There's only one prediction that 2021 that, in my opinion, matters.
We can all see it coming.
There’s a consensus belief that with the beginning distribution of vaccines, the pandemic will end at some point this year, the looming question for sales leaders and sellers themselves that needs to be answered and prepared for is...
Should we send salespeople back to the office?
The answer isn’t as easy as it seems.
Putting myself back in the shoes of a Chief Revenue Officer, there are plenty of knee-jerk responses I could have:
“Yes, for the sake of relationships, culture and for the sake of our eyeballs that have been staring at the little green dot next to the camera on our laptops for hours per day, come on back!”
“Wait, but this remote environment is working. We’ve established normalcy in it, and some people are thriving in it. Stay home if you want to!”
Well - not so fast. Both of those answers are fraught with danger.
As I took off my CRO hat and put on my nerd-alert behavioral science hat instead, things get murky, quickly.
There are four behavioral issues we must weigh before our answer becomes clear.
Trust & Control - the Yin and Yang
You may be thinking, “no question - we’re not going to require sellers to come back to the office.”
Before jumping to that conclusion, why hadn’t we created and encouraged a fully remote salesforce before?
We’ve had the technology to do it for over 15 years. Ten years ago, I was leading an international sales team via Skype. I was in Chicago, my company was headquartered in New Zealand, and I had reps in all corners of the world - even Dubai. I was on a business trip in Indianapolis, and had to deliver a video sales update at our all-hands meeting from a hotel room while the rest of the company was half-way around the world in Auckland. It worked great - and that was 2010!
There’s a reason why an all-remote salesforce did not take hold prior to 2020 - a yin & yang of competing yet complementary forces that have resulted in 100+ years of centralized management.
We, as human beings, crave control, autonomy, and the trust of others. While we say we don’t like to be micro-managed, it’s actually a subconscious desire, too. Our personal freedoms are a driver of motivation to do our best, and when we rely on others, we become less engaged in our efforts.
Working for home maximizes that feeling of control.
We, as human beings, are also driven to be able to predict our future. Certainty is an inherent driver. As a leader, the ability to predict and establish certainty is quite a bit higher when those leaders lose oversight - and therefore control.
Salespeople & sales leaders are all human beings. We crave autonomy and trust, we also crave certainty, and control is a big overlap...thus, the ying & the yang.
That means, while being remote is great for salespeople, it inherently isn’t so great for organizational and sales leadership.
The result of forced remote work has meant, from what I’ve seen, quite a few companies increasing the numbers of “check ins” and meetings that are taking place in the remote environment. More time on videos. More oversight to make up for the lack of eyeballs on reps.
It’s subconscious, and not sustainable.
Who’s subconscious desires will win the day - the rep, or the leader?
Introverts versus extroverts
Having a single policy - where it's either "we're all back in", or "we're all back out" is a challenge. Now you’re thinking, “maybe we make it optional”. It becomes up to the reps, but what will their answer be?
Their answer will largely depend on the seller’s inherent personality.
Some may be thriving in this remote environment, and others are dreaming of the day they get to go back to the office every day.
The office environment for salespeople is biased toward extroverts. These extroverts are people who feed off of the energy of others. They like to talk through ideas out loud, brainstorm and strategize informally around just about everything.
Remote work favors the introverts. These introverts do best when they have uninterrupted focus, and don’t feel as though others are looking and listening as they’re making calls and working their opportunities.
If you make it optional, be prepared for the different personalities to select different options best for them. This may be ideal - you're making everyone happy.
But are you? In so doing, you may be creating two other issues...
"Expectation Inflation" & the commute not paid for
Back in 2014, when I joined startup PowerReviews initially as their SVP of Sales, things were lean. When you would come into the office, if you wanted a drink from the kitchen, you grabbed it from the refrigerator and put $.50 in a jar next to it.
Fast forward two years. Not only did we now have multiple refrigerators filled with free drinks, we had just installed a cold-brew coffee tap.
It became all the rage...I literally took a picture of my first cold-brew from it, August 10th, 2016. It was delicious. I was hooked!
Fast forward two months. The cold-brew tap was unexpectedly out. It was empty. And there was no immediate remedy.
It had become part of all of our routines, and it wasn’t hard to overhear employees mumbling, “The f’n cold-brew is out. What the f…?!? Do I f'n have to go to Starbucks now?”
Let’s take this concept over to the switch from "commuting" to "working from home".
Prior to Covid, commuting to and from work has simply been a necessary component of the job...just like dropping $.50 in the drink jar. It’s just what you do. It’s an element of compliance.
As an employee, while some organizations offered a commute perk or two, you paid for it yourself. Even if it was "paid for", you still had to do it.
In the pandemic, you’re not commuting. You’re not braving the 2-hour roundtrip. You’re not getting a face-full of the sweaty guy on the train. You’re not having to dress like a Sherpa to get in on a lovely January day.
It’s been like getting that new cold-brew machine.
What you’ve experienced is something I like to call "Expectation Inflation". Once we’ve received an additional perk, no matter how out-of-the-ordinary versus others it is, taking it away reduces our overall satisfaction. Our expectations of normalcy have been inflated.
Once you raise the benefit expectation bar, lowering it back to where it was, even if that level is considered “normal”, is a lowering of satisfaction - which lowers engagement - which can lower performance.
If you make coming back “optional”, will those who thrive in an office environment lose engagement due to a perceived unfairness of the investment required to commute?
Will they perceive those who don’t come back differently, fracturing the team?
Will there be a mutiny once the commutes start coming back?
Will sellers coming back to the office require some other concession?
How will you foster “team” if some employees do come back regularly, and some stay home?
Promotions - out of sight, out of mind?
Picture this good problem to have - growth. We come out of the pandemic, we collectively exhale, wallets open up, and our companies are hiring again.
As our sales organizations grow, we now need to create leaders and our desire is to promote from within, right?
Who will rise to the top? How will you decide?
Subconsciously, do you think you’ll lean towards the person who is always there, in the office, a clear fixture in the office culture? Or, will you lean towards the person who isn’t there - who may be more qualified, but isn’t present?
There’s a potential for a strong case of subconscious bias to appear in the hybrid environment. A bias towards the individuals who are in the office.
The term, “the new normal” has always been a touch irritating to me. Sure, we’ve redefined our organizations - we’ve determined who we are as an organization when our offices and conference rooms are empty and silent.
But 2020’s “new normal” was the result of a surprise - and is simply a leveling of expectations in this environment.
As the pandemic fades, a “new-new-normal” will need to be considered. How will we optimize our selling organizations if an "optional" environment is our chosen path - for both those who come in (i.e., expectation inflation) and those who stay home (i.e., career pathing)? How do we ensure we're not burning out the remote employee by our shared desires for control and predictability?
The good news is - we can predict this next change!
Now is the time to prepare...