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It may be a company ending mistake to “Go Back” to the office

change decision team effectiveness Jul 04, 2021

Written by Ed Cook

The increasing frequency of calls to “go back” to the office is not surprising.  The past year-and-a-half has been anywhere from difficult to deadly for nearly everyone on the planet.  Who wouldn’t want to roll back the clock?  Sure, we had worries back then, but, for most of the world, it was not a trade-off between your livelihood and your life.  Now, with increasing vaccination rates (although there are important concerns about new variants and resurgent infection rates), it is possible to contemplate a return to normalcy.  So, of course, talk about going back to the office has been increasing in the last couple of months and will only increase through the summer and early fall.  But before pulling the trigger on the announcement that everyone in your organization should “go back” to the office consider the impact of the Great Resignation. 

The Great Resignation

Texas A&M Associate Professor Anthony Klotz coined the term "The Great Resignation."  Only time will tell if there, in fact, is a looming wave of people quitting their jobs, but there are sufficient signs to demand that organizational leaders pay attention or risk being behind on an issue that has the potential to eviscerate their organization.   Surveys, from companies as diverse as  Microsoft and Prudential Insurance, as well as insights from work done in the UK and Ireland, all point to a range of  30% -50% of employees who are contemplating (and many already have plans) leaving their job...and soon.  

Many of these surveys ask the question based on a six-month horizon.  That means by the end of the year a third to a half of all employees could be engaged in moving to a new organization.  The biggest reason for the move?  The ability to work remotely. 

It seems clear that pulling the trigger to go back to the office on a certain date may be the start of a wave of resignations from your organization.  A wave that just might wipe your organization out of existence.  The recent experience of Basecamp shows how an out-of-touch leader can spur a massive exodus from an organization.  After botching a series of interactions concerning fairness and inclusion, a third of the employees of Basecamp elected to leave the organization!  Basecamp immediately struggled to meet customer demands and lost sales as a result.  Clearly, employees are willing to “vote with their feet” and find other employment.

There are three major concerns each leader needs to consider before taking the organization back to the office.  To help in navigating through this process and mitigate the risk of the Great Resignation, we offer three solutions to help leaders navigate through the three concerns that must be managed before going back to the office.

Concern 1: Decision Making

Before making the decision to “go back” to the office, consider this question: “Why?”  After all, many organizations have been operating for nearly a year and a half without using their office.  What is the compelling business reason to go back?  The reason shouldn’t be that we have the office, we are paying for it,  and we should use it.  That’s a sunk cost.  Don’t let the Sunk Cost Fallacy drag you into triggering a massive migration out of your organization.  Instead, consider taking a structured approach to make the decision that starts with answering this question: “What do you value?”

Solution 1: Value-Based Decision Making

You may value things such as collaboration between teams or brief and effective communication.  You may value employee happiness, high levels of retention, and high interest in your open roles.  Literally, write all of those down.  Do that with your leadership team so that you get different perspectives on what is possible.  Then arrange these things that you value into groups so that you end up with a more manageable number (between three and five) as the ultimate values.  Then consider the alternatives.  Having everyone go back to the office is just one possible alternative.  Consider a broad range of alternatives and then score those alternatives in terms of how well they individually fulfill those ultimate values.  This scoring can be very rigorous with utility elicitation of each member of the decision-making team, but we have had clear success with systems as simple as scoring the fulfillment of each value as High-Medium-Low.

Using this process, it is common for surprises to emerge.  Sometimes those surprises are what others value.  Sometimes those surprises are alternatives not yet contemplated.  Always, however,decision-makers feel that a process like this is more transparent and delivers a better decision.  They feel respected.

Joy at Work Thinking: Respect is a core dimension of Joy at Work.  A decision-making process executed so that diverse points of view are included increases the feeling of respect in the group and thereby increases Joy at Work.

With a decision made, the work has only begun because even a perfect decision can provide little value if the change is not well managed.

Concern 2: Change Management

Change Management is about helping people move to the new state (process, system, such that the organizational goals are met.  Change Management is about people.  All too often leaders breathe a sigh of relief after they have made an important decision.  That reaction is understandable given the energy and stress that can often go into making these kinds of decisions (like going back to the office), but that is just the beginning of the change.  Next, all of the people need to be brought into this process.  If they are not, they may rebel in ways overt or subtle.   Or they may simply be confused and not know what to do.  In either case, the organizational success from the change is in jeopardy.

Solution 2: The Change Story

As with decision-making, a detailed process can be used to guide a change to success, but even a light touch will increase the probability of success.  A useful tool with which to start is The Change Story.  This is a simple tool to get your head around how to think about a change.  the Change Story also guides the communication of the change to the group impacted.  It asks simple, but important, questions about the change.  Here’s a sample:

  • What is changing? 
  • Why are we doing this work?  What isn’t working today? What’s the opportunity?
  • What benefits do stakeholders get if we do this work and do it right?
  • When are the key milestones for this work? 
  • What will stakeholders notice that is happening next? 

 It is common that surprises will show up.  Most commonly, questions, to which the team is not able to give an answer, will be revealed.  That’s OK.  At least the gap is known, and work can be focused on getting answers.  More importantly, the gap can be acknowledged to the people impacted, and promises made to provide updates.  This will build trust.

Joy at Work Thinking: Trust is a cornerstone of Joy at Work.  In every move during the change, ask if this will increase or decrease trust with the people impacted.

From here, further investigation can be done and plans made to both execute the change and communicate with the people impacted.  For those interested in learning more about how to do this, we offer courses for both Change Practitioners and Organizational Leaders to increase your competencies in managing change.  But if the only thing you do is complete The Change Story and communicate the plan regularly to those impacted by your change (whether fully remote, hybrid, or fully back at the office) will go remarkably more smoothly.

With the change management plan created, it is time to check that team effectiveness is increasing as a result of the effort.  

Concern 3: Team Effectiveness

Although it may be clear that going back to the office is a decision and a subsequent change, what remains to discuss is still the core question: “Why?”  The answer to this question will illuminate the values that come up in the decision process and will strengthen communication during the change process.  A framing that we have found helpful for others as they start down the path of considering the move to go back to the office is to consider the office a tool.  

Like any other organizational tool, the office can be used well or used poorly.  People conduct conversations with emails when a phone call or video conference would handle the issue better and faster.  People hold meetings to convey information that could readily have been done with a simple email saving significant time.  So too, offices can be used well or used poorly.  Certainly, with the pandemic forcing so many to work from home,  we have now conducted an unprecedented worldwide experiment in activities that can be done outside of an office setting.  The trick now is to use that information to increase the Team Effectiveness of your organization.

Solution 3: Consider the Office a Tool

A useful rule of thumb is to think about the time in the office as 10x Time.  Is it ten times more effective for the team to do the work in the office than to do the work remotely?   Consider, offices are expensive.  If the value is not there, then why force the use of a tool to do something it cannot do well?  There are several reasons that leaders often cite for using the office.

  • Better collaboration 
  • Better communication
  • Higher team cohesion

Depending on the circumstances these and others are certainly true, but perhaps not in all situations.  The goal for leaders is to understand when this tool (the office) is best used for your organization.  

Joy at Work Thinking: Use the office as a way to increase the dimensions of Joy at Work so that people act with cohesion, belong, are accountable, and participate.

With an alternative chosen that increases team effectiveness and a change plan that will land the decision well. The final element is culture.

Joy at Work

Everything that leaders do has an impact on the culture of an organization.   With the threat of the Great Resignation looming overall organizations, it would be wise to consider the impact of the move to “go back” to the office.  Perhaps it would be best to give up the idea of “going back” and instead reframe the issue of office use as part of the plan to “go forward.”  

It seems unlikely that we can “go back” to anything.  We are all altered as individuals after the events of the last year and a half.  Certainly, our organizations are altered as well...likely permanently.  So we shouldn’t look back but rather forward.  With that frame, the use of the office is about the future of the organization.  

How can the organization be better in the future than it is right now?  

Answer this question to inform the values that you would highlight in decision-making.  Answer this question, as you manage the change, to provide clarity to employees.  Answer this question to determine how the office will increase your team’s effectiveness.  But most of all, answer this question to grow Joy at Work.  Culture is perhaps the most powerful tool of all.  Grow Joy at Work and your culture will produce something amazing!