Why executives want employees to come back?

On Monday, June 14, 2021, people enter the Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York, US.

Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

After two years, dizzying executives appear about to welcome their staff back to the office, whether their employees are ready or not.

“I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to being together again,” Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook told employees in a memo to employees last week, outlining his company’s April 11 hybrid back-to-work plan. .

“I hope everyone is feeling as energized as I am, and that you look forward to seeing your colleagues again in person in the coming weeks,” Jeff Shell, CEO of Comcast’s NBCUniversal, wrote in a Feb. 22 memo to staff. “This is an exciting time. Our offices are ready for your return at all NBCUniversal locations.”

Even President Joe Biden wrote a letter to federal workers this month saying it’s time for them to show Americans that the time is right to get back to work as the number of Covid cases plummets after a dramatic rise that is reportedly on the rise. fueled by the omicron variant. He expanded his message to all Americans in his March 1 State of the Union address.

“It’s time for Americans to get back to work and restock our great downtown,” Biden said. “People who work from home can feel safe returning to the office. We do that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal employees will go back to work in person.”

Still, studies show that employees aren’t nearly as excited about going back to work.

Developed by workplace messaging platform Slack, the Future Forum surveyed more than 10,000 employees worldwide in the summer of 2021 and found a “leader-employee separation” regarding return to work. Three quarters of all executives say they want to work in the office three to five days a week, compared to about a third of employees. Of executives who mainly worked completely remotely during the pandemic, 44% said they wanted to come back to the office every day. Only 17% of employees said the same thing.

Other research suggests that employees are pleasantly surprised by their work-from-home experience and don’t want it to end.

There are several reasons for the disconnect, said Brian Elliott, executive leader of the Future Forum and vice president of Slack. Many executives simply don’t experience the same lives of their employees and fall back on an outdated view of work to draw conclusions about what’s important for a company to thrive, he said.

“Executives have a better attitude at work,” says Elliott. “They probably have an office with a door. They probably don’t have the same childcare issues as many employees. The risk we run as a society, even in a hybrid work environment, is that executives don’t listen to employees who are looking for flexibility and a real proximity bias occurs in people who are in the office and those who are not.”

While Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, said last year that remote working “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation” and affects culture, Elliott said the data shows that hybrid settings create a better work-life balance. private life, while also enhancing the employees’ sense of belonging to colleagues. Modern technology connects colleagues — including those who may have worked remotely before the pandemic — leveling the playing field among employees. That sense of honesty, not based on face time or coincidentally meeting in an executive suite elevator, boosts overall job satisfaction, Elliott said.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, speaks at luncheon at the Boston College Chief Executives Club in Boston, Massachusetts, US, November 23, 2021.

Brian Snyder | Reuters

“The data goes against the idea that being always in the office is the best way to promote culture,” Elliott said. “Using digital tools is very important to build a culture for people who are not your average white male executive. Companies that invest in modern tools and rethink how they bring people together will fare better than companies that work full time in the office.”

Elliott noted that while Slack benefits from work-from-home policies, all Future Forum’s research was completed independently of the tech company.

Cultural Mythology

It’s possible that the manager-employee relationship represents a division between what’s best for the organization and what’s best for the individual, argued Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. In an essay for Harvard Business Review, Markman wrote that observing the work of others can lead to a phenomenon called target contamination.

“Observing other people’s actions, you often adopt the same goals,” Markman wrote. “Associating with a group of people working on a common mission reinforces that purpose in everyone in the workplace.”

But several of Markman’s claims — including “the physical workplace allows for moments of serendipity that can move projects” and “it’s harder for institutional knowledge to find its way in a remote environment” — are more fairytale than reality, Elliott said.

“I’ve heard so many times from executives about the importance of whiteboarding, but that feeling always comes from the person controlling the pen during those whiteboard sessions,” Elliott said. “The truth is that whiteboarding leads to groupthink. If you allow people to submit ideas alone, not in a room with others, studies show that you get more creativity.”

Vlad Lapich, with tech startup company Fast, works on his computer on the first day back at the office on March 24, 2021 in San Francisco, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Bringing people back to the office for casual encounters in an elevator or at the water cooler is “mythology,” Elliott said. Still, those interactions may be far more valuable to an executive than an employee — further leading to the disconnect, said Amy Zimmerman, chief people officer at Relay Payments, who has worked with founders and executives to develop and nurture culture. to cherish.

Older executives rely on face-to-face communication to better understand what’s happening in their organizations, Zimmerman said. They may also have a greater need for those casual conversations to keep an eye on a large number of employees, she said.

“I’ve worked with a CEO who told me he just loved the energy of the office,” Zimmerman said. “There was something about seeing the cars in the parking lot that brought him joy. The fact is, corporate America has probably changed forever. You’re making a big mistake when you need people back in the office full time, because they see progress at most companies have made it in the past two years, and they will ask, ‘why?’ It feels like micromanagement.”

symbolic return

While the idea that working from an office improves productivity or idea generation isn’t supported by evidence, executives’ excitement to get back to work may serve a greater purpose, said Gia Ganesh, vice president of people and culture. at Florence Healthcare.

The movement to bring people back to office environments may represent a basic human need for socialization, Ganesh said. Executives’ excitement about returning to offices can be viewed optimistically as business leaders signaling to employees that it is once again acceptable to return to prepandemic. That’s an important step for human and group psychology, Ganesh said.

The fact is, corporate America has probably changed forever.

Amy Zimmerman

Chief People Officer, Relay Payments

“We work better when we’re at home, so why should we come to the office? Why commute for two hours if it’s counterproductive? Because in these times of the pandemic, the sense of belonging is broken,” Ganesh said. † “The workplace enables that sense of belonging.”

Like Elliott, Ganesh advocated for hybrid work environments to become the norm in a post-pandemic world. Just as people are more concerned about flying, although data shows car accidents are far more likely than plane wrecks, executives may need to retrain themselves to get comfortable with this new reality, she said.

“People need control,” Ganesh said. “As a manager you are to feel you have better control and visibility when everyone is in front of you.”

While most executives would never admit it, their desire to return to the office can lead to a drop in productivity, Zimmerman said. The question is whether they care.

“People can be crazy in an office,” Zimmerman said. “But a lot of executives I speak to just miss seeing people.”

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