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April 23, 2024   |  Articles

Energy Budgets and RTO Policies

What is an energy budget?

Let’s kick things off with a basic reality check: Each of us have a limited amount of time and energy each day – and even more limited amount of time and energy that we are willing and able to dedicate to work.  When there is a limited resource, one way to make sure that it is well “spent” is to create a budget for it and energy in the workplace is no exception.

Backing up a few years, however, I first started thinking about energy budgets when my husband was working on the power budget for a satellite his company was building.  On a satellite, there may be an assortment of ways to generate power but for something in orbit, or even farther from earth, there is no easy way to just add more power.  Each design has a hard limit on the available power – and it sure sounds like there is never quite enough to go around.  This means that a large part of systems engineering for spacecraft centers around ensuring that each subsystem has the power it needs, or gets redesigned to work with the power it can have.

Ok, but my team members aren’t satellites…

I like the example of satellites because there are so few other contexts where the limits around something like power are so cut and dry.  Once you launch the spacecraft, that’s it.  There is no running down to the corner store for extra batteries or (unless you are Hubble) even to send out a team to do hardware upgrades.  The best use of time is to focus on how the available power can be used most effectively rather than harping on how to get more power.

I rarely see such an attitude in the workplace.  When our professional or corporate ambitions grow, we tend to assume that there is a way to make all of our dreams come true if we are just clever enough to find it.  We rarely acknowledge a hard limit on any front, and we seem particularly reluctant to do so when it comes to the time and energy of our team members – or ourselves.

Your team may not be satellites but what if you spent a few days pretending that in this one respect, they are: That there is a limit to their energy and conscious decisions must be made about how that energy might be allocated. 

What is a specific area where we could use an energy budget?

This “energy budget” concept has been particularly top of mind for me recently after posting my last article about engaging with remote team members.  The strong response reminded me that many organizations are still struggling with decisions around collocation or distributed teams and that new policies are being developed and tested every day. 

My personal biases tend to lean towards “remote” (as you can likely see from this article about when to go in person and when to stay remote) but I do recognize that the answer is rarely so simple.  I have spent a long time looking for a nuanced and objective way to think about the pros and cons of remote work and collocation that can be customized for a given organization’s circumstances and energy budgets seem like a perfect way to think about this issue.

I’m going to need more details

Let’s think about a few different activities that all require energy.  One that tends to get the most attention in collocated / hybrid / remote discussions is commuting.  There is evidence that a short commute can help with context shifting between work and home but long commutes, particularly with heavy traffic, can be very time consuming and disproportionately energy draining.

Another popular topic in this context is training new employees and mentoring.  Over the past few years, there has been a ton of research into how to do these activities effectively in a remote setting with plenty of solid strategies identified.  The caveat is that they generally require a more conscious dedication of time and intentional time is often more energy consuming than passive time.

Along those same lines, the “laugh together” suggestion from my last article prompted a lot of people to share their strategies for remote bonding.  Lots of organizations are doing this really well!  None of the ones I am aware of, however, have found a way to replace “break room serendipity” with an equally passive alternative.  While we may not have lost any effectiveness, there is definitely an increase in the energy required to forge bonds between team members.

Let’s come back to that “energy budget” concept

Consider two different mid-size law firms.  Both are headquartered in a city with a decent public transportation system and a ton of traffic.  Neither are in areas that regularly require court appearances or even mandate physically face-to-face meetings with clients. Both are growing slowly but steadily. 

One law firm is more of a boutique, despite its size, and hires experienced lawyers on a regular cadence throughout the year.  These new hires need to learn a bit about the specific practices of the firm but they are already well respected in their field.  When they need associates, they tend to hire people who have done a few years in Big Law and are disillusioned with the partner track.  They are willing to put in a few more years at the associate level in a slightly less intense environment and, much like the more senior hires, need more training in the specifics of the firm than in the work more broadly.

The second firm does some hiring throughout the year but also actively takes interns each year and tends to bring on a cohort of new lawyers from each graduating class.  This means that each summer there are a pile of law school students eager to contribute and an annual wave of new, full-time hires who need training and guidance on pretty much every aspect of their roles.

Even in an industry known for asking long hours of its workers, both law firms must still grapple with a limited amount of energy from their teams.  What is the best allocation of energy for each?

Let’s simplify the situation for illustration purposes and consider only the energy required to commute and the energy required to train new hires.  Given the details shared above, I would argue that the first law firm likely benefits from a more flexible remote work policy, or even from deciding to go fully remote except for specific events.  This decision will increase the energy required to train new hires but given the trickle-in nature of new employees, that challenge can be tackled on a case by case basis and only requires additional energy from a small subset of the team at any given time.

The second firm, however, is more likely to be successful with a policy that requires substantially more time in the office, if not a full time mandate.  With a steady stream of very junior employees, training and mentoring is inherently going to require a much larger percent of any energy budget than at the first firm and so a decision that reduces the energy needed in this area will have a larger impact.  These lawyers may hate their commutes as much as their colleagues at the first firm but it is a more worthwhile investment of their time and frustration.

Wrap it up for me, please

Very few situations can actually be boiled down to two factors, such as commuting and mentoring but a simple example can help set the stage for our own, more complex decisions.  If you are still struggling with the right return (or not) to office policy for your organization, my guess is that some aspects of your team’s day will require less energy if they are in the office and others will take less energy from home.  The question is whether one set clearly outweighs the other.

As an added benefit, I have found that energy budgets can be a handy way to engage team members in the discussion.  Discussing energy budgets acknowledges that energy is a limited resource and empowers employees to talk about how their energy is allocated rather than forcing them to advocate for the fact that limits to their energy exist at all. 

It can also open up fascinating insights into what activities require more or less energy for your particular team members.  My husband and I tend to have very different opinions about how much of a win being colocated with others is for our energy budget for a variety of activities and your team may surprise you once you give them the language to share their thoughts on the subject.

Last, but far from least, this framing can dramatically increase buy-in when you do make a decision about your policy.  Understanding why a decision was made, including acknowledging the increased costs in some areas in service of a greater overall benefit, can help team members support that decision.  They may not love the answer, and it may not even be a personal win for them, but seeing how the decision serves the broader organization can help people move past their personal perspectives and get on board with the greater good.

So now what?

Now is a great time to pause and reflect on the activities that are taking up the largest chunks of your team’s energy.  Whether it is commuting, mentoring, customer engagement, collaboration, creating individual work products, or even complaining, this is a chance to see and acknowledge the biggest categories. 

Now is also a great time to pause and reflect on what activities are the highest priority for your organization.  What must be done to the highest standard?  Does meeting that standard require more energy than is currently available?  Could that standard be met in more energy efficient ways?

This is, at heart, an optimization problem.  It is likely to be challenging but also incredibly rewarding.  Hopefully, the “Energy Budget” framing will make solving the age-old need for more hours in the day just a bit more solvable.

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