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Return to Office Mandates Signal the Growing Irrelevance of Leaders

The Return to Office (RTO) mandates we’ve witnessed over the past few months continue to illustrate how out-of-touch leaders of these organizations are with their people and the reality of the new world we are in.

I find it particularly interesting that even several big tech companies, known for their ingenuity and end-user-focused approach to products, fail to apply this same thinking to their people practices and ways of working. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo that making autocratic demands of intelligent adults and dialing up the command and control will only repel talent and accelerate their irrelevance.

Of course, we can understand why some of these leaders joined the RTO old boys club, but at what cost?

  • For some, it's ego. It can threaten a leader’s status and desire to feel like the king on a throne if their people are not scurrying around them in the office. I’ve had several leaders tell me they don’t feel important if their employees are not around them.

  • Some leaders have shared that since they “had to earn their stripes” working 12 hours a day in the office, their people should as well. Really? Are we still here?

  • Many simply don’t know how to lead or manage in this new world. Good news! There is a plethora of coaches, courses, and content available to upskill on this exact topic.

  • Despite two and a half years of data showing higher productivity while working remotely, many leaders still don’t trust their people are really working if not in the office. By the way, we all know the number of hours spent in the office was never an accurate measure of productivity and performance. We need to stop relying on this lazy proxy and develop better, more accurate output-based metrics.

  • Some leaders mistakenly think the office is the source of their culture and collaboration. As someone who has worked hybrid successfully for the past decade, I’ve experienced firsthand that great culture doesn't require being co-located. In fact, would argue that you can build a stronger, more inclusive, and effective culture with remote and hybrid teams because you need to be deliberate about designing it, embedding it into core systems, and grounding it in day-to-day behaviors, versus lazily letting it develop organically based on the lowest common denominator that presents itself in the office on a given day. Culture is the collective understanding of what’s acceptable amongst a group of people. It transcends the office. For example, whether people are in the office, at a client site, at a work happy hour, sending an email from the train on their commute, or working from home, they are demonstrating your culture in the ways they interact with each other.

  • And of course, there is the real estate play. As we’ve seen in the news, several of the big banks and large tech companies gobbled up commercial real estate during the pandemic because it was on sale. One major bank, in particular, has told their people to be in the office 5 days a week or they won’t have a job. It just so happens this same bank is a major investor in commercial real estate. Of course, we know having lower occupancy rates drives down the assets they have, which also impacts the shareholder price. So it behooves these organizations to have people in offices to keep real estate prices high.

Come on leaders, you're better than this. After what we’ve all collectively experienced and learned over the past two and a half years, including how we can work better, we can’t unsee it. We’re never going “back to normal” and trying to force-fit everyone back in time, to an old model that was broken for the masses because it makes a few leaders more comfortable is not the way to go.

Having spent my career guiding leaders and their organizations through change and transformations, I can tell you, that even if you are dead set on getting people back to your offices, at a minimum, you need to approach it differently.

So what to do…

Stop making it a power struggle. The perception that this is a battle of who has the upper hand in a tight labor market and whisperings of a recession isn’t helping anyone. Just because old, masculine leadership models view the world through a zero-sum, supply vs. demand lens, doesn’t mean employees do. Employees are not trying to demonstrate they are in charge. They are however acutely aware of how they delivered for you during the last 2.5 years of hell, proving they could be even more productive, to the point of burning themselves out. And now the organization is telling them, they MUST come back to the office for some arbitrary reason? Are you kidding? Acting as if the last few years didn’t happen is a form of gaslighting. A little acknowledgment and appreciation would go a long way here.

Your blind spots are getting in the way. Most leaders have a very different vantage point and lived experience than their people. This is causing a major disconnect between what leaders want and what their people want. Data from Future Forum shows that 60% of leaders want to be back in the office full-time, whereas 20% of their people want that. This means we need to listen to and understand employees if we're going to persuade them.

Give people options. To the dismay of old school leaders who are confused about why their employees won’t “just do what they tell them”. Here’s a tip: Treating adults like children will not work. One reason for this is reactance. Reactance stems from the fact that one of our vital human needs is autonomy; a feeling that we have at least some control over our lives. When someone demands we do something, even something we were already planning to do, our inner rebel emerges. This is where we will see either explicit rejection of the demand such as quitting or disguised ways of resisting like quiet quitting. Therefore, you need to remove the demands and provide options. Many organizations, including Spotify, did this by giving their people the choice to work from wherever they want. These companies have since seen increased engagement and retention. They also have people coming into the office…because it was a choice.

Reframe it in terms of the “why”. Today’s workforce would rather leave your organization than, “rot in a cubicle all day” for no reason. It’s not that people don’t want to come into the office. They want to come in, but for a reason…things they can’t do elsewhere or asynchronously. So, be very clear and deliberate as to why people are coming in, what’s in it for them, and make it worth their while to get up earlier, put on a suit, and make the commute.

Cut yourself and your people some slack. No one has the answers….we’ve never done this before. We all need to be empathic, curious, and willing to experiment.

  • Listen to your people, what they want, how they are most productive and happy

  • As you reexamine your business models and transformation strategies, work with your people to determine where the work can be done most productive and effectively

  • Push as much decision-making as possible to the team level. They are closer to the work, the customer, and ways of working.

  • Experiment, observe and collect data on what is and isn’t working

  • Continue to iterate as you go

As Charles Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” This is a moment to listen, experiment, learn, and adapt.

It's time to accept this invitation to the future instead of clinging to the past like a life raft flailing along the waves of change, while everyone else is riding into the future on a big sexy super yacht.

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