“In the Office” is the New “Out of the Office”

I sent a note to a colleague at a large, global client last week, and got the type of auto-reply I’m used to getting when someone is on vacation or otherwise unavailable, with one interesting twist. It went something like this:

I will be in the [company location] office next week in meetings and workshops, and will have limited access to my IM and e-mail during that time.

If your matter is urgent, please text me at [xxx-xxx-xxxx]. Otherwise, I’ll respond to your message as soon as I’m able.

I did a double-take: did I just get an “out-of-office” auto-reply repurposed as an “in the office” auto-reply? Is in-the-office the new out-of-office?

As many jobs default to remote first rather than on-site first, this seems more likely to occur. For those in roles that can mostly be executed remotely, our purpose for going into an office is more likely to be focused collaboration, team/group sessions, workshops, presentations, etc., which make us less responsive to the casual (“yt?”) types of electronic pings we’re used to getting in the (pandemic) era of all-remote work. So, the “in the office” auto-reply is likely here to stay.

There’s a lesson here, and some homework, for almost anyone who works with or enables virtual/remote/hybrid work teams:

· As a leader of virtual/hybrid/distributed teams, I’ll have to be more mindful about the purpose for asking people to come into an office. If there’s not a compelling reason to, why would I put my co-workers through a commute, especially in Boston, where the average commute is about 45 minutes each way? We could all use an extra 90 minutes a day for either productivity or well-being, so I’ll be more purposeful when asking people to convene in a work location.

· Managers are going to have to be more intentional/purposeful about asking people to come into an office. I was surprised but not shocked to hear a senior IT leader in a Boston-area organization say this week that his employees are demanding extra pay for commuting into the office. Leaders will also have to be more inclusive and thoughtful hosting “hybrid” or the more aptly-named “asymmetrical” meetings, which often convey an unfair advantage to those in the room.

· Workers are going to have to continue to build good habits about protecting their time, with things like the in-the-office/out-of-the-office message, scheduling focus time, and other well-being-related techniques encouraged by tools like Microsoft’s Viva Insights.

· Technology providers like Microsoft and Google are going to need to respond to this need with new capabilities. For example, when I reply that I’ll attend a meeting, it would be useful to be able to specify that I’ll be attending remotely or in-person so the organizer can get the right-sized room and A/V equipment, nail that lunch order, etc.). When I’m organizing a meeting, I need to know who will be physically in the room and who will be remote, and plan accordingly. If I’m not sure, it would be useful to see that everyone (or no one!) else was showing up at the office that day, so I might want to plan accordingly.

I’m seeing clients prepare for “Return to the Workplace” in innovative ways, like a utility that allows me to see who of my co-workers is working in their same building today (by IP addresses), or a bot that polls the office workspace reservation software, sees that three or more of my colleagues are headed into the office next Wednesday, and asks me if I’d like to join them and reserve a workspace close to them.

This week’s (Nov 2–4) Microsoft Ignite Conference, will be a great chance for Microsoft to show us how they are enhancing the productivity and collaboration tools we use every day to improve our return-to-workplace experiences. I’ll be listening and reading with interest.

For more excellent thinking on this and related topics, here are some great resources:

· Remote-first work is taking over the rich world | The Economist

· Making Asymmetrical Meetings Work for Everyone — Guided Insights

· Microsoft Viva Insights helps people nurture wellbeing and be their best — Microsoft Tech Community

· Interesting study about the value of office interruptions: Excuse Me, Do You Have a Minute?