Will a return-to-office mandate damage your organisational culture? And what do you risk if you lean too heavily towards a compliance culture?
If you tell an employee not to work from heights without the proper safety equipment, they will probably listen to you because the rationale makes sense to them. They don’t want to hurt themselves or others.
But try telling them to come back to work after years of operating remotely, and you might have a tougher time getting their buy-in.
New research from Atlassian, which surveyed 1000 knowledge workers in Australia and the US, shows that 82 per cent of knowledge workers are operating under some form of return-to-work mandate.
Worryingly, one in four aren’t coming into the physical workspace out of a genuine desire to be there, stating that they feel pressured to attend. And 10 per cent are worried they’ll be viewed as less productive or uncommitted to their jobs if they continue working from home, suggesting that even in instances where remote work is allowed, it might not necessarily be normalised.
Some leaders argue that culture and collaboration are severely damaged when work is conducted entirely online, while others believe it’s best to put control in their people’s hands.
This is a debate that’s taking place in real time with many employers across the country, most notably among employees at Australia’s largest bank, CBA, and within Australia’s largest employer, the public service.
The Finance Sector Union (FSU) recently lodged a dispute on behalf of its members following the CBA’s mandate that employees spend 50 per cent of their time in the office. The FSU claims employees were not adequately consulted about the changes, meaning some were unable to arrange adequate childcare arrangements, for example, and that many had accepted their positions under the assumption they could continue working remotely.
In response, a CBA spokesperson said, “Connection, innovation and the ability to build and strengthen relationships is absolutely fundamental to how we continue to work,” a sentiment many leaders would agree with.
In contrast, the Australian Public Service announced that 174,000 of its employees are could soon be entitled to an unlimited amount of remote work days under a new agreement struck with union groups.
According to Community and Public Sector Union National Secretary Melissa Donnelly, this deal will allow the public sector to “become increasingly diverse, adaptable and accessible”.
This article isn’t about unpacking which side is right (it will always depend on individual circumstances), but there are some important things to keep in mind should you want to force people back into the physical workspace.
“What comes to mind [with these Atlassian insights about feeling pressured] is cultural enforcement versus cultural leadership,” says Shane Hatton, author, trainer, and leadership/culture expert.
When researching for his latest book, Let’s Talk Culture, Hatton concluded that culture has four elements, one of them being collective buy-in.
“If you don’t have collective buy-in, but place behavioural expectations around it, you end up with compliance, rather than a culture,” he says.
An overly compliant culture can result in people executing the expected behaviour, but perhaps doing so without offering discretionary efforts or high morale.
“People come into the office but they say, “I don’t know why I’m here.” There’s a lack of meaning and understanding,” says Hatton.
“Put the pin on the map to show people where they’re going, but let them choose the route to get there. We’re often telling people, ‘turn here,’ ‘go there’ – but you just need to hold them accountable to the outcome.” – Shane Hatton.
He suggests thinking about work in three different ways: collaborative work, solo work and non-work.
“Solo work can be done from home. Collaborative work is a blurred line because some people can work effectively in a collaborative environment online if they have the right tools.”
Hatton believes the strongest case for in-office work lies in the third category: non-work.
“That’s those social interactions that can’t be replicated online. Being able to connect with colleagues on non-work related topics is a component of [hybrid] work that most people aren’t addressing. But even with this in mind, that’s still two thirds of work that can be done online.”
Compliance cultures can also lead to dissent brewing within the ranks.
“You might end up with one conversation happening upwards and another happening across the organisation. They are complying with the rules, but they might not want to speak up to their manager about [issues], so the business assumes everything is going great, but there are heaps of side conversations going on about how much [employees] hate it.
“The level of resistance goes up. The behaviour happens, but it’s a lot slower and is more difficult to maintain without constant supervision.”
This might mean managers have to start checking in on their employees more often, which can breed a culture of micromanagement or surveillance, which we know can be damaging to trust and engagement levels.
“But if you explain why you’re making the change, you won’t need to check in because you’ll know that people are following.”
Importantly, Hatton says you need to explain the ‘why’ from the employees’ perspective.
“Cultural enforcement looks like saying, “If you don’t come back to the office, this is how we [the employer] are impacted.” You’re guilting people. That’s why they feel pressured. Whereas cultural leadership is saying things like, “If you come back to the office, here’s how you’ll benefit from the experience.”
One of those key employee benefits is tending to our social health.
“Work is not just a place to work. It’s also a place to generate wellbeing. Gallup’s research shows us that we’re more likely to be engaged if we have a best friend at work. That’s a person you show up for each day. I can’t remember the last time I made a friend in a Zoom meeting.”
Atlassian notes that employers often use flexible working as a scapegoat when productivity or performance drops instead of considering some of the productive measures they could take to address this, such as realigning culture and leadership approaches that suit a hybrid work environment.
“We’ve spent a lot of time asking people to come back to the office, but we haven’t really given them a good reason as to why they can’t work from home. [Some employers] don’t have that smoking gun to explain why, after having worked from home for two or three years, that [employees] can’t continue.”
Embracing new ways of working
HR leaders can help leaders drive a mindset shift that prioritises output over outcome and productivity over visibility, he says.
“[We need to ask], ‘Are you getting your job done?’ Rather than, ‘How are you getting your job done’? And that’s a completely different leadership style for people.
“Put the pin on the map to show people where they’re going, but let them choose the route to get there. We’re often telling people, ‘turn here,’ ‘go there’ – but you just need to hold them accountable to the outcome.”
You also need to rely on data where possible, he adds.
“Sometimes, you have to hold up a mirror to the consequences of certain leadership styles. So if we’re going to bring everyone back to the office, and engagement takes a huge dive, this is a really insightful piece of data to go back to leadership with. “
Clear expectations and better questions
Those in the pro-work-from-home camp will point to benefits such as greater autonomy, better work-life balance and similar levels of productivity to in-person work. Atlassian’s own research found that flexible work:
- Increased employees’ happiness (47 per cent)
- Enriched their social lives outside of work (56 per cent)
- Boosted their exercise regime (49 per cent)
- Encouraged them to adopt a new hobby (37 per cent).
Some even cite flexible work as the main reason they were able to achieve larger ‘life moments’, such as moving cities (20 per cent), purchasing a home (16 per cent) and starting a family (12 per cent).
All of these factors have bottom-line benefits for employers. But that’s not to say that remote work is always the answer. Instead, it’s about employers making their performance expectations clear and asking better questions.
“If you’re not making expectations clear, people are interpreting people’s behaviours and trying to learn on the fly, which can lead to making unhelpful assumptions. One of my favourite quotes is from a New York psychologist, Tory Eletto, who said, ‘What’s not communicated is felt, what’s felt is interpreted, what’s interpreted is often inaccurate.’”
In his culture sessions, Hatton likes to give leaders a simple set of questions to help them gather rich insights from their teams.
“I get them to ask their teams, ‘What do you need to hear, from who, how often and in what way?’ So that might look like them saying, ‘I just need a weekly WIP meeting to know what our big priorities are for the week. I need to hear it from my manager and I prefer to get that over the phone or on Teams.’
“Another question I ask is, ‘What is the problem you hope being in the office will solve?’ And instead of trying to get people in the office to solve it, ask yourself, ‘How else could we solve that problem?’”
He refers to an old parable about a village that needed to build a bridge across a river.
“The question they were asking was, ‘How do we build the best bridge to cross the river?’ And one person in the crowd says, ‘What if we ask how we cross the river?’ That opened up solutions like a boat and a channel. So one of the questions you could ask [about where to work] is, ‘What are the fundamental roles we play at work?’”
If the issue is around a lack of connection, instead of bringing people back into the office, ask the question: ‘How can we solve a lack of connection in our workplace?’ and then consider the responses of your employees. People want to feel as if they are contributing to the future of your business, so take them on the journey with you.
You never know – the answer might just be having people return to the workplace. But it’s equally plausible that more intentional remote processes are your answer.
What are your thoughts on return-to-office mandates? AHRI members can join the LinkedIn AHRI Lounge to have interesting discussions with their HR peers. Or grab your ticket to AHRI’s Convention next month for the chance to network with your peers in person.