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Should you work from home or go to the office? It all depends on the conversations you’re trying to have

November 29, 2022, 11:42 AM UTC
Many employers have implemented hybrid work schedules as part of their efforts to get employees back to the office.
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

The pandemic’s shuttering of offices upended the paternalistic office model, where managers determined the rewards for employees who did good work.

To the surprise of leaders and employees, remote work turned out to be more productive than in-office work. It also gave employees freedom from commuting and oppressive oversight.

It’s an opportunity to take a fresh look at how to make the best of both virtual and in-person work. Neither model is perfect, but if used wisely, they can complement each other, improve leaders’ behavior, and make teams more effective.

In the old office model, culture was often set aside, and measurable goals, metrics, and processes reigned. But so much of the success of teams depends on organizational culture–and conversations shape culture.

Four archetypal conversations–storytelling, collaborative, creative, and commitment–offer a new meeting framework that saves time, creates smarter teams, and leads to better decisions

Storytelling conversations

We all bring our stories into the office. One person arrives believing that the project’s progress is on track, while another arrives furious that more resources aren’t available.

While our stories are vital and life-affirming, they are also loaded with ego energy that can trap us in patterns of defensiveness and unproductive interactions. The best antidote is acknowledging that your story is your opinion and not the truth. In short, lighten up.

This conversation is an exploration of our individual world of stories. It requires us to think about our thinking. Ask yourself: What stories, feelings, and fears am I bringing to a meeting? Am I hellbent on making my point and winning the argument, or am I willing to show my cards and consider other perspectives?

Investigate your thinking and emotions, then open up by exposing your thinking. Remember: How you show up–virtually or in person–impacts how others engage with you.

Storytelling conversations tend to dominate when we socialize. Schedule time before and after meetings for people to hang out, have coffee, and share their stories. Personal connections are a crucial foundation of trust.

Collaborative conversations

This conversation allows us to share information and perspectives–but it requires a shift from “I-centric” storytelling to a “we-focused” mindset. That’s often where things heat up.

If we remain egocentric, we butt heads with others and defend our positions, which perpetuates unproductive cycles. A “we-focused” conversation requires us to share our position as one among many and be willing to consider other perspectives. With open-handed advocacy and inquiry, the conversational dance can inspire listening, learning, and wise decisions. 

In my experience, objective data sharing–virtually or in person–gets bogged down with info sharing, report outs, and metric reviews. When appropriate, get updates and data sharing through email, Slack, or virtual meetings. Ask yourself this critical question: Who needs this info and in what way?

The sharing of–and learning from–multiple subjective perspectives is best done in person, in a good space with whiteboards to enhance brainy, engaging team interactions.  

A culture of psychological safety is crucial for individuals to express their opinions because it encourages open-mind and open-heart conversations. Body language, presence, probing questions, and the dopamine hit from good dialogue are missing from most virtual meetings.

Nothing enlivens a meeting more than deliberation on a juicy subject. I have seen many dead meetings come alive when a leader or facilitator puts a hot potato on the table and makes time for multiple perspectives to surface. This creates a psychologically safe space for individuals to speak up, respectfully disagree, and dissect varying opinions. Robust collaborative conversations naturally invoke creative conversations.

Creative conversations

This one is all about ideation. Brainstorming often gets shut down by premature judgments like, “That will never work!”

Creative conversations encourage participants to courageously put forth ideas without fear of judgment. A successful creative conversation is a wide-open space where ideas can percolate up for consideration.

Drawings, whiteboards, pictures, and outside-of-the-box ideas usually only work in person. Like collaborative conversations, these work best in spaces where open minds and hearts can sync up. A neurological sync–which includes unconscious mirroring, body language, eye movements, acknowledging, and presence–can be magical. We have all experienced the unanticipated results of unexpected solutions, only possible via collaboration and co-creation.

This conversation also enlivens meetings when you deliberately make time in a good space to inspire creativity. And when you get an unexpected win, don’t forget to celebrate the effort.

Commitment conversations

This is the action conversation. If you do X, then I can do Y. Business is generated through the commitments we make to one another. Business thrives on our collective promises, but we often make sloppy promises that are primed for a breakdown.

The best commitment conversations consider who’s making the request, the timing, and the definition of success. Under pressure to make timely decisions and keep things moving along, leaders often make drive-by requests and receive an obligatory “sure.”

We love telling our stories and making decisions. In our rush to make a decision, we do a conversational bypass, skipping over the juicy collaborative and creative conversations–the two conversations that bring energy, engagement, mutual learning, and new ideas.

Don’t make decisions unless you have taken the time to hear multiple perspectives and consider multiple possibilities. In-person conversations can enhance decision-making and productively wrap up meetings. It’s also possible that a leader or a team won’t be ready to make a decision on the spot. In that case, decisions can be taken offline and declared virtually with context.

In-person or virtually, the critical component of the commitment conversation is clarity of purpose: how and by whom will decisions will be made, checkpoints, and how success will be measured.

Today, meetings also suffer from attendee bloat–and many feel unappreciated or unimportant if they don’t make the attendee list. The best way to change this pattern is to make the nature and expected outcomes of meetings explicit. Over time, participants will embrace this change, which will help create efficient and effective meetings.

It’s easy to convene a meeting–but it isn’t easy to have the right conversation, for the right purpose, at the right time, with the right people, and in the right way.

If we can figure out how to have purposeful conversations, we can transform the ways we collaborate, co-create, and make smart decisions–virtually and in the office.

Chuck Wisner is a leadership consultant and the author of The Art of Conscious Conversations: Transforming How We Talk, Listen and Interact.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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