Do all the CEOs who have been ordering their employees to return to their offices really think it will benefit their organizations? In what way? Will it create a talent advantage for them by increasing worker satisfaction and reducing attrition? How about productivity; do they expect that to improve? Or is the real motivation more personal? Are they really nervous about their ability to lead, inspire, motivate, and coach across distributed teams?
Some leaders probably have issued blanket office-return mandates simply because they can, or think they can—especially in the tech community, where RIFs have been cascading for months now. [For younger readers who have never lived through tough times, RIF is an acronym for a large layoff, or a “reduction in force.”]
However, the back-to-the-office lemmings are reading things wrong and their push will backfire. We’re already seeing this, with employees at some companies pushing back. More are likely to follow. Here’s why:
Talent shortages persist. Despite the Big Tech layoffs, which already have surpassed 100,000 according to news reports, many U.S. companies remain seriously understaffed. And there’s little relief in sight, Bureau of Labor Statistics data suggest, with only half as many people looking for work as the number of job openings across the economy. In short: workers still appear to have the upper hand. Their retention should be among every CEO’s top priorities.
Dictated flexibility is not true flexibility. As DJ Casto, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer of Synchrony Financial, told CNBC last fall: “flexibility and choice are the new currency” of the American workplace. What employees mean when they say they want flexibility is that they want agency, trust and accountability. When employers dictate which days employees have to be in the office and which days they can work from home, they are stripping employees of self-determination and telling them that they don’t trust them to deliver.
Teams should decide. Work models should differ among units, departments and teams. Tech teams may be better off with one sprint done together in person and the next one done together online. Finance teams may only need to be together for a few weeks per quarter when the books are closing. Marketing teams may require weekly creative face time for brainstorming, conversation, testing. The appropriate unit for deciding work rhythms and routines is the team, not the boss or the individual. Mandating the same schedule for everyone likely will trigger resentment from employees forced to schlep into the office just to do Zoom calls all day from their desks.
One size will not fit all. The back-to-the-office push, in many cases, stems from a CEO’s personal desire to go back to 2019, before the pandemic. This ignores the fact that 2019 wasn’t as great for everyone as you might think.
The past few tumultuous years have shown many leaders that the reality of the day-to-day lives and needs of their employees is vastly different than their own. If they’ve been paying attention, they should now appreciate the fact that remote-native new hires, stressed-out dual-career parents, single workers living in shoe-box-sized apartments, introverts who never liked office socializing and extroverts who really suffered during the Covid-induced isolation all need different settings to perform at their best. To address this, leaders need to empower their teams to align on whatever working arrangement is most likely to improve teamwork, maximize productivity and results, and meet team members individual needs. And then, of course, hold them accountable for delivering. The entire organization will benefit.
Making hybrid-work work effectively takes both effort and investment. Think about it: You’re rewiring your organization at one of the most basic levels—how people work.
This requires empathy and understanding, equipping teams with norm-setting guidance, and providing managers with the new capabilities, tools, and technology they need to manage, inspire, coach and build connections across distributed teams (which, by the way, most leaders of global organizations needed even before Covid-19).
We found out during the worst of the Covid-19 crisis that some people were naturally good at managing distributed teams. They were the ones who called a team member after a Zoom meeting and said, “Hey, you were unusually quiet today, is everything okay?” They were the ones who sent a private note to a colleague thanking her for her suggestion and encouraging her to “keep the ideas coming.” And they were the ones who were attentive enough and cared enough to ask a team member how his son’s college applications are coming along. These managers delivered a clear message: We care. We’re invested in you. We value you. You are important to me.
Those who can work remotely continue to favor flex-work by large margins. Responsible decision-makers, therefore, need to think long and hard before they issue office-return ultimatums. Any decision to act unilaterally should be made the same way other important decisions are made: based on data, experience, intuition, and in consultation with others. Here is a short guide:
1. Identify the problem. What problem are you attempting to solve by mandating a return to the office? Productivity? Culture? Learning? Innovation? Are butts in seats the only way to achieve that? As with any business problem, think broadly about alternative solutions.
2. Analyze the data. Do you have objective—not opinion-driven—data that support the thesis that returning to pre-Covid ways of working is the best way to solve the problem?
3. Consider other options. Did you try other ways to improve things—such as revamping leadership training and investing in new communication and collaboration technology and tools—before deciding to change your flexible-work model?
4. Consider the consequences. Have you considered the likely consequences of rolling back your flex-work policy? For example, how will it affect recruitment, retention, absenteeism and morale? How will it affect your office space (and related) needs?
5. Co-create. Before you do anything, engage your people in building the future work model they will live with. Designing the future of work is not an undertaking for leadership and management alone. What works best for the boss isn’t necessarily what works best for the bossed.
So, before you order everyone back to the office, or even dictate the fixed days of the week when work will be hybrid, you need to engage the folks whose lives you’re impacting. Not only do they have a big stake in your decision, they also have great ideas.