Courtesy Humu

There’s a real risk that companies botch the return to the workplace, in terms of both their culture and the long-term viability of hybrid-work arrangements. Laszlo Bock has begun sounding an alarm about this. To better understand his thinking, we spoke recently with Bock, the chief executive of Humu, a company focused on workplace behavioral change, and former senior vice president of people operations at Google. Here’s a transcript, edited for clarity:

What are your main concerns about the return to the workplace with a hybrid configuration?

The principal ones are the very real physical and psychological and emotional exhaustion people are feeling. Number two, the conflation of the pandemic experience with the work experience. So many people are going to switch it up just because they're like, 'This last year sucked. And I can't move my house. I can't change my family. God forbid—I don't want to make light of it—but I can't resurrect the dead. So what can I change? Well, I'm going to click on this new job and apply.'

And then over time, what our data at Humu shows is that one-and-a-half to two days per week from home is optimal for productivity and happiness. And that's sustainable over time, like over years. When you vary from that, you end up in bad states where either people get burnt out or they get forgotten or they stop being productive. So the third thing is companies not being able to actually strike that right balance of how much should people do and not being intentional enough about when they're together and how they use that time. That's why I think two years from now, 80% of this is going to snap back to the office. What I mean is 80% of the large companies that are saying they're going to hybrid and remote will be largely abandoning those policies in two years.

How will that happen or what will be the mechanism for that happening?

It will be a function of exhaustion. It will be a function of a need for productivity, a need for control by the senior executives, and inequity. You can solve all these things. We didn't design it for this, but Humu works really well to address the sets of issues. It's solvable, it's just in order to solve it, you need to have an understanding of what the individual needs and what that team needs. It's like the opening line in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' So teams are like that too. And a new person comes on or leads it, there's a new project, it's psychologically a different team. It's really hard for human beings to be on top of that.

You have some managers who can make it work. Most are just average. And so you need coaching, or some kind of technology saying, 'Actually, this team really needs to work on meaning. No, this team actually now needs to work on transparency. No, they need to work on authenticity climate or allyship.' All that changes dynamically. And it's just too much to ask for most managers. So companies two years from now are going to throw up their hands, just like Yahoo did when Marissa Mayer became CEO, just like IBM did a number of years ago when they were like, 'Yeah, half of the people are working remotely. It doesn't work.' In other words, companies that have tried to be remote in the past, or hybrid, almost all concluded it doesn't work. Any company with more than a thousand people has concluded it doesn't work. Companies are not doing anything fundamentally differently today than they did five and 10 and 20 years ago in terms of how they manage teams. And therefore it's likely not going to work.

To recap what you're saying: a hybrid-work arrangement with one and a half to two days from home is the optimal for how we work today. So that's what the outcome should be two years from now. But frontline managers are not equipped to deal with the downsides or the complications that introduces. And as a result, it's likely the companies are just to go back to what they've known for decades. Is that right?

That's roughly, right. The only clarification is there's two layers of complexity on top of it. One is that from a total workforce perspective—inside your company, you have a thousand people, or a hundred or 200,000—there's going to be some small percentage that totally can thrive remotely. Like when I was at GE, there was somebody whose entire job was to calculate sales commissions. She'd been doing it for 10 years. It's a boring, repetitive job. The plans are complicated. They change marginally each year, but by knowing the history and the special deals, it makes sense. She can do it from anywhere in the world because nobody else wants to do it. She's got specialized knowledge. Historically salespeople are remote. They're on the road all the time. They might have a regional office. So there are jobs where there are mechanisms for it and where you could work remotely, but not in a way that's different than pre-pandemic. That's still going to be true.

The other clarification is that the two days per week, in the cases where we studied it, doesn't seem to require a lot of extra weird things going on. So managers would probably be reasonably well equipped to manage people who are a day or two out of the office a week. You'll have a critical mass of intentional social time in the office that seems to work fine.

What people are talking about now in terms of remote and hybrid is typically like 'I moved to Iowa.' Or, 'You know, I'm not going to come into the office at all.' Somebody from Google was emailing me yesterday saying there's some recruiter there who moved out of state and their whole job is to help people find jobs internally. And he was bemoaning the fact that 'Okay, how's this person going to help find jobs internally when you're not there to network and there's no there there anymore.'

Why is this moment of returning to the workplace that a lot of companies are planning for around Labor Day particularly important for setting the tone?

This starts with Google research. The short version is that there's very few moments where as human beings, we're really open to a new experience of changing how we operate. What we saw at Google was that when you joined a company as a new hire for the first time you come in, you're kind of looking around, you're like, 'Okay, who has power? Should I speak up or not? Do we joke after meetings? Or do we stab each other in the back? Where's the bathroom? How do I get things done? What is rewarded?' You're only like that for a couple of weeks. And then people are like 'Okay, I get it.' And so we figured out a series of nudges that made people productive 30% faster based on 'here's five things you need to do in that first two weeks.'

At Humu we subsequently discovered there's only two other moments in your career where you're open to that typically. One is the first time you become a manager. And the second is the first time you become a senior executive. Like the first time you become a CFO, you call everyone you know who's a CFO to ask what should I do? What are the lessons? What are the mistakes? The second time you get that job, you're like, 'Well, I've got my CFO playbook.' Same thing with being a manager, the first time you're intensely curious. The second time, you're like, 'Okay, here's what I did last time. I'm going to tweak it.' So the only other moments in corporate history where you can actually imprint everybody are when you have a tremendous crisis, like J&J and Tylenol famously. The counter example is Wells Fargo.

That's a moment where everyone's going like, 'Okay, we need to be fundamentally different. What do we do?' This return to work is another moment where, because we're so on our heels emotionally through the pandemic, we've had this shared experience, we're going to have this shared weirdness of 'what's next?' that people are looking for guidance on what they should do. That's why it's so important to be intentional as a manager and executive, and understand the team.

What are the key things to signal and imprint in this moment?

You have to decide what's important to you as an institution and as a team. And I don't mean some touchy-feely mission values vision exercise. But, we say we put our customer first, do we really? Or do we not? We say we value equity. Do we? Or do we really not? Our people are our most important thing—so after meetings, do we coach one another? Or do we stab each other in the back? So, number one, decide what you want to keep from the past and what you want to be different. Number two is it's just narrative. Tell people the story that this is an opportunity. The elements of the story are we've had this shared experience, we have an opportunity today. Here's where we want to go together. Then the third thing is you actually have to reinforce and live that and demonstrate it. For senior leaders and managers, it's actually saying, if we're customer first, I need to find an example where I did something that's actually a little bad for the company, but great for a customer. So I can tell that story and prove we're really customer first. This is what Humu does at the team level. We identify every single thing that the team needs. But I guess if I take Humu out of it, the final step would be then to just reinforce it over time and identify where each team's falling short and bring them back to that center that you've established.

One of the things that you've discussed elsewhere is that managers upon returning need to taper their performance expectations. How do you talk about that?

It's hard to tell people. I mean, it's hard to tell CEOs that 'You've got to take it easy on your people. And they're like, 'Are you crazy?' But there's a bit of a parlor trick behind it. People who are freaked out are not productive. It's the productivity per hour thing. [Research suggests productivity per hour dropped over the past year, and people worked more hours to keep total productivity up.] They're hitting their goals, but they're going to quit. You're going to lose them. And then you have to ramp somebody new up and you have to find the person and you have to make sure they fit with the team. So the parlor trick is superficially you're saying we're going to relax our standards. And you actually should. What you're really doing is giving people a little breathing space to get their legs back under them and refocus and realize why this work matters and why they want to keep working at it, which will return productivity to actual pre-pandemic levels.

It's dispelling the illusion that people are just as productive today as they were two years ago. They're not. And if we don't start from a point of saying, 'Okay, we're going to relax the standards a little bit around the goals, and we're going to have a conversation,' we're not recognizing the truth that people are wiped out. It's not sustainable. So I guess it depends on what problem you want to solve. Do you want to solve hitting this week’s and this quarter's number the way we've been doing it in the pandemic and create the problem that your employee attrition is going to double? Because that is my prediction: white collar or professional employee attrition is going to double in the coming quarters versus what it was. In the next year it's going to be twice as high as it was. The focus of the hourly employers, like the Starbucks of the world and McDonald's of the world, Walmart, is on attracting people, getting them in. It's the environment.

And they're not focusing on that. So they're filling a leaky bucket. So back to your question about, is it hard to tell managers? Yes. But the conversation you need to have is number one, you need to be truthful with your people about what's really going on. And number two, pick your problem. Keep burning people out and they're all going to quit and your attrition is going to double and you're going to be further behind. Or you can actually have a reset in this imprintable moment, deal with the underlying issues, keep your people, and then have productivity come back on a per-hour basis to what it was. When you do the math, that's far better for the business.


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