Commuting sucks. Most of us can’t afford to live close to the office, so we spend hours each week going from home to work and back. And it’s ridiculous to drive to the office to work alone.

However, employees benefit from working near other professionals even if they aren’t working on similar stuff. Even if they don’t work in a team or squad, less experienced workers can see how the old-timers do it. Older employees can mentor (and be mentored by!) younger people.

The key to this conundrum is approaching it like a product manager: focusing on understanding personas and problems.

Employees are not all the same. Some are young; some are old. Some have kids or dogs; some don’t. Some like to work in the morning; some prefer later in the day. Develop personas for each type of employee. understand their pains and gains, and incorporate solutions to make going to the office beneficial.

One solution won’t fit everyone’s needs.

Should we all go back to the office? Maybe, but only if the office can support our requirements better than our home offices.

Companies should focus on getting employees to engage with each other productively, which is what an office should facilitate. Therefore, companies must design workspaces that accommodate both in-person and remote work, with more meeting spaces than personal ones. The goal should be to make the corporate office more beneficial than employees' home offices.

As a product leader, you may be interested in downloading our free eBook, How to Achieve Product Success.


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