Links of the Week for March 9, 2021: The Return

A old feature returns to Museum Human … 

Links of the Week for March 9, 2021: The Return

A old feature returns to Museum Human … 

I realized only recently that since the start of the new year, I've drifted away from using Twitter except to mention published blog posts. I'll explain why at greater length in an upcoming post; for now, since I'm no longer tweeting about articles I've read, I thought that bringing back this type of post, which had been a regular feature of this blog back when it first started, would be useful.  

So here are some articles I've read in the past week or two. As usual, Harvard Business Review makes up a large percentage of what I pass along—not because HBR is a fountain of truth, but because it puts so much out there for its subscribers. Like much of the business press, it's leader-focused and capitalism-assuming, but you can still get a lot of information about workplace dynamics, organizational psychology, and learning mindsets from its pages. HBR may not have the scope of voices that you can find on, say, Medium (which I've also stopped using to re-publish my posts), but armed with an understanding of its editorial policy, I find that HBR provides far more consistent, get-to-the-point quality than Medium's firehose of content.

So let's get to it.

Despite the news about companies like Spotify and Salesforce implementing work-from-anywhere policies (gigantic caveat: as long as your manager agrees), there's been some pushback to the idea of remote-as-long-as-you-need-to work. HBR reminds CEOs and managers that their perspective on the need for proximal work is more pertinent than employee voices or engagement surveys, or technological solutions to the problems of remote work:

don’t put too much stock in data gleaned from employee surveys. Many companies have asked workers how many days (if any) they want to spend in the office post-pandemic. Some HR departments treat these surveys as gospel. Much of the current public commentary on this question assumes that after it’s safe to return to the office, many employees will prefer to remain working at home for much of the workweek. However, wise CEOs recognize such opinions often change. What people say after a year of sheltering in place may not be meaningful this fall, particularly if by then they’ve had several months of living with fewer restrictions. In the same way that political leaders should not base decisions solely on public opinion polls, leaders must look at employee surveys as one data point.
They should also distinguish the views of their employees by polling managers separately. Many managers I talk with have found working remotely more frustrating than satisfying because their job involves tasks that are most difficult to do remotely. They must ensure collaboration across department lines, coach employees, deal with people and relationship problems, and read the subtle signs of everyday interactions for barriers to communication. If they are not done well, morale and teamwork decline, and ultimately, innovation suffers. Managing people is always more difficult when working remotely. So what managers think about the return-to-work plan should carry special weight, and count for more than the views of people who report to them.

What this means for museums: expect museum leaders to push the "creativity happens in hallway and cafeteria conversations" narrative and try to get people back in the building, even if the hybrid reality is much messier. Start thinking now of what level of in-person museum work you will be comfortable with later this year and beyond and have that conversation with your colleagues and your manager, sooner rather than later. I predict WFH will be a battle line in the worker autonomy wars soon.

Also from HBR, this article takes a more balanced view on making hybrid work fairly. In museums, thinking through the issues of fairness (FOH workers who are essential take on health risks and a financial hit with transportation and child care, while WFH workers pay their own price for home tech and and not being more visible with managers). The plot thickens:

Making this task more complex is that hybridity is itself dynamic — a result of variations both across employees (“Martine works in the office, Mark works from home”) and for individual employees (“I work in the office MWF and at home TT”). This makes hybridity a moving target. It requires ongoing systematic tracking, codifying, and visualizing to help both managers and employees stay aware of the configuration of hybridity in a given work group and manage the resulting power dynamics.

What this means for museums: what is your system for letting everyone know where everyone else is and when they're available? In the wake of pandemic layoffs and restructuring, how does everyone in the institution know how to get questions answered? It's time for an investment in time and people (which means, yes, money) in what I'll call intentionality, systems which can help smooth the flow of questions and answers around the organization.

A further pushback on hybridity comes from John Seabrook, writing in the New Yorker in late January (pointed out by org-culture guru Stowe Boyd in his must-read newsletter):

The hybrid office sounds like a logical post-pandemic approach, and many companies are trying it, but mixing in-person and remote workers presents new challenges for managers. Ethan Bernstein, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies the workplace, told me that a hybrid setup is very hard to get right, and that he advises businesses to avoid it: “I’d say stay all virtual—hybrid is likely to deliver the worst of both worlds.” A hybrid company still has substantial real-estate costs, and it also has to contend with the potentially serious threat to company culture posed by resentful remote workers who feel that they’ve been unfairly denied plum assignments and promotions. And what about all the people who return to work to discover that they no longer have a desk, and that the sweaters and photographs and other personal items they left behind have been packed up or, worse, placed on a table of shame? As Bernstein put it, “People generally prefer a ‘home’ to a ‘hotel’—in life and at work.”

Seabrook disagrees with the idea (shared by myself among others) that some internal mobility in museums could be a good thing. I'm just wondering if museums, where offices spaces (for non-FOH workers who have them) are often cramped afterthoughts, can ever truly have that homey workplace feel again. Some ability to rotate throughout the building might help mix up roles and workflows in positive ways and could reduce power imbalances, but only if leaders and managers work hard to keep their workers engaged on equal terms.

What this means for museums: institutions are likely already locked-in, if not defined, by their real estate, so the battle for museums will be over the mindsets which govern how equally they treat workers in the face of necessary flexibility.

This article from October, also cited by Boyd, said that good team interaction is far more idiosyncratic—the term they use is "bursty," happening in unpredictable explosions and then going silent as people do their work—than leaders who laud the informal hallway and cafeteria conversations would care to admit. (Do these conversations happen with leaders?) The article states:

The bottom line: Worry less about sparking creativity and connection through watercooler-style interactions in the physical world, and focus more on facilitating bursty communication.

Make sure that this kind of communication is possible—by keeping workdays manageable, providing a range of tools which link people with different preferences, and allowing true flexibility in work so that teams can align their schedules when needed.  

More recently, Boyd delved into a couple of articles about how trust for remote workers goes both ways. If you're not subscribing to his newsletter, you're missing out on great org culture stuff.

What this means for museums: museums, like many orgs, have a trust crisis—the counterintuitive takeaway for managers should be that workers' lack of trust in them is the bigger organizational problem.

Finally, also worth reading is this brilliant and well-researched article by Michelle Moon on museum management after covid in the Journal of Cultural Management. There's an interesting section on management "frames" (perhaps another word for mindsets) which locks leaders into the one way they know to solve any problem. The sad truth is that a human-centered frame is the one least used by museum leaders.

Moon presents some positive examples of institutions which found creative and humane ways to keep on as much staff as possible during the pandemic and move the organization forward through the long-term maintenance work which rarely gets done during normal times. (Museum Human could not agree more with Moon's call to "Rethink Job Structures and Functions.") Even when leaders furloughed or laid off staff institutions have found worthwhile ways to provide learning and professional development through the process.

As Moon asks, is this the revolution museum workers have been waiting for? We can only hope. (HT Isabella Bruno for pointing this article out through the Museums-As-Progress group; consider joining!)

What this means for museums: leaders have to put people first—especially when they look for workplace systems and governance processes for the post-covid institution (should we ever get there).

Enjoy the links! And if you're not already a subscriber to Museum Human, consider subscribing for free to read all the longer weekly posts on organizational culture for cultural organizations.

cover image by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash [description: a circle of paper clips on a blue background]

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Links of the Week for March 9, 2021: The Return by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.