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The problem with giving employees what they want

Ask, instead, what they would do in your place

With our office lease expiring in 1 year, CFOshare’s management team could not decide whether to continue our current hybrid work arrangement, invest in a newer office, or move to 100% remote. “Let’s ask the employees what they want,” suggested Jake, the COO.

That turned out to be a terrible idea.

Surveys and focus groups are a go-to system for gauging employee sentiment as well as gaining buy-in. But are they effective policy-making tools? Not if you ask “what do you want” a question that does not get to the root of the issue. Some bad questions from our survey included:

Do you want an office to work in?

How often do you want to go into an office?

What kind of amenities do you want in an office?

Our survey showed the team wanted an office; thus we began looking for a new office…

The Problem with Giving Employees What They Want

Our management team fell for The Arrival Fallacy – the belief that people will be happy when they have what they want. This belief turns out to be mostly incorrect. Why? We do not desire things that make us happy. Instead, in accordance with the theory of evolution, we desire things that help us propagate; money, sex, and status. Although scientific studies consistently prove being rich, having lots of sex, and being famous or powerful make us no happier, our mammalian subconscious hypnotizes us. We convince ourselves that once we have the things we want, we will finally be happy (e.g. “if only I could get a job with a cool tech company, then I would be happy at work.”)

Happiness does not come when we “arrive” at the goal of our desires. Instead, we are inevitably disappointed and forced to confront our dissatisfying life (think: midlife crisis) or perpetuate the arrival fallacy with a new goal (“once I get a promotion and a pay raise, then I’ll be happy…”)

How do you manage what employees say they want? Traditional hierarchical management a la Jack Welch has no difficulty denying employees what they want. But modern millennial-oriented management is more accommodating and seldom considers The Arrival Fallacy – that giving our employees an office might not make them happy at all.

Oblivious to all this, CFOshare management went on a long search looking at several offices. The current office market is tough, with landlords demanding long lease terms and high rates. Months of effort went by without results. Fatigue set in, and we decided to re-examine the whole office situation.

We began by asking different questions.

Asking Employees the Right Questions

“How often do employees go into the office now? Why isn’t it as frequent as you’d like?”

“You talk about collaborating with teammates on whiteboards, but most of the time people work by themselves with headphones on. How often do collaboration sessions occur?”

“You say you like seeing the team, but you missed the last two all-staff on-site meeting days. What got in your way of attending?

By asking the right questions, we found out our team did not want an office. They wanted a fantasy office life: a life full of rich social engagements, invigorating intellectual conversation, and strong camaraderie.

But that office life is a fairy tale. Real office life includes 90 minutes of commuting through traffic, interruptions from noisy conversations, and asocial coworkers who keep to themselves and stifle camaraderie.

That’s not to say an office lacks rich social interaction or invigorating discussions. Rather, office life comes at a cost your employees may not be willing to pay.

For example, my colleague Matt is a big advocate for working in the office. But amid our new Denver office search, he announced he was moving to New York City where we have no office.
“I thought you enjoyed the office interactions, so why are you moving away from the office?” I asked him.

“I do enjoy them, but I enjoy New York more,” Matt replied.

Most of our employees have their own version of New York that keeps them from going to the office: avoiding the commute, dressing casually, the comfort of their own home, being near their dog, etc.

What would you decide?

CFOshare management changed our approach and instead asked our team, “if this were your decision, what would you choose to do?” That turns out to be a more difficult question for employees to answer. One must consider the cost of rent, the commitment of a lease, the possibilities of teammates not using the office and discredit for making the wrong decision. While contemplating this question, employees also began to think creatively of how the rent budget could be used differently on fun employee events or bonuses.

“What would you decide?” instills ownership thinking and generates completely different answers than “what do you want?” In our case, the team would rather work from home and use the rent savings for a semi-annual company trip to Mexico. These trips will include team building, business strategy meetings, and a free vacation for employees. This innovative solution not only reduces overhead and lease risk, but also satisfies the team’s true desire for camaraderie, social interactions, and invigorating intellectual debates.

Are you asking your employees the wrong question? How would their answers change if you stopped asking “what do you want?” and instead asked “what would you decide?”

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