How Come So Many Smart Leaders Screw Up the Return to the Office?
Facing the reality of strong employee resistance and even turnover, we have seen Google recently backtrack from its plan to force all employees to return back to the office. So did Amazon for the same reasons.
Leaders are forcing employees back to the office despite extensive, in-depth surveys from early Spring 2021 that asked thousands of employees about their preferences on returning to the office after the pandemic. All of the surveys revealed strong preferences for working from home post-pandemic much or all of the time for over three-quarters of all respondents. Minority employees expressed an especially strong preference for remote work to escape in-office discrimination.
The tensions of returning to the office and figuring out the most effective permanent post-pandemic work arrangements are the topic of my newest book, Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.
Why Are So Many Leaders Wary of Remote Work?
After interviewing 61 mid-level and senior leaders on this question in 12 companies which I helped develop a strategic approach to transitioning back to the office, I found that a large number of leaders wanted to return to what they saw as “normal” work life. By that, they meant turning back the clock to January 2020, before the pandemic. They’re falling into cognitive biases, which are mental blindspots that lead to poor strategic decision-making.
Many people feel a desire to go back to the world before the pandemic. They fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back what they see as the appropriate situation and way of doing things.
A major factor in leaders wanting everyone to return to the office stems from their personal discomfort with work from home. They spent their career surrounded by other people. They want to resume regularly walking the floors, surrounded by the energy of staff working.
They’re falling for the anchoring bias. This mental blindspot causes us to feel anchored to our initial experiences and information.
The evidence that work from home functions well for the vast majority doesn’t cause them to shift their perspective in any significant manner. The confirmation bias offers an important explanation for this seeming incongruity. Our minds are skilled at ignoring information that contradicts our beliefs and looking only for information that confirms them.
Reluctant leaders usually tell me they don’t want to do surveys because they feel confident that the large majority of their employees would rather work at the office than at home. They wave aside the fact that the large-scale public surveys show the opposite. For instance, one of the major complaints by Apple employees is a failure to do effective surveys and listen to employees.
In this refusal to do surveys, the confirmation bias is compounded by another cognitive bias, called the false consensus effect. This mental blindspot leads us to envision other people in our in-group - such as those employed at our company - as being much more like ourselves in their beliefs than is the actual case.
What about the specific challenges these resistant leaders brought up related to working from home, ranging from burnout to deteriorating culture and so on? Further inquiry on each problem revealed that the leaders never addressed these work-from-home problems strategically
They transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. Perceiving this shift as a very brief emergency, they focused, naturally and appropriately, on accomplishing the necessary tasks of the organization. They ignored the social and emotional glue that truly holds companies together, motivates employees, and protects against burnout.
That speaks to a cognitive bias called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of how systems should function, we ignore other possible functions, uses, and behaviors. We do this even if these new functions, uses, and behaviors offer a better fit for a changed situation, and would address our problems better.
The post-pandemic office will require the realignment of employer-employee expectations. Leaders need to use research-based strategies to overcome their gut reactions that cause them to fall victim to mental blindspots. Only by doing so can they seize the competitive advantage from using their most important resource effectively to maximize their retention, recruitment, morale, productivity, workplace culture, and thus their bottom line.