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When You're Getting Paid to Stick Around

One of my favorite workplace culture stories came from a friend of mine who had gotten her first white-collar, salaried job. She was hired for an entry-level position and on her first day, she arrived at 8:30 a.m., finished her work by 2:30 p.m., then went home. The next day, the same thing. The day after that -- the same thing. On her fourth day on the job, her boss pulled her aside and said, "You leaving early is a problem."

"But I'm not leaving early," my friend protested. "I finished all my work. There's nothing for me to do."

"That doesn't matter," her supervisor explained. "We pay you to stick around in case anyone else needs you."

And that was how my friend learned about one of the unwritten rules of her office culture: Her job didn't end when her to-do list did; she was expected to be available to her colleagues in a participatory way.

When I read the April 2023 Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, what jumped out at me was how people who are in offices logged more time mentoring people, being mentored, and doing formal training for work -- in other words, being available to their colleagues and participating in collective professional development.

The results do not suggest that you can't mentor people over Teams, nor do they suggest that you can't participate in professional development online. All they're pointing out is that being in an office is conducive to engaging in these activities -- perhaps with other people who are also in an office. When you're available to your colleagues in a participatory way, these opportunities to pass along skills or pick up new skills will arise spontaneously.

However, since hybrid work is here to stay, it's the job of workplace strategists to make sure that their culture includes both the circumstances for spontaneous engagement and structured engagement opportunities. Just as workplaces should be designed to encourage the in-person exchange of ideas and skills, so should hybrid work tools be deployed in ways that boost showing up for our far-flung and asynchronous colleagues. Sticking around for everyone else at work is important.