How Leaders Can Embrace Flexibility and Still Find the Productivity and Creativity They Need Just because Bob Iger demanded employees return to the office doesn't mean you have to.
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The new year dawned for The Walt Disney Company, and employees were in for a surprise resolution. Bob Iger, Disney's returning CEO, wrote to employees to tell them that they would all be returning to the office for at least four days a week. As the man himself said: "In a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect."
Disney's approach is not groundbreaking. As a new post-pandemic era opens up — and as businesses continue to struggle with the chaotic challenges of economic downturns, supply shortages and mass resignations — many renowned leaders are putting their feet down and demanding a return to a more traditional, in-person work routine. Tesla and Twitter employees have been told to get back to the office or get out. TikTok employees received a similar notice in January amid a crackdown on employees with home addresses too far away from the office.
Far from being a rousing call to action, these back-to-the-office announcements are inciting some backlash from employees. Remote and hybrid policies have proven to be effective, and employees are clearly reluctant to lose their newfound work-life balance. So, how can leaders embrace flexibility and still find the productivity and creativity they need?
Related: Remote Work Is Here to Stay. It's Time to Update the Way You Lead.
1. Release control
After Apple CEO Tim Cook announced a return to the office, employees got together to pen a letter explaining why the new policy disregarded their needs for flexibility and inclusiveness. Other workforces have had similar pushbacks to the idea of trudging back to the office.
The first thing leaders can do to give employees a boost is to recognize that no one can be in charge of an individual's creativity. People have many different ways of accessing their own productivity (especially the creative kind), and any leader trying to dictate how each individual worker finds their zone will struggle to find lasting success.
Instead of trying to exert control over creativity, you should hand ownership over to the employees to decide when, where and how they work best. Handing back control helps people to feel responsible for their own success; this is a more engaging way of working and shows employees that the company respects their individual processes when it comes to maximizing productivity.
2. Be driven by outcomes
While a need for innovation and creativity might be Iger's stated reason for Disney's updated in-office policy, the real impetus for in-person work may well be about a lack of trust. According to a Microsoft survey, 85% of leaders say that remote and hybrid working has lowered their confidence that employees are being productive at home.
It can be tempting, especially in times of increased uncertainty, to regiment office hours. Controlling hours and forcing togetherness is a way of seizing back some authority after being shoved around by external forces. Instead of measuring productivity by an arbitrary amount of in-office hours, measuring progress against goals or desired outcomes is often much more effective.
What are the outcomes your team is ultimately trying to achieve? What are the daily, weekly and stretch goals that would be transformative for the business? Focusing an office strategy on results could be hugely motivating and lead to creating a hybrid workweek that is equal parts flexible and effective.
For example, if you have a big project launch, try to get together in the office to summon up excitement for the slog ahead. On quieter days, though, empower people to work in a way they prefer. As long as the work is getting done, there's no need to demand in-person attendance.
Related: The Value of Flexible Management in the Age of Remote Work
3. Stay at the drawing board
Part of the backlash to being told to get back to the office comes down to the forced nature of these announcements. Employees who have been able to enjoy more autonomy suddenly find themselves without choice. To make any new policy work, leaders have to involve their employees in the process.
How could you talk to your team in a more inclusive, peaceful way about evolving workplace practices and policies?
Access the tremendous brainpower of your collective team. Not only will colleagues identify great alternatives and solutions, but they'll also be more connected to the organization because you have valued their input. When they are a part of the solution, they are committed to the results. Isn't that what it's all about?
Hybrid working may challenge our feelings of leadership, but we can make it work if we care about each other and what we do. By communicating regularly, involving everyone in the discussion and focusing on outcomes rather than rigid rules, we can see beyond the talk of home-versus-office and get back to just doing what we love.