In a June email to his staff, Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, wrote: “Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.” He then announced plans for employees to return to the office three days a week in the fall.
Two days later, a group of 80 Apple employees posted a letter to Mr. Cook: “It feels like there is a disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote/location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”
The company has since delayed its reopening plans because of the Delta variant. But the questions that Apple and other organizations around the country are grappling with persist: How and why should we meet? And who decides?
Meetings were broken even before the pandemic. A 2019 report by Doodle, an online scheduling service, estimated that pointless meetings cost companies more than half a trillion dollars per year — in addition to the intangible costs to the spirit. In November 2019, a survey conducted by Korn Ferry, a consulting firm, found 67 percent of workers saying that excessive meetings kept them from doing their jobs.
After the pandemic hit, we began to sense what we can do even better virtually (the use of chats, breakout rooms and polling), as well as the limitations of not being in the same physical space (lively unmuted brainstorming, complicated coordination, spontaneity). With millions of hours of virtual meetings under our collective belts now, we can pose a question too rarely asked of workplaces: What is worthy of our collective time, and how should it be structured?
Well before the pandemic, I spent years researching effective gatherings. I interviewed more than a hundred people in all walks of life (hockey coaches, choir conductors, board chairs, party planners) who created consistently meaningful, even transformative, group experiences. They had a few things in common: They assessed the specific needs of the group every single time it met. They could articulate why they were gathering. And they didn’t assume their gatherings had to look a certain way.
One of my favorite examples of this is back in the 1990s, the founders of the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn gathered a group of judges, litigators and community members to reimagine how a court functions.
What if a single judge heard all of a neighborhood’s cases instead of separating civil, family and criminal cases all over the city? What if that judge could assign therapy and long-term treatment, not just jail time? Where in a community should a court proceeding take place? What if other activities, like counseling and conflict resolution services, occurred in the same building?
By asking these questions and acting on the answers, the Red Hook center has reduced recidivism and jail time and increased public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Amanda Berman, now the center’s project director, told me, “There are no lines in our head about how we should gather or what it needs to look like.”
Workplaces would do well to ask themselves questions as bravely and open-endedly as the members of the Red Hook group did. Organizations will need coherent principles for the type of employees and type of work (if any) that must be done in person. Where they set that line will look different in different workplaces.
A media company, for example, may realize that the coverage of breaking news is best overseen by a certain number of people in the office together, making live decisions quickly. A sitcom writers’ room may realize that the best jokes are written by people with space and that virtual creative meetings help mitigate the status jockeying that happens around a table. The Harvard Business Review recently published a useful chart to help teams determine whether or not to meet in person.
Organizations must consider the needs of all employees. There is a yawning gap in the sense of belonging at work between white people and people of color. Remote work is a salve for caregivers, geographically remote populations and disabled people. Recent studies have also shown that Black employees prefer remote work in higher percentages than their white colleagues.
Asking employees if they want to “return to the office” is asking the wrong question. Instead, managers should ask: What did you long for when we couldn’t physically meet? What did you not miss and are ready to discard? What forms of meeting did you invent during the pandemic out of necessity that, surprisingly, worked? What might we experiment with now?
This experimentation should be a dialogue among management and staff, not an edict handed down. It opens radical possibilities. Perhaps you let employees continue remotely but bring them together a few times a year, focusing those gatherings on forging connections strong enough to sustain far-flung teams. Perhaps, like Dropbox, you go “virtual first” and allow employees to book local studios when they determine in-person collaboration is warranted.
Or like the mostly remote Twitter, you allow employees to expense virtual experiences like bingo nights, wine tastings and painting classes, so teams can find creative ways to connect and have shared experiences without being in the same place.
Maybe you experiment with the workweek itself. Kickstarter will pilot a four-day week starting in 2022. “This isn’t 40 hours compressed into four days. It’s 32 hours, total,” Aziz Hasan, the company’s chief executive, recently wrote. By giving employees the time to pursue independent projects and spend time with their families, Mr. Hasan believes they will be more productive during work hours.
We have an unusual moment to experiment with the workplace. These moments don’t come along often and don’t stay open long. Let’s seize this occasion to reinvent.