Hope Employees Will Return to the Office? Start Here.

Requiring people to be at the office five days a week may be a deal breaker going forward.

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As the world opens up again following COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, employers that were previously accustomed to a steady hum of activity in the cubicles and corridors must decide if they are going to bring people back into the office full-time, continue to allow them to work remotely, or come up with a hybrid arrangement that provides for a mix of in-office and remote work. A positive way to view this decision is that it provides a fresh start, an opportunity to strengthen the relational subcultures throughout your organization. 

I (Michael) believe that over time, employers are going to lean toward having people work in the office because it promotes collaboration and innovation. But is that what workers want? According to a research survey by Gensler Research Institute, 71% of people prefer to have a hybrid arrangement or work entirely remotely going forward. Working remotely is attractive because it reduces commute time and gives people the most flexibility in their personal lives. Those benefits have been especially appreciated during the pandemic by parents with children at home and people who look after elderly family members. But those aren’t the only reasons. Research shows that people prefer to minimize their time in the office because most work cultures are not healthy or engaging. Working remotely has its challenges but at least you don’t have to endure office drama that is distracting or draining, or be around colleagues who are controlling or indifferent to you.

Employers who want people in the office and also want to attract, engage and retain the best employees face a dilemma. Many of the best employees will prefer maximum flexibility to work where they choose and so they will favor employers who provide that flexibility. Requiring people to be at the office five days a week may be a deal breaker going forward.

There is another option to consider: Offer employees the flexibility to work remotely part of the time yet make being in the office such a positive, inclusive and energizing experience that people want to be in the office together. Leaders can do this through cultivating a culture that is rich in relational connection. 

I’m reminded of a conversation I had more than ten years ago with a regional leader of a major technology company that gave employees the flexibility to work remotely. I will call him Tim. Like most tech companies, Tim’s office provided creature comforts such as a beautiful office design and free food. While nice, Tim knew those perks weren’t enough. Having a cool or fun vibe around the office wouldn’t guarantee a cooperative and productive team. Tim shared with me that he purposely invested time into his team’s work culture because he understood that positive relationships and connection were more important than creature comforts when it comes to boosting employee engagement. Tim wanted the relational environment to be so connecting, so engaging and energizing, that people preferred to be in the office rather than at home or in a coffee shop. With that mindset, he made it a priority to dedicate time to cultivating connection and developing relationship excellence. The end result was that he attracted, engaged and retained the best employees. 

As I explained in Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, a culture of connection meets the seven universal human needs at work for respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth, meaning and progress. It gives employees a cognitive advantage, boosts employee engagement, tightens strategic alignment, improves the quality of decisions, increases the rate of innovation, and maximizes agility and adaptability. These six distinct advantages for groups add up to a powerful performance advantage. Only this type of culture is a win-win for employees and employers. 

Great leaders foster a Connection Culture as they communicate a vision that inspires and unites people, value people as individuals instead of thinking of or treating them as mere means to an end, and give people a voice to share their opinions then consider their input when possible. Captured in the easy-to-remember model of Task Excellence + Relationship Excellence (which is further broken down into the elements of Vision + Value + Voice), a Connection Culture provides the foundation for achieving sustainable superior performance. 

Leaders would be wise to tap into the power of human connection to create an engaging, in-person work experience. As you look ahead and consider the future of work in your organization, ask yourself the following questions. 

  • Are you presently attracting, engaging and retaining people who have the competence, character and connection skills that give your organization a performance advantage? 
  • Considering the need for continuous collaboration and cooperation, how important is it for the people you are responsible for leading, and any teams they lead, to be physically located together?
  • How connecting and engaging are the subcultures of teams or departments you are responsible for leading? Which one(s) would benefit by focused efforts to improve connection? Are there specific leaders or team members who would benefit by having coaching or mentoring related to their people skills?
  • Look at the results of past employee engagement surveys your organization has conducted, opinions expressed in exit interviews, and what you’ve picked up through talking with colleagues and observing interactions on your team. Are people inspired and united by your vision? Do they feel valued as individuals and not thought of or treated as mere means to an end? Do they believe they have a voice to share their ideas and opinions on matters that are important to them and that their feedback is seriously considered?  
  • Give people a voice by having one-on-one conversations with them. Inquire about their perspective on being back in the office full-time or part of the time. What have they appreciated about working from home? What have they missed about being in the office? Ask them about their take on the relational culture of the team before the pandemic. What was going well? What was causing issues or concerns for them? What would they like to see done differently going forward?

I believe having a Connection Culture in place is a must for leaders and organizations if they want to win the war for talented employees and achieve their highest performance aspirations in the post-pandemic world. 

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