Thinking of RTO as Organizational Change

Since offices have been opening back up, some, but certainly not all, employers are coming up with various schemes to get people to return to the office (RTO). Per usual, companies are looking at this more so from their perspective than that of their employees. But, what they should be doing is looking at why resistance is so high before coming up with ideas. There are several reasons why some people are avoiding RTO. They include:

Loss of Autonomy

More so than anything else, work from home (WFH) has given people a level of control over their day-to-day lives that they had not previously experienced as adults. In the past we heard a lot of talk about “being your own boss” and “make decisions like you’re the CEO.” Well, this is that time. When people have been able to successfully manage their work time around the rest of their lives, that is going to be hard to give up. For these people, companies will need to find a way to allow them to make RTO choices and have flexibility over them. Hybrid environments may speak to this group, provided that employees get to choose which days to come in.

New Habits Are Hard to Break

Pre-COVID, we had developed routines for our every day. It’s these habits that make us (somewhat) resistant to organizational change and (partially) keep turnover low. People who now WFH have new habits that they don’t want to break. They have a schedule of when they make calls, return e-mails, take lunch breaks, etc. Companies would be wise to let employees coming back to the office know that they can keep many of these habits and that management won’t be dictating their schedule as much.

Life at Home is Better

Let’s speak some honest truths—not commuting, working in whichever clothes you wish, being around when the kids come home from school, spending more time with pets, saving money on gas/lunch, etc. are perks for those who WFH. By the way, the idea that people are abandoning pets they got during the pandemic is an urban legend. These are all reasons why people do not want to RTO. While come companies think that free coffee and snacks will make the work environment more enticing, it won’t. Would you commute for coffee? Companies should emphasize those things which are better, in a meaningful and not a nice-to-have way, about working from the office when encouraging workers to come back. These could include face-to-face interactions with other adults, more reliable technology, and support for administrative tasks. As with any change, employees need to know what is in it for them.

People who are used to and enjoy WFH are unlikely to respond to gimmicks. I would suggest that organizations think about RTO as an organizational change effort and not a mandate. This means looking at how encouraging people to work at the office fits into your strategy and quantifying what benefits are to be gained. Additionally, this means analyzing why employees are supportive/resistant to RTO and planning the change effort accordingly. Apply the same rigor to changing work schedules as you would implementing other enterprise wide initiatives.

While WFH happened quickly, we are past the point where people are adapting to it. For many it is now a way of life, just as going to work every day was pre-pandemic. Expecting people to change overnight is not an effective strategy. For any form of RTO to successfully take hold (e.g., without increases in turnover or decreases in engagement), with minimal negative consequences, it needs to be part of a plan.

The Magic Day/Month For Turnover?

Operations managers in many companies will tell you that if a person makes it to a certain number of days, their probability of leaving the organization becomes much lower.  Put another way, if the probability of someone leaving the organization is X out of 100 within 90 days, it shrinks to X-Y of 100 for the next 90 days (or some other time period).  This coincides with some companies’ probationary periods and when some benefits begin to kick in.

This article describes one company’s plan to get its new hires to the 90-day line.  The crux of it (and other examples provided) was, “Now that there’s high turnover, we really need to invest in our new employees because this is costing us real money!”  Just as interestingly, a person interviewed who quit a job basically looked at the first couple of months as one would while dating (“I’ll give this a shot, but if it’s not working out I’ll go find someone else”).  This is an excellent example of worker’s flexing their autonomy.

So, do you have a turnover sweet spot?  If so, how do you find it (besides urban legend, of course)?

  • You should have the data in your HR software. Don’t get hung up on whether the turnover was voluntary or not—most people jump before they get pushed, and vice versa.
  • Use the right data analysis tool. The most accurate way to measure where (or whether) turnover flattens out is using a hazard analysis, not counting things in a spreadsheet.  I won’t bore most of you with the details of why this is so, but write to me if you want them.
  • You should not be surprised that there are differences in turnover rates between people in different job titles. When doing this for a client, it was apparent that turnover for engineers was a very different animal than turnover for managers.  This will particularly be the case if your benefits program is different for salaried and hourly employees.

Seeing if there’s a turnover drop off can then inform for how long you need to keep new on-boarding programs in place.  In my experience, turnover goes down significantly at the point where an automatic raise kicks in.  However, if you are going the non-raise route, to know what should go into the programs, includes getting candid feedback from new hires and being open to their suggestions.  There may also be a bit of a Hawthorne effect—perhaps you do not need to change anything, but new hires will appreciate the additional communication and that will make it more likely that they stay.

Measuring impact is a critical part to implementing these programs.  Fortunately, the hazard analysis is very adept at doing this on an ongoing basis.

It’s unlikely that there is a “magic” day when your turnover goes down significantly.  But, people won’t stay for two years if they don’t stay for two months.  Setting this specific time period where you put in extra effort to give people the chance to be part of the team is useful for getting others to focus on turnover issues.  It is just more effective to set this time period based on data rather than myth.

Bring me Your Best Empathetic Narcissist!

The 24 hour news cycle (including sports) and social media has people caring a lot more about the comings and goings of CEOs than is probably necessary.  This is particularly true when they jump/get pushed from their perches.  When this happens, it is up to the organization to find that JUST RIGHT person to lead them going forward.  Suddenly, selection matters to them (momentarily).

CEOs (and head coaches of sports teams) have unusual jobs and career paths.  Typically, they rise in their profession based on technical skills and as they move along. Then, these skills are supplanted by their ability to influence others inside and outside of the organization.  A coach who develops players becomes a fundraiser.  An engineer who runs a tech company has to schmooze investors. A banker who leads a financial institution needs to explain the company’s investments in not-so-popular industries.

All the while, those who aspire to be CEO are competing with others for the opportunity.  Sometimes these competitions are very public, but other times it takes years of skill development and checking the right boxes (and acquiring allies) to put oneself in position to be considered.  And don’t forget building the ego to think that you are the “one.”

So, what makes for a good CEO?  According to this article, you need to be a smart, strategic, narcissistic, and empathetic.  Oh, and don’t let people see the narcissistic part.  But, let’s not assume that there is a one-size fits all model here.  Among other variables, if the company is successful, the CEO should fit the culture.  If the organization is struggling (or is facing significant threats on the horizon), someone who can shift the culture may be more effective.

Boards of directors will do better in their search when they can be clear about their expectations for the CEO.  However, they also need to be aware of the quirks that it takes to be successful in the job. 

Thanks, as always, to my colleague Dennis Adist (@DennisAdsit) for making me aware of the article.

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.

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