The Great Uncertainty, Pascal’s Wager And The Return To Office

To reprise the fateful lyric in John Lennon’s 1981 single, Beautiful Boy – released three weeks before he was shot and killed in the archway of his Manhattan building – “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

If we ever needed a sign that life doesn’t follow a predictable script, COVID-19 is the ultimate reminder. This is not another cyclical downturn. It really is “different this time.” 

And in periods of high uncertainty, the best response is agility. Get ready to make more decisions, more quickly – and have no compunction about reversing course if and when new information warrants it. This is no time for entrenched or ideological thinking.

And the wager of an oft-forgotten French philosopher and mathematician is worth considering too, but more on that later. 

Lockdown and WFH 

There is no doubt that working from home (WFH) has played an early and vital role in containing the spread of COVID-19. That this was accomplished as seamlessly and effectively as it was in Australia is a cause for gratitude.

However, six months later, what began as a necessary imposition has become, for many, a “new normal”. A very large number of office workers have not set foot in an office for nearly 200 days.

But with infection rates at zero or near zero in NSW (and much of Australia), it’s time for business leaders to reconsider. 

Why reconsider? WFH seems to be working fine.

I’ve long been a proponent and early adopter of WFH. Five years before the COVID-19 outbreak, EG announced a WFH policy that encouraged our team to work from home, where practical, on Thursdays. We nominated a specific day because I wanted my colleagues to know with certainty that the whole team was available for meetings on the other days.

WFH broke up the monotony of the “work from office” (WFO) routine, provided greater flexibility for household errands and allowed parents to spend more time with their kids. One WFH day per week served our needs well as a business and added to team morale and productivity. 

Then came the lockdown in mid-March and a prolonged, enforced 5-day per week WFH period. Our prior experience with WFH placed us in good stead to cope with this sudden change, as did our exceptional team culture – but, make no mistake, this was an entirely new type of experiment. 

First, the ecstasy.

The first 100 days of WFH, from mid-March to end of June, was a heady experience. The initial feedback was so positive as to border on the euphoric. Reports flooded in of higher productivity, better work-life balance, less time spent on commuting and donning business attire, less cost on transport and eating out, as well as more time for family and exercise. 

Not to mention the many of us who had extensive dealings with the US and UK who now had added flexibility for late night and early morning calls. 

Also, WFH was very well suited to tasks that require “deep thinking”, such as report writing and strategic reviews. Such tasks require long periods of uninterrupted reading, writing and reflection – which are difficult to obtain in an open-plan office environment. 

So formidable was this list of benefits that you were left scratching your head why we ever had offices in the first place. 

Then, the misery.

But wait, there was a catch.

It seems many of the productivity benefits of WFH were made possible because of the connections, alignment, energy and morale that were generated by months of working with colleagues in an office environment. In effect, WFH was surfing on the back of WFO energy and alignment. 

As time went by in WFH, the team’s energy and alignment began to gradually decline. Staff meetings held on video started to experience dwindling attendance (easy to measure) and, more worryingly, diminished engagement (much harder to measure). The more honest among us admitted to switching off, listening to music, walking away, washing the dishes etc. during staff meetings.

And who can blame them? It’s very hard to listen to a professional comedian on TV for one hour – let alone, a talking head on a computer screen babbling about business priorities. 

My rule of thumb is that the ability of people to concentrate on a virtual meeting is roughly half the length of a face to face meeting. So, we cut our EG meeting lengths in half. 

But multi-million dollar investment decisions cannot be so easily abbreviated. And being an entrepreneurial shop, many of the roles at EG require teams of 3-6 people to quickly coalesce and collaborate to discuss opportunities and challenges as they arise in real time. 

One thing I can certainly vouch for: spontaneous collaboration and decision-making in response to real time events are much easier to do in an office environment.

For this reason, while infections in NSW are at near zero levels, EG has encouraged the whole team to turn up to the office for three days per week, with WFH being optional on Thursdays and Fridays. 

So what are the key learnings for us so far?

In reflecting on WFO, WFH and the current hybrid WFO-WFH model, I have come to the following realisations:

  • WFH is well suited to executing well defined, task-oriented projects requiring deep thinking. It’s less well suited to a dynamic task that is subject to “moving goal posts” by customers or counterparties. 
  • Reviewing a financial model or the output of a recent software sprint is much easier and productive if all the key people are in one room looking at the same screen. Providing and receiving real time feedback is more natural and fluid in person. 
  • Good natured banter is far more likely to occur in face to face meetings. The audio protocols in virtual meetings make quick witted interruptions difficult to hear and stilted, so much so that witty comments are often self-censored.
  • Providing informal feedback to team members after a meeting has ended is far more likely to occur in an office environment. Giving a team member a quiet nudge or a quick whisper about something that could have been done a little better in the meeting is far easier in person. 
  • Spare a thought too for new recruits. How do new team members integrate and feel part of a team during WFH? It can be done but it’s vastly more difficult than in WFO. 
  • Last but certainly not least, WFH is unlikely to be beneficial for long term mental health outcomes. Work is inherently stressful, at least some of the time. Physical separation of your work space and your home space is important for mental well-being. Relaxing and unwinding at the end of a busy day is vital and much harder to do when you are working from home.
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Pascal’s wager and why leaders should encourage their teams back to the office.

The French polymath, Blaise Pascal, devised a wager in mid-1600’s that used game theory to determine whether belief in God was rational. In essence, Pascal argued that the existence or otherwise of God will always be highly uncertain but that believing in God produced the better outcome. The merits of his argument need not detain us here, but the logic he employed is highly applicable to the COVID-19 “return to office” dilemma.

We are living in highly uncertain times. Will infection rates remain low in NSW or will they rise? Will a vaccine be discovered and if so when? If a vaccine is discovered, will it be safe and effective? These are just some of the many imponderables that are facing decision-makers today.

Which is why it is useful to adapt Pascal’s Wager to help us decide what to do:

  • If infection rates in NSW remain low, businesses who call their team into the office will be grateful that they made the decision earlier than their peers. They have a head start on the competition and can hit the ground running.
  • If infection rates in NSW rise and a second lockdown is instituted, businesses who’ve taken the opportunity to call their team into the office while infection rates were low will be grateful that they had a few weeks/months together in an office. They will enjoy the benefits of higher energy, alignment and improved mental health that arise from bonding together as a team in the office.

In other words, businesses who decide today to call their team into the office are in a win-win situation.

A parting comment. 

When EG introduced a WFH policy on Thursdays, I would often say to my management team: “If you find yourself worrying about whether a particular team member is working hard at home, that’s a sure sign that this person is not yet a strong cultural fit.”

Now, with WFH as the norm, I find myself saying to my management team: “If a particular team member is resisting a return to the office (without a valid medical reason), then that’s a sure sign that this person is not yet a strong cultural fit.”

If many (heaven forbid, most) of your team prefer WFH to WFO, then you should be very concerned about your team culture. Something is seriously wrong with the energy and/or values of your workplace – it’s become infected with ego and politics – and that’s far more toxic to human health and happiness than the threat that COVID-19 poses in Australia.