Recently, Delta CEO Ed Bastian talked to BusinessInsider about the real reason there is tension around the return to office (RTO). So simple. So ignored.
Your employees’ work and life patterns have been forever changed. Employees crave flexibility. They are not going back unless it works for them.
The Pandemic showed knowledge workers that it’s possible to be creative, productive, and connected while working remotely or even traveling. Companies didn’t stop innovating or selling goods and services. They even came up with new revenue streams. The lockdown forced many local businesses I know to finally dive into eCommerce because it was the only way to stay alive.
And workers learned how well they could balance personal and professional life working from home. They spend less time commuting. They can better deal with childcare, aging parents, and their own diverse needs – from being introverted to living with a disability – in better ways. It opened employment opportunities to many talented workers who live far from big cities.
They thrived. And so did their work, and so did their businesses.
But the 2023 State of Workplace Empathy Report showed us the ridiculous gap between CEOs and their workforces. CEO on average tend to have come up learning older leadership styles. They of course adapted to the chaos of the last three years because they had to. And that led many workers to believe they had evolved their leadership styles as well.
But they didn’t. Many leaders thought – and still do – that all this flexibility was temporary and they can now go back to their regularly scheduled programming.
They never really evolved. They coped. And that is why they’re flipping back to what they know:
If I can’t see you, if you’re not in the same room, we can’t get any work done or achieve our ambitious goals.
It’s the only way they know how to lead and hold people accountable.
So basically, they learned nothing.
But workers learned a lot. They saw the promise of flexible work. They thrived in being able to fit in morning yoga, afternoon soccer games, and even being able to cover having a sick kid at home WHILE working hard. Many of them improved their mental health, got fit, and reconnected with their families.
Why on earth would they willingly go back to the way things were? Especially if the culture was lacking to begin with.
And so…some leaders, once again refusing to get it, think the answer is to “perkify” the office. Full-service cafeteria! Workout facilities! Cool new office space! On-site laundry!
I’ll be the first to admit, that is all super cool and generous. It’s empathetic to provide your workers with all the things they need to manage their life so they can contribute their highest potential to their work.
But it only works if going back to the office WORKS for your people. And it only works if you have a culture worth going back to office for.
For many people, it still doesn’t. They need that flexibility. What they gained working remotely still outweighs all the “perks” their company can offer onsite.
It’s not about getting people back to the office so leaders can feel more comfortable with how to manage them. What is the real reason you want them back in the office? Be honest!
- Is it the investment in office space you make?
- Is it wanting to support small local businesses that are struggling because workers are not coming downtown anymore?
- Is it your discomfort or misunderstanding of how to collaborate and innovate remotely?
All of these reasons can be addressed with intentional learning, training, and experimentation. You can thoughtfully determine – with input from your people – what actually warrants in-person collaboration. You can also minimize your discomfort through coaching and training or explore industry best practices to learn how to effectively lead in a hybrid world.
Just because you don’t know how doesn’t mean you can’t learn!
But…there is one big reason that you need to be honest about:
Do you trust your people?
If you don’t, either you’re not hiring the right people, mistrust is rampant across the organization (you set the tone), or your leaders have connection and control issues that need attention.
And who wants to come back to an office culture like that?
Culture is an issue that can’t be solved by unwillingly dragging people back to the office. So stop forcing the genie back into the bottle and figure out how to stay flexible, upskill your leadership and enhance your culture.
Photo Credit: Anastasia Nelen, Unsplash