The Real Reason People Don't Want to Go Back to the Office
Updated: Jul 19
aka: The Most Successful Organizational Transformation in Human History
The Wall Street Journal had two recent pieces. One which reported on a survey of why people don't want to return to the office, and another on management and leaders' lamenting on the loss of productivity as a result.
Of course, I was fascinated by these reports. I was struck by a rather obvious connection. Even though some didn't know it at the time, being sent home to work came with benefits every sane human craves. Now, getting people back to the office will require ways to account for these benefits. What we're seeing now is a result of failing to do so. People don't want to go back to the office. And it's not their fault.
How we got here is a study in what it takes to achieve a successful organizational transformation.
There are many opinions on this, but most would agree that the following short list are among the points shared by everyone on successful transformations:
Buy-in from everyone at all levels.
Willingness to change motivated by compelling urgency and relevance.
A future more personally interesting and exciting (or, frankly, just more secure) than the present.
It's doesn't take a long time to look around to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic had all of these elements. (Whether we like it or not.)
Staying in business, keeping an income, and staying healthy provided all the buy-in, motivation, and future interest necessary to all-but-assure that a transformation would happen. And a transformation most certainly happened.
Despite conspiracy theories and anti-establishment outliers, a lot changed almost overnight. Whether we all agreed with details of the changes or not, many people found themselves working from home. (Which many later leveraged into working from anywhere.) On the surface that may seem like the biggest change. However, that one shift caused us to transform how we worked. It transformed our use of technologies, transformed how we communicate, collaborate, and synchronize our work. We found ourselves transforming when we worked and sometimes how much. Our entire relationships with work changed and the face of work and what we expected from our jobs fundamentally transformed.
It might not have been well-planned, pretty, or even ultimately effective, but many of us participated in an organizational transformation of epic proportions. This was especially true of non-physical knowledge workers. That is, people whose jobs don't depend on being in a physical place in order to do their work. E.g., accountants, lawyers, consultants, most office work, anything to do with software development shy of babysitting the hardware it sits on, anyone in content, engineers and designers, administration, and on and on.
And, we also saw many cases where we tried the transformation and it didn't work out very well. Despite being knowledge work, the format didn't translate well to being transformed. E.g., education, non-invasive medicine and counselling, religious practices, coaching, and so on. And these were among the first fields to go back to working in a common space.
Although it started with a "mere" shift to working from home, a lot had to happen to make that work and a lot of other things were born from it:
Workers felt a sense of autonomy and self-determination (some for the first time).
Work became more clearly prioritized (mostly because management had to step up—also, some for the first time).
Meetings had to be scheduled—which meant work could get done uninterrupted and with more predictability and consistency.
Everyone had to be patient with non-ideal circumstances—which meant flexibility in all aspects of work.
Now, leaders want to take that away from people.
Or more accurately punctuated: Now, leaders want to take that away from people?
In exchange for what?
In his seminal 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink says people want meaningful work. Including autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The global workforce transformation that started in winter of 2020 known (in the US) as the "COVID-19" pandemic unwittingly handed people these motivating elements—as well as many other things they want from work and life. And all of it as a result of everything it takes to not be working in an office.
In a previously mentioned WSJ article, bosses acknowledge the possibility the individual productivity improved while mourning the loss of team-level productivity. Without realizing it, many bosses make the Cardinal Sin of blaming the employees. Hear me out.
If teamwork is important, and, not being in the office hinders teamwork, AND, people aren't motivated to come into the office to improve teamwork, THEN, the missing ingredient isn't that people aren't in the office, it's that people aren't seeing themselves or their work as being part of a team, or, meaningful enough to come to the office to do it "better."
These are management's and leadership's responsibilities. It's not the employees' responsibilities to come to the office and "make team happen." If people aren't operating as a team, or don't see it as important to work in ways that improve the bigger picture, bringing them to the office is not going to have the desired level of success leadership is hoping for.
Looking from a broader perspective, isn't it completely natural for people to resist a return to the office when they see their work as "a job" and don't have a WIIFM ('what's in it for me') to do so? Team productivity isn't their concern. ROI for office space isn't their problem. Working "better" isn't motivation to counter-balance the loss of convenience, autonomy, or personal well-being.
Employees have rightfully become quite content with the autonomy, self-determination, and agency given to them by the COVID-19 "global organizational transformation." Even if they don't own a part of the businesses they work in, or get more than an income from it, they feel they own their work-life balance. It makes sense that they don't want to give that up. For them to want to come back into the office, employees are going to need a way to account for these very real, Maslowian, needs.
It will take a transformation.
Only this one will mostly be up in the attitudes, behaviors, and sensitivities of managers and leaders. The rank and file have already bought in.
Want your employees to willingly and happily come back to the office? I can show you how.