The tribes of the workplace – new normal edition. We are not all the same.

With even the World Health Organization coming to the realisation that Lockdowns are no longer viable and helpful as the main tools to fight the pandemic, the discussion has moved from #WFH to #backtotheoffice.

This conversation has exposed the deeper culture and leadership styles of organizations, sometimes in truly embarrassing ways.

Some leaders – insecure about their ability to command and control their staff has started investing in spying software, insisting that everyone we logged on all the time to just simply setting up so many meetings and “progress updates” that employees simply never had any time to actually work.

This is not a new concept – its simply a 2020 tech enabled version of the Panopticon – a type of prison layout which placed a tower in the middle of a circle of prison cells. It was a type of one-way observation architecture which allowed guards to see into every cell while prisoners would not know if they were being observed. The social theorist Jeremy Bentham who came up with this idea in the 18th century would have been proud of some of today’s managers when faced with the prospect of employees working from home.

It should be pretty obvious that recreating a prison infrastructure in a workplace – especially a talent centric and knowledge-based workplace – would do a huge amount of harm. It will and it has.

As lockdowns are either fading or becoming sporadic, we are left with the question about who goes back to the office & why.

We are likely to see hybrid models becoming pervasive over the next few months as the learnings of the pandemic have opened up new ways of working & has offered the best leaders new insights into the possibilities of working anywhere and effectively.

There are, however, a few really bad ways of developing a hybrid working model.

When deciding on who should go back to the office a few really poor criteria have emerged, here are some of my favourites:


1. “Everyone must go back – that’s why we have an office”

This is an approach that focuses on the sunk cost of the office and therefore it must be used as it was before. This is often an awkward way of the Panopticon gang to soothe their discomfort at not being able to check up on staff.


2. “Everyone must go back – it’s good for our culture

If meant sincerely – this could be a valid concern – at its most functional an office can be the heart and soul of a business & could convey a very compelling message about the company culture. The question is if current office layouts, usage and facilities (think of a sea of open plan cubicles) are effective in communicating an aspirational corporate culture. So, let’s park this one for later.


3. “Only the top performers should be able to continue to work from home”

This misguided notion is also connected to a grain of truth.

If you can effectively manage output – you don’t need to manage inputs – such as presenteeism does.

The problem with the broad stroke approach is that it makes the office a place of punishment (interesting how often that analogy comes up) from which you can escape if you are good. While a strong focus on an output-based performance management system is a core requirement for a successful hybrid working model, it also requires making contribution the centerpiece of employee experience and ways of working.


4. “No one should come back to the office”

This approach – also a knee jerk reaction is often a façade for another financially driven argument – where companies are able to exit leases easily and therefore reduce office costs substantially. In the case of some SME’s this has become a survival strategy in tough times.

Some large tech companies have combined this with a pay-cut – “you can work from home – but we will reduce your salary”.

This perspective misses the point that – yes there are some folks who hardly need to be at the office, but there is an important role for the face-to-face contact that a shared physical space can offer. Very few families who have had to connect electronically during the pandemic are not yearning for a return to the intimacy, sense of belonging and connection of face-to-face interaction.


5. “We will all go back on a rotation basis”

This represents an approach to working from home that mostly responds to social distancing as a sanitary requirement and many corporates have embraced this approach as a way of getting some staff back to the office at least part time. It falters in that it does not ask if there are specific role contributions that are more or less affected by remote working. It also often does not even attempt to gain the synergy benefits of people who can create value together being there at the same time.

In its crudest form it’s a kind of alphabetical lottery of who goes into the office when.

Yes, some of us need to go back to the office, but there are much better selection criteria than the 20/30/50% office capacity rule that was hastily imposed on some companies.


6. “People should decide if they want to go back”

This has a nice democratic ring to it – why not let people find their own way? Sounds good right? Yes, it does but it has major flaws. Firstly – the value of where people work from is largely predicated on who they can work with and how.

In this way – it makes no sense for half of an ideation team to show up – because they want to. In addition – when people choose to go back or not, they sometimes choose for reasons not related to the mission of their role or the organization – sometimes it’s as simple as access to free data to stay abreast with developments on Facebook or to just get away from the chaos at home.

From an individual perspective this makes sense, but as a leader you also have a role, like the conductor of an orchestra to choreograph the contributions of the team members & where they should play their part.

This is a core job of the leader to create an ecology of performance & curating that ecology is your job, not something that can be devolved to each individual’s’ discretion.

So, if these are not good guidelines for deciding how the hybrid working model you will embrace, then how should it be done?

The pandemic- & the massive digital transformation in ways of working that it has imposed in record time – has given every organization with an unprecedented opportunity to answer the following questions from a clean slate:


  1. What do we mean by “working”?
  2. Which roles and contributions to our mission are independent, somewhat interdependent, highly interdependent and completely interdependent?
  3. Which roles and activity sets are relational in nature and thus need high bandwidth interactions?
  4. What do we expect from each role & what are we willing to pay for it?
  5. Which elements of work are inherently “synchronized” & has to occur at the same time & which elements & work outputs are best done independently and in a solitary focused environment?
  6. Where are our clients and customers & how do we want to serve them best?
  7. How do we give people who are no longer “coming to the office” each day a sense of belonging?
  8. How do we build a connection to our brand when many of our team members are not engaging with colleagues directly each day?
  9. What could we use our physical space for if not a place to all sit in cubicles and stare at screens?
  10. What do we mean by leadership? How do leaders engage with a distributed workforce?
  11. How can we keep the magic of real-time collaboration in a distributed world?
  12. How can we find a way of re-imagining “knowledge accidents” and “coffee station chats” and “corridor check ins” in a new world? Can we re-create the informality of connecting without everything needing to be a meeting?

And of course;

13. Who should go back to the office and why?


Our approach to this exciting question is to reflect on what we really want from the various and complementary contributions of the people we place in roles.

If we can discern the “Contribution Tribe” you belong to, we can then make an intelligent “ways of working” decision and from that discern the outputs, challenges, tools, investments, learning platforms and change management approach needed to help you enhance your contribution to the business.

Your “contribution tribe” will guide us to the kind of working arrangement best suited to your needs and best aligned with the output the organization needs from you. Our analysis of these “tribes” have – somewhat surprisingly – lead us to the conclusion that this has nothing to do with seniority or your current performance rating.

In addition, we have noted some overlap between “tribes” and also that almost no-one belongs to one area only. The relative contribution of each role will guide the placement of the talent, the tools and infrastructure she may need and the complementary investments the business may make in responding to these needs.

Once we can clearly answer why we are engaging someone we can place her on a conceptual model and derive from there the requirements and policies and “office” infrastructure she may need.

This is well overdue, and we can in some ways thank the pandemic for accelerating this break with the Industrial era archetype of the office as a “factory for working”


Find your tribe & you will know where you need to work from.

Our Tribes of Contribution model is premised in 4 key areas of contribution and four working tribes.

Most folks have a “center of gravity” in one of the archetype blocks, but some roles could span a few areas.

The question at the heart of your contribution tribe identity: “Where should you be focusing to add the most value?”


Which direction are you facing when you are making your biggest business contribution?

This is an important question & does not necessarily relate to how much of your time you are currently spending in this way.

We have defined 4 basic perspectives in corporate value creation & these are directly related to the 4 contribution tribes and their “back to the office” needs.

It is important to note that almost none of these perspectives have a correlation with seniority – you can be at any level of the organization and be contracted to deliver in one of these perspectives. It is also important to note that all talent have at least some of the 4 perspectives, so it’s crucial to focus on what the “center of gravity” of your role is.

Finally, as stated before, in badly managed organizations – you may spend a lot of time outside of your perspective – which means you are not adding the value you have been engaged to offer.

To understand the 4 contribution tribes requires empathy – putting ourselves in the shoes of the talent who add value to their companies from that perspective. Some of us would have a more dispersed Tribe membership than others – but when we face the challenges of the post-pandemic workplace, we need to understand how we enable the most crucial perspective they offer with the right tools & enablers.


Four perspectives – Four contribution tribes:

1. Artisans:

Artisans are masters at handling tools, they are masters of their craft and their eyes, hands and intelligence allows them to engage with tools in a masterful way. We get artisans of the physical variety, artisans who are masters at data analytics, artisans who code, artisans who trade on the markets, artisans who fly planes, artisans who perform open heart surgery & artisans who create content and produce research. Although they form guilds to support each other & often have vibrant communities – the moment of truth for an artisan is a solitary one – the moment when the artisan and the tool becomes one to create an amazing outcome. This often requires silence to focus or the availability of the tools and machinery they use. Artisans offer their best value when they are working on a thing or a body – not engaging in a two-way conversation with another person.


2. Frontliners:

At the edge of every organization there are people – people who sell, who welcome, who service and who engage with customers, clients and partners. These are people dealing with people across organizational boundaries – internal or external boundaries. Their contribution is in making a human connection to build a relationship and deliver on a brand promise. They are the living, breathing human skin of the organization & they are most often to be found close to the customer – in the reception, at the call center, in the store, at a client lunch, in a lecture theatre or at a branch office facing the clients and speaking and listening. They are core to the organization’s ability to “live the brand” and they are sometimes more connected to clients and partners than colleagues.

This creates its own paradox – those that are entrusted to embody the brand essence of the organization are often the first ones to drift away from the mothership.


3. Collaborators:

The reason we have meeting rooms, war room, collocated spaces, ideation rooms, project spaces are these people. When they are in flow they are deeply connected to colleagues and working together in projects or programs. At their best their close synchronization enables the whole to be more than the sum of the parts & they are able to feed off each other to create new ideas, new products and new solutions.

Their success depends on their ability to align, share, soundboard, create and implement together. Ironically the traditional office has always been challenging for these folks & they have naturally moved to the shared spaces in the buildings we used to call “work” – either squatting full time in meeting rooms or facing the daily challenge of finding a room somewhere to collaborate.

Their needs in a new normal environment has – despite what one might expect – been well catered for in the plethora of team spaces created online. A part of this oversupply of team spaces in cyberspace may have to do with the fact that these needs have always been close to home for tech teams and start-ups, somewhere collaborating virtually in spaces like Slack well before the pandemic.

The big mistake– driven by the “one-size-fits-all” adoption of the tools made for collaborators by everyone – was that all the tribes are like this one when they go remote.


4. The Leaders of People:

One of the oldest theories of communication is that in any exchange there are two messages being conveyed – the content & the relationship comment. For years bad leaders have gotten this wrong – reference any of the late-night emails firing staff – and good leaders have gotten this right – reference the leader who understands the need to “be in the trenches” with the frontline staff.

As much as there are leaders who are truly gifted in the exercise of people leadership using long form writing and electronic means – there is an energy exchange in the moment of leadership which requires physical presence.

It is important to note that this understanding of “leadership” does not limit itself to seniority – it exists at all levels among those people who are the soul of the business. The long serving porter or doorman at a hotel, the legendary team leader in the call centre, the custodian of the brand – sometimes a joker or a crusty old technical expert, or indeed the charismatic CEO. These people add their magic to an organization when they engage in person and bring with them the brand promise of the organization. They trade on presence, charisma and -at their best – kindness and clarity which inspires people to do more and keep the faith. When they inhabit and energize a physical space people get what the organization stands for and what it’s all about. This loses quite a bit in the virtual domain.

These four archetypes are the center-points of 4 potential ways of working in the new normal – once we have a clear “center of gravity” of a role we can link the Contribution Tribe to the key aspects that need to be considered when making decisions and investments in a distributed working strategy and approach.


Each of the four archetypes have different needs and need different enablers in the following areas:

Key dimensions of a distributed working strategy:

1. Core contribution & objectives – what is the “raison d’etre” of your role & what is your most important contribution? When this is clear outputs and performance measures can be aligned to these.

2. Main challenges in the Post-Covid working landscape. Every one of these tribes are facing multiple challenges in the new normal – each have risks of losing impact and each need specific enablers and support.

3. The tools, platforms and facilities that each tribe needs to be successful. There is no – one size fits all approach to the distributed and hybrid working landscape we are facing in the aftermath of the pandemic. An enabler or platform that is perfectly adjusted to one tribe can be alienating to another. Same goes for policies, rewards, rules and expectations.

4. The policy framework should be aligned to the contribution tribe & should be communicated as such. To emerge from this disruption with a more adaptive, agile and high-performance organization we need to have a menu of frameworks, investment policies and expectations for each contribution tribe.

5. Aligned to the policy and investment framework there also needs to be a Learning & Development approach for each tribe. In some cases, the learning platform needs to look a lot like the collaboration and engagement tools that is provided for each tribe – collaborators learn well when they are collaborating. But in some cases, the learning and development approach needs to be a counterpoint to the way of working of the tribe. Artisans or Frontliners sometimes need collaborative and even face to face learning sessions just to give them an opportunity to link back to the organization and to colleagues. Leaders of People often benefit from solitary learning such as reading and self-directed learning, the same goes for Collaborators. An effective “ways of working” strategy in the new normal needs to take a comprehensive view of all touchpoints and fully integrate some & offer diversity in other areas.

6. Lastly this entire approach to the Distributed and Hybrid working environment needs to make sense to all – it needs a compelling Change Management approach to ensure buy-in to the policy. There will be some valuable, but painful fall-out from this critical assessment of the contribution of each role & it may expose the fact that some folks are in roles and contribution areas that they are simply not suited to.

The office was a “one-size-fits-all” solution to work that papered over the core strengths and needs of many people who in the new normal are discovering that they thrive in another way of working – or experience exhaustion and depression in the remote working space.


Then, what happens next? There are a few areas of impact:

1. Firstly – people need to re-discover their ways of working niche & be equipped to thrive and contribute to their strengths.

2. Secondly HR policies, investments and solutions need to be aligned to the tribes and their needs.

3. Thirdly – what happens to the office?

The office – like all of us – needs to adapt or die.


There is still a very important role for the branded physical space that the office could represent.

Just like Apple wanted to create a tangible retail experience to anchor and reinforce the digital experience they offer.


All of our tribes need the office – but in very different ways:

· Artisans – need to visit the office as a “Brand Theme Park” from time to time – to feel connected to the brand and the reason why they do what they do.

· Frontliners have a similar need, but it goes beyond the motivation and sense of alignment that Artisans need, it keeps them filled with the brand essence they need to live and radiate each day when they are out there on the frontlines. In a distributed learning environment maintaining a brand connection is crucial and the office needs to become the place where the brand essence is at its strongest.

· Collaborators can easily live in a connected virtual space – but they need the physical space to build trust and to meet their collaborators in real life. In a virtual space trust is everything, but it is much easier to build trust and a sense of personal, mutual responsibility in a face to face setting. There are also clear signs that some ideation needs the physical space to truly take flight.

· Leaders of People need to have a platform to engage their teams – for them the office is the “live and in concert” space and a place to hear and be heard in an unfiltered space where barriers can be overcome, and positive behavior can be modelled.


It seems insane now that we created this massive synchronic space where everyone had to fight their way through the traffic to get to only to then retreat into cubicles and smaller spaces and spend the day – in some cases looking at screens.

The gift of the pandemic has been that it has given us an opportunity to mass customize our ways of working and to link the tools and workspaces – physical and virtual to the needs of our roles and the contributions we make to the business.

We are actively developing this framework & linking the policies, tools and platforms available to the tribes of your workplace. If you would like to have an assessment of your team done so as to align their needs to the solutions you provide please let us know & we would gladly assist.


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