Why the wild variation in plans for returning to offices is a good sign

It’s all in how you frame the issue.
It’s all in how you frame the issue.
Image: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
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Is there a workplace topic more interesting right now than the near-term future of the office? This time last year, many of us would have been willing to bet that the office had no future at all. That prognosis quickly gave way to discussions about the efficacy of plexiglass dividers and air-filtration upgrades. Then it was on to reimagining the office as collaborative space, designed to bring people together rather than spacing them six feet apart.

And now the discussion is all over the place. Where you work today (or come September, or starting in 2022) might depend on your industry, your company culture, your manager, or your situation at home. There are presumptive bellwethers, but no clear trends. And to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, this is an excellent sign.

Mayer-Schönberger is a professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford and a co-author of the new book Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil (May 2021, Dutton), which is about our thought models, and how we can improve them to make better decisions. The pandemic, he says, hasn’t definitively proven that one way of working is better than another. But it has opened our eyes to a wider range of possibilities than most companies saw in the before times, which means companies are likely to have more innovative answers to the question of where and how we work—even the ones that resume their office-bound ways.

“There is no return to normalcy,” says Mayer-Schönberger, whose research focuses on the role of information in a networked economy. “The environment people are reentering is fundamentally changed, so we need to reframe how we see our work and ourselves. If there is a reason why we go to a workplace, it needs to be a different reason than the one that we had: that this is the way we’ve always been doing it.”

Mayer-Schönberger recently spoke with Quartz by phone from Austria and explained the elements of smart framing, the reframing of work post-pandemic, and the reason why “thinking outside the box” is the opposite of what innovators and dreamers should do. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: Between the hybrid options, all-remote situations, and the return to offices, it doesn’t seem like employers are framing the future of work in the same way at all. Is that a problem?

Mayer-Schönberger: The liberating dimension of the pandemic is that we get out of cookie-cutter thinking. For a long while, there were only two alternatives: to work in an office or to work from home. There were no hybrids. And there was always also the sense at a lot of organizations that if we permit people to work from home for a day per week then it’s a slippery slope. In the end we wound up in a binary situation.

I think what the pandemic has shown is that there is more than just this binary choice, and not every organization needs to be the same. And that’s wonderfully liberating. Why should everybody follow the same model? It doesn’t make much sense if you think about it, and yet we did it without thinking for decades because it was the most obvious solution.

Some organizations might not want to (go remote or hybrid) and that’s fine because they’re conservative or because they have needs to have people in person. But I think [a new solution] could provide a productivity or innovation boost to some organizations because they might have been squeezed into a particular work structure before that wasn’t right, and now they can rethink this.

So really the pandemic showed us that we had a framing problem when it comes to offices.

It seems that this actually is one of the incredible powers of the human mind, that we can imagine things to be different if we want to. The pandemic has shown us that [another model] is possible. It opened the door, and that means that we now can think about it, not that working from home or hybrid is the right solution, but that the solution space—the option space—is wider than we thought.

And that’s half the battle in decision making.

We pick among two or three options, and a lot of people think the power is to pick the right option. In our book we argue that the power isn’t to pick the right option, the power is to come up with the right set of options, to see things through the right conceptual lens, because if you are just seeing things through the two most conventional options, you’re cutting yourself short. Through framing, you can come up with better options to make better decisions.

Is framing a skill that can be developed, or are some people naturally gifted at it?

We are actually training that muscle unknowingly, unwittingly, since the early days of childhood. With toddlers, we always thought that when they engage in pretend play, like playing doctors or playing shop, that they’re doing it for social interaction; but in fact it turns out they’re imagining what-if scenarios in their mind, to come up with alternative options they might take. So from the very childhood we’re training our ability to frame. Unfortunately later in life we forget about this muscle. If we [used] it more, we actually would be better in our work decisions and in our life decisions. Perhaps the pandemic has shown the potential and the power of that and now we’re doing it more often.

You argue that constraints are an important element of good framing.

Humans always think in causal templates, in mental models that connect cause and effect. And sometimes we’re wrong, but more often than not, our causal templates work really well. The beauty of it is they help us abstract and generalize, so we can take what worked in one context and apply it in a different context. That helps us to dream, to imagine, to ask what-if questions. But this is not crazy brainstorming, it’s not free thinking. Far from it, it’s very disciplined, it’s very constrained. When Martha Graham said let’s get rid of the corset because it was constraining, she came up with different constraints, mental constraints. Frank Gehry [still has to contend with] the law of gravity. It’s dreaming with constraint that allows us to be very powerful. So the saying “think outside the box” is utterly stupid and wrong. The box, the constraint that we have, helps us get to the best options quickly if we get the constraints right.

As we argue in the book, uncertainty is a good thing. It’s what we need. If we think about environmental issues, inequality, and so forth, we need to have a pretty deep think about some of those challenges, and the quick, conventional solutions won’t do anymore. So we need cognitive tools to go beyond the conventional wisdom—and not think outside the box, but think inside a different box, and play with the box far better than we have so far.

How do you think about constraints in the context of the pandemic?

The pandemic showed that technical constraints are not hard constraints anymore. We have Zoom and so forth. But we know we need social interactions with each other. And therefore the power of human thinking rests on playing around with those constraints.

There are a lot of forces that will push us back to conventional wisdom. It won’t be like flipping a switch. But it may be sufficient for some companies to say, “Maybe we need to re-conceptualize what work is and what we want people to do when they return to the workplace.” [They’ll ask], “How can we structure the workplace both in terms of time and physical place, so that people interact more productively with each other?” That’s going to be very, very interesting.

Should framing be a team exercise?

When teams work together, it’s best for each team member to individually spend some time tackling the problem before the team gets together—because when the team gets together, people quickly converge on the alpha animal in the group and the solution that’s posed by them. But if individuals have an hour or two to think about the problem individually, the discussion is more substantive when they come together, and they push harder against each other—and what comes out more often or not is a better solution. In that sense, the hybrid concept produces better results than either being apart or being together all of the time.

What happens when an untold number of companies start reframing the idea of the workplace, all at the same time?

There is going to be a cost to all of this. That’s important to understand.

Always sticking to the most conventional answer is very costly. It’s very quick—I go with the flow, I don’t need to think. That’s the low-energy solution, and actually that’s a pretty good solution if things don’t change or don’t require change. Why change a winning formula if it’s winning? The problem is if the circumstances are different or the goal is different. Then the conventional way is no longer the best way anymore.

Some companies may need to rethink their business models right now, and it might require a break with the past, and some new ideas. That is going to be costly. Reinventing yourself, reinventing an organization or a business model—it’s always risky, no question about it. But when circumstances do change, then some businesses will have to rethink some of their practices. That means friction, that means cost, but it may be the only means of survival.