The Folly of Back-to-Office Mandates

The Folly of Back-to-Office Mandates

I recently heard from a friend whose CEO mandated that every employee go back to the office, no ifs ands or buts. In fact, before the Delta variant hit us, we saw numerous “hard-charging” executives like this at high-profile firms who ruled by fiat that everyone return to the office.

While there are great reasons to get people back into the office—culture building, training, camaraderie, serendipity—there’s no indication that many of these leaders used employee feedback to make their decisions. My friend’s boss certainly didn’t. And these “hard-charging” leaders were seen as “decisive” (this was stated as a good thing).

But before we congratulate any leader for being decisive, it pays to ask a few questions: Over time, what kind of people will join an organization that makes these kinds of mandates, especially without listening first? What kind of people will stay at a place like this? What kind of people will leave?

Will those who leave be the rule followers who like to be told what to do…the color-inside-the-lines people? Or will they be the creative and thoughtful types who find ambiguity exciting and challenging? Let’s be honest, the ambiguity-loving, creative people—the people we need if we’re going to compete—demand less-controlling environments.

Before the pandemic, we already had the most mobile workforce in history, and there’s no sign this trend is lightening. Today, just about every knowledge worker has choices.

So we can’t control these things. In fact, if we have a well-run organization, we probably lost control of it a long time ago. Those who win at change—heck, those who win at leadership in general—they understand that we can’t be controlling leaders.

No matter the final result—whether we go fully back to the office or something less—we have to pull our people to the change, we can’t push it on them. We have to listen before acting. We have to model the behavior we want to see. This gives us lasting change…far beyond near-term compliance. And it makes our organization the kind of place where people want to work.

So let’s be smart as we make these decisions. Let’s not damage our cultures to get quick wins. Patience and a willingness to truly listen—not hard-charging decisiveness—will win for us in the long term.

Let me know what you think…I look forward to being in touch.

Al Comeaux

Primed for Change Community

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