It Might be a Company-Ending Mistake to Go Back to the Office
But, there are steps to allow leaders to go forward to the culture that will drive future success.
The increasing frequency of calls to go back to the office is not surprising. The past 24 months have been difficult to deadly for most people on the planet. Who wouldn’t want to roll back the clock? Sure, we had worries back then, but (for most of the world) it was not a trade-off between your livelihood and your life. Now, with increasing vaccination rates (although there are important concerns about new variants and resurgent infection rates), it is possible to contemplate a return to normalcy. Accordingly, the talk about going back to the office is increasing. But before announcing that everyone in your organization should go back to the office, consider the potential impact of the Great Resignation.
Avoid the Great Resignation
Texas A&M Associate Professor Anthony Klotz coined the term, the Great Resignation, to describe what he believes to be an impending mass job migration. It remains to be seen if a giant wave of workers will quit their jobs, but notable signs demand that leaders pay attention or risk confronting an issue that has the potential to eviscerate their organizations. Surveys from companies as diverse as Microsoft and Prudential Insurance, as well as insights from work done in the U.K. and Ireland, all point to the 30 to 50 percent of employees who are contemplating quitting their jobs, and soon.
Many of these surveys ask the question based on a six-month horizon, meaning that by year’s end, a third to half of all employees might move to new organizations (or at least they might be distracted while looking). The biggest reason for the moves? The ability to work remotely.
It seems clear that returning to the office on a certain date might trigger mass resignations from your organization, a wave that just might wipe your business out of existence. The recent experience of Basecamp shows how quickly leaders’ actions can spur a massive exodus from an organization. After botching a series of interactions concerning fairness and inclusion, a third of Basecamp employees elected to leave. Clearly, employees are willing to vote with their feet and find other employment.
A values-based decision builds trust
Before deciding to go back to the office, consider this question: Why? After all, many organizations operated for nearly two years without using their offices. What is the compelling business reason to go back? Consider taking a structured approach to making the decision that starts with answering the question: What do you value?
You might value employee happiness, high levels of retention and high interest in your open roles. Write down all that you value in this decision. Do that with your leadership team to gain different perspectives on what is possible. Then arrange these things that you value into groups of a manageable number of ultimate values (between three and five).
Next, consider the alternatives. Having everyone go back to the office is one possible alternative. But consider a broad range of alternatives and score them in terms of how well they individually fulfill those ultimate values. This scoring can be very rigorous with utility elicitation of each member of the decision-making team. However, we have had clear success with systems as simple as scoring the fulfillment of each value as high-medium-low.
With this process, it is common for surprises to emerge. Sometimes those surprises are what others value. Sometimes they are alternatives not yet contemplated. But always, decision-makers feel that a process like this is more transparent and delivers a better decision. They trust the decision process.
With a decision made, the work has only begun. Even a perfect decision can provide little value if the change is not well-managed.
Change management is a gesture of respect
Change management is about helping people move to a new state (process, system, policy or even an office) so that the organizational goals are met. Change management is about people. All too often, leaders breathe a sigh of relief after they have made an important decision. That reaction is understandable given the energy and stress that often go into making such decisions (like going back to the office), but that is just the start of the change. Next, the people must be brought into this process. If they are not, they might rebel in ways overt or subtle. Or, they might simply be confused and not know what to do. In either case, the organizational success from the change is in jeopardy.
As with decision-making, a detailed process can guide a change to success. A light touch will increase the probability of success. A useful tool with which to start is The Change Story. This is a simple tool to get your head around how to think about a change and then communicate it to the group of people impacted. It asks simple but important questions about the change. Here’s a sample:
- What is changing?
- Why are we doing this work? What isn’t working today? What’s the opportunity?
- What benefits do stakeholders get if we do this work and do it right?
It is common for surprises to show up. Most commonly, questions to which the team is not able to answer will be revealed. That’s okay. At least the gap is known and work can be focused on getting answers. More importantly, the gap can be acknowledged to the people impacted and promises made to provide updates. They will feel respected.
The office as a tool for team effectiveness
Having understood what you value to make the decision and articulated the story to drive the change, it is worthwhile to revisit the core question: Why are you going back to the office? The answer will illuminate the values that come up in the decision process. Focusing on those values will strengthen communication during the change process. A helpful framing is to consider the office a tool.
A useful rule is to think about the time in the office as 10x time. Is it ten times more effective for the team to do the work in the office than doing the work remotely? After all, offices are expensive. If the value is not there, then why force the use of a tool to do something it cannot do well? Leaders often cite several reasons for using the office:
- Better collaboration
- Better communication
- Higher team cohesion
These reasons may be valid, but perhaps not in all situations. The goal for leaders is to understand when this tool — the office — is best used for your organization.
With an alternative that increases team effectiveness and a change plan that will land the decision well, the final element to consider is culture.
Growing joy at work builds your culture
Everything that leaders do has an impact on the culture of an organization. With the threat of the Great Resignation looming over organizations, it would be wise to consider the impact of the move to go back to the office. Perhaps it would be best to give up the idea of going back and instead reframe the issue of office use as part of the plan to go forward.
It seems unlikely that we can go back to anything. We are all altered as individuals after the events of the last 18 months. Certainly, our organizations are altered as well, likely permanently. So we shouldn’t look back but rather, forward. With that framing, the use of the office is about the future of the organization.
How can the organization be better in the future than it is right now?
Answer this question to inform the values that you would highlight in making a decision. Answer this question to provide clarity to employees as you manage the change. Answer this question to determine how the office will increase your team’s effectiveness. But most of all, answer this question to grow joy at work. Culture is perhaps the most powerful tool of all. Grow joy at work and your culture will produce something amazing!
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