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.

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.

Thanks for coming by!

Please provide this information so we can stay in touch.

CLOSE