Leaders: Please don’t force your employees back to the office

Dear leaders of organizations,

It’s been a crazy sixteen months, hasn’t it? But we’ve made it through. Most of us are vaccinated, the economy is roaring back to life, and now it’s time to get back to normal with everyone in the office, right?

Maybe not.

For the sake of your organization, your employees, and yourself, please don’t force your employees back to the office. Not even for “hybrid” models. Give them the space to figure things out on their own — everyone will be better off for it.

Workers don’t want to lose the autonomy they’ve gained

Here’s the thing: a lot of people have actually been enjoying working remotely, and they’re thriving. They don’t have to commute. They can wear yoga pants all day. They’re taking naps after lunch. Sure, people are working more hours (and there’s a lot employers can do to mitigate burnout and improve WFH well-being), but overall worker output has remained steady. Why mess with a good thing?

Then there’s the fact that a whole lot of people hate going to the office. For example, a recent survey in the US found that 97% of Black knowledge workers prefer a remote or hybrid office. Why would that be? Maybe because the constant microaggressions (not to mention the macroaggressions) they are subject to as a stigmatized minority are a real impediment to doing the job they want to do. And although it might not be as extreme, the discomfort of feeling like an outsider in a place where you have to spend dozens of hours per week is a widely experienced phenomenon. Then think about the physical discomfort of the ubiquitous open office format, lacking in privacy and awash in distractions. Unless the office was designed with you in mind, you probably would prefer to spend a majority of your waking hours elsewhere, especially if you want to get stuff done. One more thing to keep in mind: a lot of people are experiencing entirely legitimate anxiety about returning to all sorts of social situations. Some have lost loved ones or suffered for other reasons. Now is a time to dial up the empathy.

And if you’re not motivated by improving the lives of your employees, then try some self-interest on for size: if you force your employees back to the office, you are very likely going to experience significant turnover in your staff. In the US, the rate of workers quitting their jobs is at an all-time high. A lot of people have gained some perspective since March of last year, and that perspective is it’s just not worth it to work in a job I don’t enjoy. There are a lot of people deciding whether they should stay at their jobs or do something else, and forcing them back into the office is a good way to convince them to take the leap — especially when so many other organizations are embracing remote working as a permanent model.

No, you don’t need to be in the office

I’ve heard a lot of rationales for forcing people back in the office, and not one of them has been compelling.

“But creativity and serendipity only happen in person.” The New York Times did a pretty thorough debunking of this one, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The point is that, yes, meeting people in person can build trust, which leads to creative collaboration, but that doesn’t need to happen every day — and it doesn’t need to happen just this minute, either.

“But people who don’t come to the office aren’t as dedicated as people who do.” This is a particularly dangerous one because it combines presenteeism (the need to show “face time” at the office) with a total obliviousness to the myriad needs of people outside of work. What you’re measuring here isn’t dedication, it’s some combination of privilege and simple preference.

“But we build our organizational culture by working together in the same place.” Organizational culture goes a lot deeper than group lunches and office happy hours. If anything, this daily socializing only reinforces in- and out-group dynamics — and even worse, it’s not saying much for your culture if it’s as replaceable as going to the local pub. A culture is built through shared values and rituals, and these do not require in-person interaction.

“But people who work remotely suffer from alienation and miss out on opportunities.” So nice of you to recognize this! But it’s not a given, it’s a choice: you, as a leader, have the power to put in place systems that address the difficulties of working remotely. And people who want to come to the office can and should come back! (That’s why this article is not called “Please go full remote”.) However, forcing employees back “for their own sake” is patronizing and thoughtless.

Four things you can do as a leader of an organization

  1. Make the office serve employees’ needs. If you want your employees to come back to the office, try the carrot instead of the stick. How about providing more private areas where people can work without everyone looking over their shoulder? Or accommodating flexible hours? Or decorating your office in a style that doesn’t only appeal to white, male, recent college graduates? Or renovating your bathrooms so they are pleasant and private? (I once visited Facebook’s headquarters and was shocked by the size of the gap of the toilet stall door.) Talk to your employees and see how an office could serve their needs, even in a hybrid model. (And for some great thoughts on hybrid models, check out this article and accompanying webinar from my former colleague, Joe Gray.)
  2. Give your employees something to work for beyond a paycheck. What is your organization’s mission? It doesn’t have to be some goofy “change the world” mission statement typical of Silicon Valley, but there has to be some convincing reason for your team to get up and work that doesn’t involve money or market share. This mission should align with your marketing messaging, so that employees do not experience narrative dissonance (e.g., when you tell your customers you’re a nice, friendly place, but then have ruthless performance appraisals of your employees). Even if you’re not the head of the organization but just a director or manager, there’s still a mission you can communicate to your team.
  3. Evolve as a leader. Think about why you want your employees back in the office. Is it because you don’t trust that they are working when you can’t see them? Is it because you thrive on the energy of a team buzzing around you? Whatever it might be, it’s a good opportunity to perform a little introspection regarding your leadership style. If it’s a trust issue, this is worth exploring, because the implications probably go beyond remote working. If it’s the desire to see people in person, it might call for exposing this as a vulnerability to your team — tell them that not seeing them is difficult for you. Actively courting empathy can make you a better leader in their eyes.
  4. Consider evolving your team for the future. I’m going to say a couple of slightly taboo things right here: first, there’s a really good chance that between low vaccination rates and existing (and future) strains of Covid, we’re going to be forced back to remote working this fall, winter and beyond; and second, if you have any control over who is and isn’t on your team, now might be a good time to make some difficult decisions so that your team is the right team for now and the future. Just don’t only choose the people who come to the office ;)

In summary, rushing people back to the office is going to backfire. Instead, rethink and improve your office, your mission, your approach to leadership, and maybe even your team itself.

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