Post-COVID WFH Conflict: Bosses vs. Just About Everyone Else

As the medical need for remote work is coming to an end, the conflict surrounding it may just be beginning.  This difference in opinion between executives and workers who can do their work just as well from home as in an office is just beginning to surface.

For instance, this report (note that it was conducted pre-vaccine) shows that on almost every key metric regarding WFH, executives are much more eager to have people back in the office than the employees. I do think that some of this difference is based on full-time school being available for children, so this gap may narrow come fall. Interestingly, executives cite that they feel that people need to be in the office a certain amount of time to maintain a distinct company culture and despite them saying that performance had improved since COVID.

When it comes to employers wanting workers to come back to work, there is really a sense of trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube.  In Los Angeles, for example, last week it was reported that 24.4% of officer workers were reporting to their work location on a given day. The rate in April of 2020 was 21.6%.  That’s not a big move, especially considering the high vaccination rates of college graduates in LA County. 

While there is some (not a lot, mind you) data that suggests that people work more hours and are somewhat less efficient at home, there are a lot of people who do not want to go back to commuting or spend extra time getting ready for work.  They would rather see their kids when they come home from school and having more control over their day-to-day schedule.  Companies that keep a higher level of flexibility are going to have a huge recruiting advantage, especially for experienced talent. Lower tenured employees tend to want to be in the office more than longer tenured ones—either due to not having kids yet and/or feeling a greater need to schmooze more to keep their careers moving.  This tells us that when flexibility and autonomy are part of your culture, you’ll have a post-COVID edge on attracting talent.

It is this last point that I think executives are missing.  When they say maintaining “culture,” many of them are really saying, “Going back to the way things were that I am comfortable with.”  You can have a customer oriented culture via Zoom.  You can have a quality oriented culture via Teams.  What you cannot have is a, “I can only tell if you are working if I can see you” culture via WebEx.  And, presuming that leaders feel there is a relationship between culture and success, they are going to have a difficult time arguing that WFH has impacted culture but not productivity.  What does that say about your culture when success survives without it?  Why would a talented person want to work for a company that has a culture of control for control’s sake?

Most executives understand that the hybrid model of flexible work schedule for white collar workers is here to stay.  The bigger question is going to be whether they accept it begrudgingly or accept it as an element of an evolving culture that emphasis employee flexibility and autonomy over leader control.

Are We Entering the Age of the Employee?

As working age people have been getting their COVID vaccinations in the US, companies are moving from the theoretical regarding the “new” work life into putting new policies into place.  There are a few I want to point out because they may be indicators of companies moving towards policies that are messier, but more employee focused.

Regarding work from home schedules, or lack thereof, General Motors came out swinging with Work Appropriately.  As their CEO puts it, “This means that where the work permits, employees have the flexibility to work where they can have the greatest impact on achieving our goals.”  So, the policy is basically, “Be an adult.  If you would rather not commute and you get can your work done, do it at home.  If you are a social animal and feel you’re more productive at the office, we’ll see you in the morning.”  This policy places the responsibility, where it should be, on the employee to manage his/her/their performance and career as well as their work schedule.

Many companies struggle with people taking their paid time off (PTO).  Even during the pandemic when many were experiencing additional stress, PTO was not fully being used.  Sure, part of that was due to travel being restricted and there are cultural issues to be addressed if a large number of people are not using this benefit.  But, many people were working longer hours from home and taking less time off.  Organizations tend to believe that people are more productive and engaged when they take their PTO and are often frustrated when they do not.  And, typical of American culture, they responded by threatening punishments (you can only accumulate so much PTO, use it or lose it, etc.).  Now we are seeing the pendulum swing back as companies are beginning to offer incentives for taking PTO.  Full disclosure: my wife works for an organization which has always done this and it helps.  She would use less of her PTO without the incentive. And I think this is the case in organizations that have particularly competitive cultures.  Incenting people to take PTO will not by itself reduce burnout, but it can be helpful.

Lastly, I want to bring up Amazon’s declaration that “We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”  Of course, this comes with the caveats that it came from an outgoing CEO and right after a bruising union fight.  However, that this additional employee focus, and not just for white-collar workers, was put on the table represents a sea change for an organization that is (proudly) customer-centric.

Now, this may just be a moment.  Senior managers, who felt the stress and disruption of the pandemic as much as their employees, may be viewing their “most valuable asset” differently now, but when the usual business pressures inevitably return, they may snap back to the status quo.  Or, employees will use these new tools to be productive and engaged enough so that they will stick.  We will soon see if we are entering the age, or the fad, of the employee.

Managing WFH Scheduling Changes

As COVID cases are dropping and the vaccines are available, companies are looking to see when (if?) they are going to bring people back to offices.  There are likely to be all kinds of flavors of this, ranging from:

  1. We want everybody back, Monday through Friday.
  2. We need some people back full time, others can still WFH.
  3. Everyone needs to be in the office 2-3 times a week and WFH the rest.
  4. Everyone can stay WFH, but those who prefer to come in can.
  5. Everyone stays WFH


And these don’t include flexible hours, people staying part-time, etc.  There are going to be a LOT of models.  There is no one best way for every company, but there are some consistent steps you will want to consider as you manage work schedules changes (again). These include:

  1. Consider ALL of your stakeholders.  This means listening not just to executives who feel that people are more productive at the office or the employees who feel that they are missing out on promotional opportunities by working from home.  Be sure that your support staff (HR, IT, security, etc.) is also in a position to support those who are coming back (or staying home).
  2. Be clear to everyone about your reasons for the schedule changes.  If you have data that supports that teams are more productive in the office, then share it.  If you have data that shows that people are still getting promoted at the same rate during WFH, share that, too. And don’t forget health department data on infections, positivity rates, etc. Use good information, rather than anecdotes, drive your decisions and communicate about the data.
  3. Track metrics of success and adjust the schedules as necessary.  Whether it is what was mentioned above, rate of infections, use of PTO, turnover, absenteeism, or something else, have conversations about what success looks like.  Then measure progress towards it.  The data may allow you to accelerate your plans or alter them in some other way.
  4. Check in with your stakeholders as the revised policies are implemented.  Sometimes we think that people who initially support change will always be in favor of it and those who are resistant stay that way. Keep asking stakeholders what they need to continue to support, or to become supportive, of the changes.
  5. Communicate the metrics.  Whether it’s through an online dashboard or a regular e-mail, keep people apprised of progress (or lack thereof).  Transparency helps to control the rumor mill and provides reasons for altering the initial plan.

Going back to “normal” requires the same level of change management skill as implementing something different.  Be sure that you apply these techniques to help implement and manage schedule changes as you navigate through COVID.

Going back to “normal” work schedules is going to take as much change management skills as WFH did.  Here are some thoughts on implementing the new normal more effectively.

Changing Behaviors, Not Just Attitudes

Events of 2020 accelerated companies’ interest in all things around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I).  This has brought out a lot of “experts” in the field and a multitude of unconscious bias training (UBT) programs to address the problem of discrimination in the workplace.

The idea behind UBT is that a change in an attitude (bias) will lead to a change in how people act (prejudice) so that they will show behaviors that promote DE&I. This is very different from typical development programs which focus directly on behaviors. And, while it is fair to say that our understanding of the effectiveness DE&I programs is at an early stage, there has been research done which is fairly sobering on the topic.

This report outlines what seems to be effective in the DE&I training space.  The relevant key findings are (emphasis added):

  • UBT is effective for awareness raising by using an Implicit Association Test (IAT) (followed by a debrief) or more advanced training designs such as interactive workshops.
  • UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias, but it is unlikely to eliminate it.
  • UBT interventions are not generally designed to reduce explicit bias and those that do aim to do so have yielded mixed results.
  • Using an IAT and educating participants on unconscious bias theory is likely to increase awareness of and reduce implicit bias.
  • The evidence for UBT’s ability effectively to change behavior is limited. Most of the evidence reviewed did not use valid measures of behavior change.

I emphasized that last bullet because I believe that is where we need to focus.  If behaviors do not change then we cannot achieve DE&I.  Organizations should not spend money on DE&I programs (UBTs or otherwise) that do not show these changes.

The report hedges a bit in noting that valid measures of behavior were not used in the research studies.  Rightly, this puts the onus on organizations to define the actions that need to be changed.  For instance, use of appropriate language, giving others the opportunity to share ideas, etc.  Note that these are different from organizational goals (e.g., representation in management positions), which should be measured, which are outcomes of D&EI behaviors.

Once the behaviors are defined, then a method for evaluating them needs to be implemented.  A 360 feedback instrument is likely to be effective for interpersonal behaviors.  When well designed, these encourage raters to evaluate what they observe in others rather than giving opinions.  This provides the opportunity for those being rated to be given meaningful feedback and gives those responsible for designing UBT programs information on areas that still need more work.  How to provide this feedback is a topic for another post.

There can be objective individual measures as well.  For instance, the diversity of a person’s LinkedIn connections or hires/promotions that she/he/they was involved with.

We should always remember that any organizational change begins with people acting differently.  The important starting point in a successful DE&I initiative is understanding what are the behaviors that you want to impact.  That will be more effective in designing meaningful programs than hoping that insights from an IAT will be sufficient.

Company Culture During COVID

One of my favorite quotes from Peter Drucker is “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  It speaks to the idea that we can come up with all of the great ideas we want to, but if there is not an alignment between the effort and the organization’s DNA, it is just not going to happen.  Likewise, it also means that strong cultures can help guide companies through good and difficult times because resilience can be part of what a company is all about.

I came across this amazing example of organizational resilience. It’s a story of how French monks have continued to make their centuries-old liqueurs. While I don’t recommend an intellectual property governance plan where only 2 people know the ingredients of your product, their experience has lessons for all of us.

Not surprisingly, they have a strong culture.  Besides being bound together by their faith, they have a very clear vision statement (Stat crux dum volvitur orbis [“The cross is steady while the world turns”]).  This allows them to see well beyond existing issues in guiding their business.

The monks make the liqueurs to support other monks and nuns all over the globe, so maintaining production is important to continuing their way of life.  So, what do to during the COVID crisis?  They pivoted their distribution from bars to home retail.  They showed solidarity and support for those who keep them in business by donating part of their proceeds to bartenders and providing alcohol to a local hospital to make sanitizer.  With their view of how they fit into the world (“We have to learn to live with the virus.”), they allowed their culture to guide them through this difficult time, as they did for many others. See their website for how they have navigated other crises during their existence.

Building this kind of culture takes time, but there are concrete steps that senior management and HR can take, including:

  1. Be clear about the culture you want.  This can be done through brief mission or values statements.

  2. Reference the culture when making important decisions.  For instance, “We are giving some of proceeds to bartenders during COVID because they have supported us during other difficult times and will continue to do so in the future.  We think about our business in terms of centuries, not months.”

  3. Reward those behaviors that support the culture.

  4. Teach the culture to new employees.  The best way to do this is for individuals to share stories about how they have experienced the culture.  Leaders should talk about how the culture has sustained the organization.

Culture emerges in organizations.  The question is whether it is allowed to grow wild or if it is cultivated.  When we are mindful of it, it can help guide decisions and lead to more productive enterprises.  Or, as the CEO of the monks’ business says, “When you have roots this deep, it allows you to forget the short term and project your vision far in the future.”

Are Companies Getting Cold WFH Feet?

The pendulum normally swings back when we see paradigms shift.  As many companies made the move to work from home (WFH) with the onset of COVID-19, this article (which lacks data, by the way) there may be some rumblings from some companies to bring people back to the office (safely, of course).  Is this really a WFH issue or a management issue?

It is to be expected that WFH will not be a permanent arrangement for everyone who is doing it now.  Whether due to circumstances, preference, or company culture, some people (and companies) are going to prefer to have people in offices.  But, to make WFH effective, companies have to adjust how they manage people and not just pretend that the same approaches will translate from the office to home work environments.

For instance, people experience more autonomy when working from home.  That can either be leveraged for faster decision making (with perhaps less consensus) or problem solving time can be built into weekly schedules.  Or teams can develop new approaches to problem solving that account for WFH.

Others in the article are concerned that it is more difficult to build relationships when working remotely in that there are fewer opportunities to spontaneously interact.  One company’s solution was renting a large cottage where their (small) company could get together.  Of course, there’s nothing awkward about spending “voluntary” week or two in a house with your boss.  I have a better idea.  It uses old tech, but I think it might work.  How about using that calling feature on your phone to reach out to people?

An approach mentioned, and one that one of my clients with “essential” workers has been using, is a blended one.  The HR team determined how much on site coverage was needed to address employee and management issues and the staff has alternated days in the office to cover those needs and doing WFH on the others days.  This has allowed for distancing, having some personal interactions, and a recognition that some work is done better at the office and other work can be done just as well remotely.

One executive in the article mentions the difficulty in training new employees, who would typically go through 6 weeks of classroom training and OJT.  And, if your mindset is that is the ONLY way to train employees, then remote work presents a problem.  If you are willing to innovate, then it is more of an opportunity. Just as pre-COVID not everyone wanted to work at an office, as we adjust to COVID, not everyone is going to want to WFH.  It is reasonable to assume that while many people will go back to working 40 hours a week at an office, there is going to be a substantial number that do not.  Companies should be looking for ways to adapt to that reality instead of forcing old squares into new round holes.

Are We Really Going to Telecommute More?

The lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on work culture will take some time to assess. We tend to overestimate changes when we are in the middle of them due to the closeness of the experience. Habits are learned over a lifetime and it takes more than a few weeks to change them. For instance, after the World Trade Center bombings, there was a lot of talk how business travel would be reduced over time because we could not fly for a short period of time. In fact, the change was just the opposite—due to demand, airlines eventually built planes specifically to handle more business travel.

There is plenty of talk about how the pandemic will lead to more telecommuting (something we also heard after 9/11). While it might not be to the extent that some predict, I think there are some reasons why we might see a modest increase in people working from home once this passes:

1)  This time, it impacts managers. In the past, management was one of the biggest resistors to allowing people to work from home. They imagined that productivity would plummet. Given that technology barriers to working at home have come down and their own experiences, more managers may become more open to people working from home. Change is easier when you get to explore it rather than just think about it.

2)  Somewhat related to the above, digital non-natives are living a bit more in the world of millenials and Gen Z. Yes, you can spend most of your day online without the sky falling. Older workers who always thought they needed the discipline of going into the office everyday are discovering that might not be the case. Oh, and commuting really is a miserable experience that people will be loath to return to.

3)  Going back to the office may soon be considered the change and not the normal. For people who have been working remotely, it could be months (no, I’m not thinking years) before their state/country/workplace allows them the opportunity to go back to their office. Even if the building opens tomorrow, social distancing guidelines may mean that many people will still have to work from home due to space limitations. They will develop good work habits from home. These employees are going to be reluctant to go back to the office.

A contrary viewpoint that a friend expressed to me is that younger workers may miss the daily face-to-face work interactions. Now that all of their lives are spent online, they may crave being with people at least a few times a week. We’ll have to see about that.

There are many considerations of managing a workforce where fewer people are visible each day. For instance, will recognition and promotions be available equally to in-house workers and telecommuters? There may also be recruiting and hiring issues as well. But, those issues are for a future post.

Skills of the Future

The nature of work has always changed and will continue to do so.  This report from the World Economic Forum outlining trends and predictions came out a year ago.  I find its conclusions as true today as they were when it was first published.  It is a bit of a long read, but does break things out by country which shortens the time required a bit.

The net of the study is in the table below.

The Declining skills are instructive.  Not surprising, the list contains skills which are being automated (management of resources, quality control, manual dexterity, etc.).  Others are in response to a change in workplace culture which places higher value autonomy (management of personnel).  We can have a separate conversation as to what it means that active listening is on the Declining list.  What that leaves us with (see the Trending column) are the skills that are becoming more important in the near future.  Innovation and learning top the list with plenty of problem solving skills.  Seeing emotional intelligence on the list made me throw up in my mouth a bit, but there is no surprise about social influence.

The practical aspect of the report is to get us thinking about the skills that we really need for jobs in the 2020’s.  As we automate more, how does that change our expectations of employees?  At McDonald’s, automation means more interaction between staff and guests.  With managers being freed from coordination and time management, what is it that we will want them to do?

Here’s how to keep up:

  1. You probably need to review your job descriptions more often than you think.  And you should definitely do so after introducing new technology.

  2. Updated job descriptions should feed into your recruitment process.  Be sure that you are not advertising for yesterday’s jobs.

  3. The Trending list throws down the gauntlet as to how we select candidates.  Whether it be updating tests, interviews, or what we look for on resumes, knowing that we need more creativity and leadership, and less management, from those who direct the activities of others is a BIG difference.  If our selection tools are to be valid, they need to keep up with changing jobs.

By making these updates, we can drive the recruitment and selection of employees with the right skill sets.  It also provides us with a framework of being ahead of futures skill changes.

Are we Biased AGAINST Top Talent?

We all want to believe that we are looking to recruit, select, and develop top talent.  We spend lots of time reading and writing articles on the topic.  But, what if hiring managers are not interested?

This article throws a bit of cold water on the topic.  It documents a study where hiring managers were shown to doubt the organizational commitment of those deemed the most capable.  It was almost as if they were saying, “Why would someone really good want to work for us?”

There are several issues at work here.  But, what they boil down to is a bias among hiring mangers that negatively affects their selection processes.  Sure, I can imagine anecdotal evidence (“Yeah, we hired that one really bright person, but she jumped ship as soon as she got a better offer.”), but I don’t think that this is a data driven decision.

What this also underlines is the importance of developing a culture that encourages top talent to stay.  There’s no question that selecting the right people will drive business performance.  And having a culture that acknowledges and rewards high performance will do so as well.  When hiring managers feel that top talent will not stay, it is really an indictment of the culture rather than an accurate prediction of management’s view.  How can you fight this?

  1. If managers do not think top talent would be committed to your organization, they should NOT be involved in hiring. 
  2. Those who are doing the hiring should be able to provide a realistic preview of the organization, but should also be able to succinctly describe why people stay.  And I’m not just talking about a good cafeteria.  They should be able to provide examples of people who have found challenging work over time in the organization.
  3. If you are speaking with hiring managers who show an anti-talent bias, ask them what needs to be changed so they would believe that top talent would want to stay.
  4. The best way to fight bias is with data.  You should be able to study turnover rates by talent bands (contact me for tips on this).  This way you can either show people that top talent does not leave any faster than other employee groups or demonstrate to executives that this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Organizations should strive for selection processes that identify top talent and cultures that nurture them.  Do not let bias against hiring top talent work against these two initiatives.

Millennials, Transparency, and the Alignment of Values

Each generation (as named by demographers) has their own marked stereotypes.  Baby Boomers are optimistic consumers, Gen X are the disillusioned, and Millennials are the spoiled digital natives.  Most of my management development workshops address how to best manage in a multi-generational workplace.  One topic that typically comes up is how to align corporate values with those of job candidates.

This is a relatively new topic.  I’m pretty sure that very few Baby Boomers asked their prospective employers about their charitable donations.  But, large companies started aligning themselves with causes not related to the bottom line (United Way was the first, but not the last, organization to leverage this).  Once they started wearing their values on their sleeves, they could then attract job candidates who shared the same values.

However, the real world is messy for some charities (including United Way). What were once seen as “mom and apple pie” non-profits for companies to be aligned with suddenly carried baggage that was as likely to repel as attract candidates (see the Boy Scouts of America, first for their stance on gay scouts and leaders and then their abuse scandal). To avoid being linked with organizations that can be fallible, other companies began professing their values to the world (see Patagonia and Hobby Lobby as two examples).

So, companies start making a big deal about their values.  Millennials caught on to this, ran with their tech that exploits this transparency, and have made themselves more value conscious than previous generations in terms of what they purchase and where they want to work.  This is now extending to trying to influence whom their employers do business.  And I don’t believe that it is a liberal/conservative thing.  If Hobby Lobby executives started making decisions that employees thought were against the values they signed up for, younger workers would definitely have their voices heard.

If a company believes that it should lead with its values in the marketplace, then it should be clear about them when recruiting and hiring.  Not that you want to get into selecting people based on religious or political beliefs, but you do want to let candidates know the values and culture of the organization so they can make the best choice for themselves.  Think of it as a real-life work life preview.

Of course there are risks to this approach, but your Millennial candidates are going to form an opinion about your values based on what’s on your website, your business partners, and the behavior of your executives.  It is probably better that they hear what you are all about from you instead of the internet.

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