Time for Some Straight Talk About Returning to Onsite Work

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Time for Some Straight Talk About Returning to Onsite Work

By Richard Hadden and Bill Catlette – July 27, 2021

Swimmers at beaches nearly everywhere are warned about rip currents, those invisible but powerful underwater streams that so often drown those who resist them. The survivors are those who, contrary to instinct, swim parallel to shore, usually to safety, and a lesson never forgotten.

The massive work-from-anywhere, any way, anytime tsunami that roared into the global workplace in March 2020 left behind a powerful rip current – a current that many organizational leaders are fighting with all their might.

And just like swimmers who try to do battle with a force unquestionably stronger than they are, those who fight the workplace wave, are doomed to a similar fate.

Let’s look at some data:

A June 2021 survey of 10,000 knowledge workers conducted by Slack’s “Future Forum” (only one of many such studies to report similar findings) recorded some hard workforce preferences we should all pay attention to:

  • 76% of those surveyed want flexibility on where they work
  • 93% want flexibility on when they work
  • 56% are open to new job opportunities that provide them more flexibility
  • 21% are likely to jump ship in order to get that flexibility

Just let that last one sink in for a minute…

And it’s not just knowledge workers who are demanding greater accommodation. The current revenue-crushing shortage of people willing to work in food, hospitality, transport, and other service professions, under the “old deal” (the pay, the conditions, the jerk they called “boss” – when they were being charitable) has further exposed how vulnerable businesses are to the asserted will of the labor supply.

We’ve said it before. It bears repeating. “It’s your people, stupid!”

Just like swimmers who try to do battle with a force unquestionably stronger than they are, those who fight the workplace wave, are doomed to a similar fate.

But if we limit this discussion to knowledge work employers desperate to “bring everyone back to work, er, we mean, the office,” then we have to confront one undeniable truth that should drive at least some of the decisions facing organizational leaders:

You simply have too much competition for the hearts and minds of workers to insist that people work in ways they don’t want to, and, oh, by the way, don’t have to. It’s a luxury we just don’t have right now.

And while taking into account the fact that these expressed preferences have yet to survive contact with a protracted economic recession, it has nevertheless become clear to all who would but open their eyes and ears, that, pandemic or no pandemic, all of the Work from Home toothpaste is not going back in the tube.

There are some worthy arguments on both sides of the Old Way/New Way discussion:

Most people adapted to 2020’s new reality remarkably well, as seen in the fact that during the worst (so far…) of the pandemic, worker engagement rose. Productivity rose. Yes, they’re related.

People report having more focus time at work, free from quite as many meetings of dubious value and protracted duration, and well-meaning (or not) colleagues popping their head over the cubicle at the precise moment that a potentially valuable idea was surfacing. In short, they’re reporting getting more satisfaction out of a job well done. That is to be celebrated.

And then there’s the quality-of-life upgrade that many workers have enjoyed. A commute of moments, not miles, lunch with a spouse or child at home, and less stressful juggling of work time and personal time, because, well, the boundaries between the two have been blurred.

Simultaneously, managers have wondered “How are we going to ‘supervise’ all these people we can’t observe with the naked eye? How will we know if they are working, or goofing off?” Short answer, “You won’t” to both questions. But really, aside from measured output, you never could. So maybe we should take that as a flashing warning that it’s time to adopt some new, more adult methods of practicing this thing called leadership, not supervision. We lead adults, and either you’re working with adults or you’re in much bigger trouble.

Most of those who are returning to onsite work now and have been effectively self-supervising for more than a year will understandably bridle at anything that smacks of micromanagement.

In short, we had to stop doing some of the dumb stuff that never was especially helpful, has always driven people crazy, and kept them from doing their best work, or even wanting to.


“The responsibility that was shown by all colleagues and workers during the pandemic…they earned, in a way, the right to decide where they want to work and how.”

Francesco Starace – CEO, Enel Group

“This is becoming a massive war for talent. If you are coming out of this and haven’t started thinking about whether your employees are going to be remote or not, your competitors are, and they will pick off your talent.”

Jenny Johnson – CEO, Franklin Templeton

Managers who resist the Work from Anywhere development frequently cite the need to maintain esprit de corps, for collaboration, for ready access to colleagues, for learning and development that can best take place when we breathe the same air, for the value of the chance introduction, or idea you might hear mentioned in the hallway.

Look, we are HUGE proponents of nurturing the “Spirit of the Hive”, but as many have already discovered, you can do that without making it an either/or proposition. Most will probably find that the marginal benefit of being together five days a week, vs. two or three probably isn’t worth it, if it’s a benefit at all.

And let’s be honest… if your business’s success is dependent on the chance comment and idea someone happens to mention in the hallway… you’ve got more to worry about than where people do their work.

So, what to do: Two words: Evolve and Adapt. Be nimble. What’s true today is almost certain to change, and quickly. And then change again.

The organizations with the best results are those who:

  • Have adapted their organization to make the best use of the available talent
  • Resisted longing views in the rear view mirror, pining for what used to be
  • Talk openly with everyone about what’s going to work best, for them, for the company, for their customers.
  • Rely heavily on the input of the people they need to do the work. It doesn’t mean they’re doing everything their employees have asked for, but they DO have a clear-eyed view of who’s driving this boat.
  • Communicate, with unprecedented clarity, and empathy, what decisions are being made, and why.
  • Keep a close eye on how things are going, and how people are doing, and are always willing to flex and adjust, to ensure that both things – and people – are faring as well as they can.

The leaders of a company we know well pushed pretty hard for a full-on across-the-board return to the office as soon as it was deemed safe. After some significant resignations, and some well-advised corporate soul-searching, they agreed a hybrid model would be better – albeit a fairly conservative one. Two months in, based on employee input, even the hardliners have changed their stance. Current state: department heads work out the details of what’s best for their employees, their co-workers, and their customers. Nobody’s complaining. Least of all the customers.

Bottom line: You have a choice: Adapt and evolve. Or drive a stake in the ground. We’ve noticed, as perhaps you have too, that the adaptors usually come out ahead.

There’s a lot to think about here. But regardless of where you end up on the “where work gets done” issue, we’d all do well to acknowledge that going back to where we were isn’t even remotely possible.

That place no longer exists.

We’ve helped other leaders get this right, with our keynote presentation, “Leading from a Distance in a Remote and Hybrid World”. Find out how we can help you and your organization. Delivered in-person, remotely, or hybrid.

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