How to approach Return-to-Office Resistance
There is a general resistance to return to office. People do not want to go back to the pre-pandemic office routine, particularly to a 5-day-a-week, in-office schedule. Out of ten thousand Goldman Sachs employees, only half showed up to the office when CEO Solomon called them back. Why? We can talk all we want about Gen Z’s lack of loyalty, but the truth is, companies have not done enough to help the return to office process. There is so much that can be done to build the organizational culture of the future that counters the resistance to return to office. Unfortunately, companies are reluctant to invest in building new cultures.
A Magic Bullet for Return to Office
As consultants, we are often asked about the magic bullet that leads to the right way to return to work, or how to create sustainable alternatives like an engaged, productive hybrid workforce. Our clients are disappointed when we tell them that engaging their employees depends on them, not their employees.
Many of our colleagues have shared strategies for reopening. Search “return to work” and you will see myriad articles on the topic. Yet, there remains a lack of conversation about the core (and relatively cheap) solution of getting people together so they can form deeper connections. We live in a world in which stimulating, dynamic in-person classrooms have been replaced with black screens. A world where a new hire can go two years without seeing their direct supervisor in person.
This is no longer a COVID conversation. It is a leadership conversation. Leaders across industries must step up and acknowledge that their job has changed. At least in the near term. Banks have it easier. Their business model allows them to enforce the in-person culture. For other industries, in-person needs to really work before employees can come back. So, how do you make it work?
Organize Social Events
Spend some of the money you saved on your office space on Happy Hours, Escape the Room events, Scavenger Hunts, and Board Game off-sites. Do whatever your employees like to do (and listen, to find out what that is). Just do it often enough so they can meet and bond over mutual challenges and objectives. It may mean sharing a bottle of whiskey, or escaping an imaginary bank vault.
Celebrate milestones of every kind: work anniversaries, birthdays, promotions, new hires, additions to your employees’ families. Acknowledge cultural days and gather your teams to do something together to honor and celebrate their cultural diversity. Each month of the year is marked by a marketing focus. Find out what that is, and put together monthly events for the topics that resonate with your employees.
Sponsor marathons, parades, and other initiatives that raise money for community causes, support your employees’ passions, and get people together. Do it all! And you will see a marked decline in employees who have resistance to return to office.
Last year, we spoke about the need for companies to become event planning organizations in order to succeed during the return to office, period. We are one quarter into 2022, and we are here to tell you, it is time to get to it. Yes, this list feels overwhelming. We share it not to cause you stress, but to show you the wide range of options you have to create the non-office, office culture that is right for your brand.
Acknowledge the Roots of Resistance to Return to Office
Recently, a Senior Leader from one of the top 5 consulting firms called me to ask how to make her new hires who came to the office stop grocery shopping on their computers during work hours. And how to teach them to engage with each other. She reports that no one goes to lunch together, let alone happy hour. Why would they?
If you think about it, going to the office today isn’t really going to the office. When we used to go to the office, it was full of people. We were meeting in collaboration rooms and talking about our weekends around the water cooler. For some reason, organizations do not realize they are responsible for bringing back this aspect of the office experience.
Yet, they are shocked that employees do not talk to each other. People are depressed in their empty offices, still sitting in front of Zoom. That is why they do not engage with each other. Today, going to the office means walking through an empty building with limited supplies in the break room and echoes down the hallways. Of course no one wants to go to the office!
Recognize the Purpose of an Organization
A New York Times opinion piece on the 9-to-5 schedule quoted that 30% of global workers surveyed last year said they would look for a new job if their employer required them to return to the office full time. The piece suggests that employees should be allowed not just to choose where they work, but when. This concept caught my eye since this is partly what I love about my entrepreneurial lifestyle right now. It is past midnight. My daughter is sleeping in the other room, and I am listening to Spotify while writing this article. I am able to do this after a corporate, in office, career of 15+ years.
The solo work makes sense for some roles, and for some phases of our careers. But it is not a blanket solution for all roles in an organization. Young people cannot acquire skills necessary to manage projects or others without watching their leaders in action. Banks like Goldman Sachs refer to this need as the “apprenticeship model.” I call it the purpose of an organization. The bottom line is, an Excel expert can show me a shortcut in 1 minute vs me trying to figure out the same thing online, alone, in an hour.
Start scheduling people to come to the office together. Behind the scenes, coordinate the teams that have higher co-dependency to come in on the same day. That, coupled with your social calendar, will break the social awkwardness. And make sure, when people are in the office, they are not on six hours of Zoom calls!
Keep in mind that you do not have to do this all alone. Engage your direct reports and delegate this work to them, too.
Last but not least, please create an Onboarding Experience for your new hires! It is unbelievable how many people start new jobs without ever having been properly introduced to their company. Just because employees are remote, does not mean it is impossible to meet and greet new hires. Leverage Teams, or Slack, to create a channel for new hires. There, they can introduce themselves, ask questions, and become more comfortable with their colleagues.
Introduce a New Hires Day when everyone in the organization comes together to meet new members. Create an Onboarding Schedule that includes lunches and in-person meetings where you introduce the people who are most important to your new hires. Do not expect new hires to schedule meetings like this on their own. Given widespread resistance to return to office, it is difficult to ask people to come in to the office. That is why doing so is your job as the leader. And it is another opportunity to support your new hires.
We know none of this is easy. The fundamental cultural shift required to meet the needs of employees with resistance to return to office cannot be handled by only one leader. And it cannot be done alone. We are here to help you. Take the first step with the Return to Office and Culture Alignment Toolkit we built for you.
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