Avoid the Sloppy Slide Back to the Office


One of our team has been isolating with his family for two weeks now as they all take turns testing positive for COVID, which has left Natasha with a case of the workplace 'lonelies'. She has been having coffee's left and right to get herself some company. It’s also allowed her to tune in to what others are thinking about this strange period we are collectively living through.

She noticed the chats always end up back at the same questions: Should companies try to bring employees back to the office? Are there exceptions to the rule? Will work life ever be the same?

Around the world, corporates and governments are definitely trying to force people back into the office. The British Government made headlines by leaving snarky notes on desks. The famously tough US investment bank Goldman Sachs simply mandated a return to the office (“show me the money!”). Elon Musk has followed suit, issuing a memo to staff at Tesla requiring a minimum of 40 hours in the office. And if they decline? They can “pretend to work somewhere else,” he sniped.

Here in New Zealand, the city council and Government in Wellington have ‘encouraged’ staff to come back to the office to support downtown small businesses. In spite of the phase-out of formal lockdowns as a COVID mitigation strategy, foot traffic and consumer spending in the capital city was down 30% early this year, a clear sign that office workers are not physically back on location en force.

Tell, sell, we don’t care

But people don’t like being told what to do. When Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote to employees telling them they’d need to return, he promptly received a letter back from staff telling him he and his team were out of touch and people would not be back on his schedule (if at all).

Contrast that approach with that of AirBnB, CEO Brian Chesky, who told staff they could work from anywhere. Other tech companies have adopted a similar approach. The CEO of Shopify announced the shift to fully remote work in mid-2021, declaring that, “Office centricity is over”. Reddit opted to let employees choose their preferred mode of working and has eliminated location-based compensation, instead linking pay ranges to the highest cost areas in the US. Slack, Atlassian, Spotify, and Dropbox have all followed the path of flexible work as well, with many and varied approaches to the roll-out and management of their workforce.

Like others around the world, organisations in New Zealand are adopting a hybrid model: work from home sometimes and from the office sometimes. For example, Barnes and Perpetual Guardian are reducing their office space and giving employees the choice of where they want to work. This jibes with a recent survey from the US which showed that 70% of employees want the option to continue working remotely. Employees appreciate – and now expect – the flexibility that comes with hybrid working and the fact that hybrid workers are happier. Yet, ironically, the danger of the hybrid model is that companies are being too flexible and producing a sloppy slide into confusion and a messy system that leaves no one happy.

Research conducted by Microsoft shows that 38% of hybrid employees say that knowing when and why they need to come into the office has been their biggest challenge navigating work in recent months. The study showed that only 28% of leaders explained why and when to go to the office.

But to achieve this clarity, firms need to walk a fine line between what executive leaders expect and want (“Let’s get back to normal”) and instead confront their assumptions (“We can just tell people what to do” or “People want to come back”) and recognise that all employees are not the same. There is not one right way (Elon Musk notwithstanding).

In our work with clients, we’ve found good companies do three things really well in stepping over the line into the new world of hybrid work.

Clear is Kind. Work backwards from what the employee will hear and lay out the ground rules clearly and simply. If there are exceptions, make them transparent and explain why things might be different for some people. Recent studies have revealed the first drop in employee engagement in over a decade, coinciding with the timing of the pandemic. Top of the list of frustrations? Unclear expectations at work. Good workplaces provide crystal clear boundaries and allow for flexibility within those lines.

More compassion and less judgement. In spite of the eager rush toward normalcy, the lingering remnants of the pandemic are still impacting employees in very real ways. One senior leader we spoke with described the complex feelings employees had about coming in to work: happy to see colleagues again; grief about leaving behind the slower, less harried pace of work from home. Companies who lead with empathy will find themselves miles ahead in the race for employee engagement and loyalty.

A recent survey showed that employees who feel cared for by their organisation are 60% more likely to stay for three years or more. In a study on COVID-era workplace mental health 31% of employees said what they really wanted was a more open culture around mental health.

Everyone is no one. Don’t let a corporate announcement be the only communication. Front-line leaders must connect with individual team members to check for clarity, listen to their concerns, and show empathy. Even with clear and compassionate messaging, the vast range of personalities, work styles, and values that coexist in the (real or virtual) halls of the workplace mean that a one-size-fits-all approach to communication is actually one-size-fits-no one.

While no one can predict what happens next, we can carry the best of pandemic life forward. As they chart a course for the return to work, good companies will avoid a sloppy slide back to life in the office. Being clear, compassionate, and connective in the decision-making, communication, and roll-out of back-to-work missives will allow Jane and Joe alike to live their own version of ‘real life.’


Dr Natasha Zimmerman is a senior consultant with Winsborough Limited, based in Christchurch.

Dave Winsborough is Founder and Chairman of Winsborough Limited, NZ’s largest leadership firm.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash