How ‘proxy’ openness is creeping & in our work culture – and it might not be the best thing for us

(Jan 2020)

Employee – “Hey, I need to work from home today, I have a carpenter coming in during lunch.”

Boss – “Please mark it as an unplanned leave. We do not promote WFH as a culture. Sends a bad message to the rest of the team.”

(3 months later)

Boss – “This is a critical release, can you WFH tomorrow to get this done?”

Employee – “0_0”

For most of you out there, this has either happened to you or to one of your friends.

We all have, at some point in our corporate lives, complained about flexibility while sipping a tea during a chai/sutta break with our colleagues below the office premises. From being judged for taking extra WFH days to everyone sitting and wondering when they would get to the office and have the machine-made coffee, we have come a long way in the last couple of months.

I was recently speaking to a friend about the importance of adjusting to forced change and how little we control our external factors but still live in a false reality of dreaming of control. I myself have worked with Managers who believed that they have a secret sauce of ‘success at workplace’ and most of it had to do with sitting in close quarters and looking busy.

Even if it meant watching Game of Thrones re-runs in booked meeting rooms with headphones.

Fortunately, I have also worked with Leaders who encouraged me to be fearless and taught me that it’s ok to work on my own terms as long as I keep my team’s success factors in my mind.

It has got me some great feedback in the past and quite a few cases of strong criticism as well; which I’ve taken with a pinch of salt.

The twist here is that I have seen people in the second category move to the first, but rarely the other way round. It brings a question to mind, how are they coping with this ‘forced flexibility’ that they had to give to their teammates during this pandemic?

The answer – by being ‘fake’ open.

They are suddenly using jargons to sound cool. Talking about trust. Valuing openness. Even sending emailers asking teams to take their time and having web coffee chats with their teams.

Let me make it clear, I am in no way an expert in Management styles and some of you might be having second thoughts about reading this article further as I have already digressed from the topic, but hear me out. The reason I am mentioning all of this is that they are the characteristics of an office culture where ‘hierarchy’ is considered paramount. Where teams merely follow rules and go from X to Y, as told. These teams rarely innovate because they are afraid of failure. They are afraid of change.

Such teams (nay Leaders) are now realizing that they must trust their teammates because they can no longer be the eagles watching their preys as they adapt to the remote work culture…and it’s fairly toxic.

I strongly believe that if you put trust in your team, the team returns the favour. It’s a two-way street, You treat them as equals and they will respond with enthusiasm.

The foundation of being a ‘breaker of processes’ (yes, that’s a GoT pun!) is building an environment where we embrace the uncertainties in the world that we live in. After all, we can only plan for so much. Right?

In a paper titled ‘Anatomy of Collaboration’, Dr Kippin and Prof. Fulford mention the following –

Collaboration is hard. It can be wasteful. It can challenge power and undermine organizational fidelity. Some silos are there for good reasons. But like it or not, creating value through services is usually a coproduction – a relationship between the service user, and the service being delivered

Intriguing. Isn’t it? It can have all the interpretations you want.

You might argue that some breathing space in this ‘proxy’ culture is better than living inside a box, but what I fear is that it may damage the equilibrium overall. This will become the new normal where Managers may be using said benefits and work ethos as carrots/sticks method to get their work done. I just hope that it doesn’t muddy the waters for us who still are ‘believers’.

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