The real reason your back-to-work drive is failing

Want employees back in the building? Well, you’re going about it all wrong, says Liz Ryan, HR expert and Raconteur’s newest columnist

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Illustration: Sara Gelfgren

Business leaders are frustrated. They want employees back in the office, but employees don’t want to go.

A CEO told me two weeks ago: “Our culture is just better when everyone is in the same room.” We can understand the argument, but there’s a problem with it. The problem is that the argument doesn’t hold water.

Employees worked from home for three years and businesses made more money than ever. It’s hard to make a credible argument that your business results rest on people working together in one location when you’ve had folks working in remote-office locations since forever. 

You know the old saying: “We measure what we care about.” We measure dollars and cents, units sold and units returned – not culture. Some organisations do an annual “confidential” employee survey. I have to put the word confidential in quotes here because most employees don’t believe their responses to the survey are actually confidential. In any case, if you have to make a survey confidential to get people to tell you the truth about working for you, something is broken. 

I ran HR for a Fortune 500 company and have consulted with CEOs for 20 years, so don’t be offended when I say: if you’re trying to force employees back to the office, you are your own worst enemy right now. 

This is the way you will lead your organisation into the future

Let go of the idea that your employees can’t do their jobs from home. They just proved they can. You’re out of step and embarrassing yourself. You cannot win this battle. Not every job can be performed from home and not every employee wants to work from home, but a lot of people care about skipping the commute and staying home. They care about it a lot.

SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, predicts that the current talent shortage is only going to get worse and could last for years. Now is not the time to drive talented people away from your firm with a stick by imposing pointless rules on them.

If you’re a CEO, I want you to succeed. I want your business to thrive and your employees to have great experiences in your shop. I want people to be excited about working for you. I want them to sail past their goals and smash through any obstacle that confronts them on the job.

So here’s my advice about how to get people back to the office: do it with honey, not vinegar. Make it appealing to come back to work.

The real reasons why people don’t want to work in your office

We knew before Covid that there was (and remains) no reason to:

  • Stick to a formal business dress code that’s been out of date for ages.
  • Require everyone to show up to work at the same time. Your office is not a factory. Let people arrive and depart when it’s convenient for them.
  • Organise your business around daily and weekly metrics that take the fun out of a meaty assignment. You can’t talk about the importance of spontaneity without acknowledging that spontaneity is impossible when jobs are chopped into tiny bits, each bit corresponding to a numeric Key Performance Indicator. That’s not how humans do great things.
  • Cling to the Industrial Revolution-type command-and-control style of management. It’s over. The only power employers have to make employees obey them is the power to terminate someone. If people don’t worry about that because they could get another job easily, your power disappears. 

Let go of those relics. Let go of the need to control people in order to inspire them to do amazing things. You can’t force your employees to care about their jobs but if the environment allows it, they will care – about the work, the customers, using their brains and talent to make something cool happen, and about one another. 

Covid opened working people’s eyes. The cat is out of the bag. They know they can do their jobs well, lower their stress levels, save on dry-cleaning bills and have a higher quality of life working from home. They know they can support their teammates and customers while working from home where they can water their plants, throw in a load of laundry between Zoom calls, accept deliveries, greet their child arriving from school and spend their lunch break chopping vegetables for dinner.

This is the way you’ll lead your organisation into the future. You won’t try in vain to force adults to do something they a) don’t want to do and b) know your business doesn’t require because they just proved it.

If your firm is a great place to work for those who could work anywhere, no one can beat you 

You are smarter than that. 

You know that if you try to force an unwelcome and unnecessary return to the office on people who are described in your annual report as “our greatest asset and the lifeblood of our company,” the best outcome you can hope for is grudging compliance. You, your customers, your teammates and your shareholders deserve more.

Don’t kill the vibe your company runs on. Let your employees come back to the office however it suits them – only on Mondays and Thursdays, or only for meetings or whatever makes sense for them. You already trust them to run your company for you. The next step is to trust them to decide for themselves where they’ll be most productive. Your employees have choices. They could work anywhere, but they choose to work for you. Make the choice easy! Make your workplace as adult, evolved and people-friendly as possible. 

Making your workplace a magnet for talent is by far your greatest competitive advantage – not just in competing for talent but in your competitive landscape as well. Apart from a culture of trust and community, what other competitive advantage can an organisation sustain? Competitors can match and surpass any tech innovation. They can do the same to a financial advantage. Those things are fleeting. If your firm is a great place to work for those people who could work anywhere, no one can beat you. 

Here’s the best part: leading through trust is free. It costs nothing to build trust in your organisation and get all the benefits that a culture shift brings with it. It’s free, good for business and empowering for everyone when a business leader can relax in the knowledge that their greatest power is their ability to attract amazing people and keep them.