A few assertions in particular sparked indignation, such as “It took months for bosses and employees to adjust to working remotely in the pandemic.”
If the retorts posted in response to some of the statements in the journal’s article were to be aggregated and studied by analysts, the themes are clear (and most could be condensed into a powerful business case for hybrid work models):
- Transitioning from the office to home was not messy. It was swift and adjustment was largely seamless in most cases—and in those comments that mentioned timeframes, one to two weeks was the average, but many mentioned a matter of days.
- Battling the inevitable next evolution in how work is structured is futile; it’s already happening.
- Failure to embrace a changing work model does not bode well for companies that want to compete and survive in the global marketplace.
- Leaders who are digging in their heels and issuing ultimatums to their workforces (come back into the office, or else!) risk doing harm to their organizations.
- Employees who feel trusted and empowered are loyal, engaged, productive workers.
- Many workers have little interest in or tolerance for being dictated to when it comes to where their work gets done. They want some choice. Failing to listen, to read the room, won’t make it go away (but it may make some of your top talent go away).
The latest data from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) shows that employers are understandably concerned about talent loss—particularly among employees in critical roles, those who are high-potentials (future leaders), and knowledge workers, according to the 350 professionals surveyed.
As this post-pandemic transition period (at least in the U.S.) unfolds, it’s obvious that some companies have taken note of the widely reported pushback from workers in response to return to the office edicts, such as what recently happened at Apple, and are making some modifications. Amazon, for example, adjusted its initial return to the office policy on the heels of the Apple dust-up and is now allowing for two days of remote work each week.
But some of those allowances for flexibility on the part of employers still have clear “we own you and your time” subtext, such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., which has announced that workers in some groups can schedule work-from-home days—but those days cannot be Mondays or Fridays. It will be interesting to see how that works out.
Back to that flurry of Twitter replies to the Wall Street Journal’s “hybrid is gonna be messy” article—we made note of a few dozen, which are listed here, grouped by the authors’ voices:
“Hybrid and work from home is the next logical evolution of work—the status quo is not sustainable.”
“It’s impossible to move into the future anchored to the past.”
“Flexibility and hybrid are all about being agile and ready for anything. It sets us up to field any flyball that comes at us. Refusing to see this is a loser’s mindset and forcing return to the office is a losing strategy.”
“Change is uncomfortable and can be messy. But leaders who are fighting against it so fiercely should ask themselves (and each other) why.”
“This drive to return workers to an office seems fueled by fear of change. And making decisions based on an emotion like fear is not a great idea.”
“It isn’t remote or hybrid work that fails. It’s the leadership that fails (or chooses not to) adjust to reality.”
“Some companies will fail (leaderless) and others will thrive (strong leadership). Strong leaders embrace the challenge as opportunity.”
“Why are opponents of remote work acting as if this is difficult or new? My organization has offered what we use to call “telework” for more than 20 years. And we did it successfully long before we had the technology we have today. It’s a matter of sound leadership and culture. Those leaders who are pushing back on this with such passion are fear-driven. And everyone can see it.”
“I've always worked for global companies, so I’m very familiar with managing remote (even overseas) teams and having processes in place for productivity, so when the pandemic hit, it was an easy transition.”
The newly converted
“OMG, I loved getting to work from home for the first time in my nearly 40-year career. For the first time in I don’t know how long I truly enjoyed my work. I loved it. I loved being trusted and treated like a gown-up. In turn, I rewarded my employers by working an additional 10 hours each week (unpaid). There were no distractions, and no office drama or politics. I’ve never worked harder or been more productive.”
“Work from home wasn’t and isn’t messy. My company has 30,000 employees and we ironed out all the logistics to transition from the office in two weeks. We are staying remote for those who want to. Productivity is up. Morale is up. Absenteeism is way down. You do the math.”
“My company has gone fully remote. We have been able to hire talent away from companies that are requiring return to the office that we could never attract before—it’s a huge win for us and a big loss for employers that can’t adjust to the times.”
“Micro-managers are terrified of losing their micro-fiefdoms. LOL.”
“For companies that didn't exist behind the moon for decades, switching to remote work took a few days.”
“Micromanaging employers are in desperate need of a lesson in object permanence.”
“Transitioning to working from home was not messy! But we all know what’s gonna get messy real quick, and that’s telling a single mom who lost childcare in the pandemic that she needs to come back to the office. That’s a new world of messy!”
The global citizens
“None of the people I collaborate with are in the same city, country, or time zone, and there’s no difference in the work we produce remotely were we to be sitting together in the same room every day.”
“We have distributed global teams and customers; a hybrid model is an absolute strategic imperative and key to global competitiveness.”
“Globalization expands by the day—by the hour really—why should workers who interface with customers sitting on another continent with time zone differences of up to 20+ hours be expected to sit in a corporate office building? It makes no sense.”
“Global teamwork and collaboration was already happening for us quite successfully before the pandemic. Why pedal in reverse?”
“If they don't adjust and in some instances change their business models, many businesses may find themselves steamrollered by those that can and do.”
“Adjustment to work from home took very little time to implement and adjust to. Most organizations have demonstrated that results can be delivered via WFA (work from anywhere).”
“Treating workers like trusted adults goes a long way to instilling the message that they are cared about. And cared-for employees are happy, more productive employees. The pandemic proved this.”
“Forcing workers into an office five days a week is a myopic, 20th Century relic.”
“I’ve told recruiters not to contact me unless the job is remote or hybrid. Period.”
“The elephant in the room is real estate investors who are desperate to prevent the value of their investments from evaporating.”
“What bugs me is the time I spend in my car each week commuting and the amount of emissions I’m putting into the air needlessly, and most importantly, the amount of time I don’t get to spend with my kid.”
“Embracing WFA is environmentally sound policy. The benefits are numerable, starting with decreased costs for businesses.”
“Working in huge offices that need to be heated and cooled, etc. is not sustainable. It never was, and now we see it more clearly.”
“Commuting five days a week is a waste of time, productivity, and multiple resources.”
The keen observers of their organizations’ cultures
“Taking the WFH option away is akin to clawing back a company benefit—not only is it not cool, it’s destroying our culture.”
“Remote work exposed some flaws with middle managers especially. I think this is part of the rush to go back to the office—let’s just pretend we all didn’t see those flaws.”
“Knowledge management needs to be bolstered, no matter what, to enable adaptive work.”
“Training managers on how to lead hybrid (or remote) teams is a huge need.”
“My company is trying to avoid the issue—but clear messaging is always best for any change management. We should not be afraid of delivering bad news. People just want to know what to plan around.”
Raging against changing work models is antithetical to what leadership is all about—i4cp’s research on this topic has shown over and over that continuously looking ahead and preparing for what may be around the next corner is a hallmark of leadership.
Conversely, as we have noted many times over the years, especially in our research on corporate culture, the boneyard of iconic companies that went under because their leaders refused to embrace change is getting more crowded.
Finally, consider these two issues:
First: Some leaders are failing to read the room in terms of what their employees want. And there are others who clearly get the message, but are blithely choosing to ignore it.
Second: There’s a lack of creative thinking about office space. What about instead of stubbornly clinging to brick and mortar, rethinking how those spaces may be repurposed (e.g., apprenticeship programs, childcare spaces, centers of learning, cultural centers, affordable housing, multipurpose spaces that welcomes the public in, etc.).
Leaders should look at this period as an opportunity to engage in redesigning work and workspaces rather than a gritted-teeth tug of war with employees who are asking for more freedom of choice. For those who can adjust, the future is more promising.
Of course, remote engagement is a concern. Ensuring consistent employee experience is too, as is the accelerating need for training and upskilling. And cybersecurity is a headache. But these should not be reasons why organizations don’t move into a future that’s already here. The key word to all of this is trust: if an organization offers a hybrid work model, the parameters of that model should be co-created with employees and leaders, not dictated from the top down. Co-creation communicates mutual respect and trust; dictation is the anthesis of this.
The question that must be asked is this:
What exactly was left behind when we abandoned corporate offices in the winter of 2020 that we want to return to?
For those organizations that succeed (for now) in herding reluctant workers back into their cubicles, rest assured: this is not a win, and it won’t last. Neither will the leaders making such decisions. Here’s why: The paradox is that leaders who are insistent that creativity and innovation will falter if work from anywhere is widely adopted are in fact demonstrating their own inability to create, innovate, or lead into the future.
Lorrie Lykins is i4cp's Vice President of Research