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Gleb Tsipursky

Management

Why Do So Many Leaders Screw Up a Quality Return to the Office?

The post-pandemic office will require a realignment of employer-employee expectations

Published: Thursday, August 19, 2021 - 12:03

Due to strong employee resistance and turnover, Google recently backtracked from its plan to force all employees to return to the office and allowed many to work remotely. Amazon also backtracked on its plans to have a fully office-centric culture and allowed employees to have a hybrid schedule. Apple’s plan to force its staff back to the office has caused many to leave and led to substantial internal opposition.

Why are these and so many other leaders forcing employees to return to the office instead of assessing whether they can maximize quality through a different approach to future of work arrangements? They must know about the recent extensive, in-depth surveys that asked thousands of employees about their preferences on returning to the office after the pandemic. (See the following references: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.)

For more than three-quarters of all respondents, the surveys revealed strong preferences for working from home post-pandemic at least half the time. One-quarter to one-third of all respondents desired full-time remote work permanently. Forty to 55 percent of respondents said they’d quit without permanent remote options for at least half the work week; of these, many would leave if not permitted fully remote work. Minority employees expressed an especially strong preference for remote work to escape in-office discrimination.

Yet many employers intend to force employees who can easily work remotely back to the office for much or all of the work week.

Leaders frequently proclaim that “people are our most important resource.” Yet those who resist telework options aren’t living by that principle. Instead, they’re doing what they feel comfortable with, even if it devastates quality, employee morale, engagement, productivity, and seriously undercuts retention and recruitment. It also harms diversity and inclusion. In the end, their behavior is a major threat to their company’s bottom line.

The tensions of returning to the office and figuring out the most effective permanent post-pandemic work arrangements are the topic of my latest book, Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). This article focuses on the blind spots that cause leaders to make bad decisions on these topics.

Why are so many leaders wary of remote work?

After interviewing 61 midlevel and senior leaders on this question in 12 companies that I helped develop a strategic approach to transitioning back to the office, I found that a large number of leaders wanted to return to what they saw as “normal” work life. By that, they meant turning back the clock to January 2020, before the pandemic affected work in the United States.

Another key concern for many involved personal discomfort. They liked the feel of a full, buzzing office. They preferred to be surrounded by others when they work.

Other reasons involve challenges specifically related to remote work. They listed deteriorating company culture and growing work-from-home burnout and Zoom fatigue. Others cited a rise in team conflicts and challenges in virtual collaboration and communication. A final category of concerns relates to a lack of accountability and effective evaluation of employees.

Mental blind spots that lead to disastrous telework decisions

Why are these leaders resistant to the seemingly obvious solution to maximize quality: a hybrid model for most, with full-time, permanent remote work for those who both want it and show high effectiveness and productivity? This is because of cognitive biases, which are mental blind spots that lead to poor strategic and financial decision-making.

Fortunately, by understanding these cognitive biases and taking research-based steps to address them, we can make the best decisions.

Many people feel a desire to go back to the world before the pandemic. They fall for the status quo bias, a desire to maintain or get back what they see as the appropriate situation and way of doing things.

A major factor in leaders wanting everyone to return to the office stems from their personal discomfort with work from home. They spent their career surrounded by other people. They want to resume regularly walking the floors, surrounded by the energy of staff working.

They’re falling for the anchoring bias. This mental blind spot causes us to feel anchored to our initial experiences and information.

The evidence that work from home functions well for the vast majority doesn’t cause them to shift their perspective in any significant manner. The confirmation bias offers an important explanation for this seeming incongruity. Our minds are skilled at ignoring information that contradicts our beliefs, and looking only for information that confirms them.

Reluctant leaders usually tell me they don’t want to do surveys because they feel confident that most of their employees would rather work at the office than at home. They wave aside the fact that the large-scale public surveys show the opposite. For instance, one of the major complaints by Apple employees is a failure to do effective surveys and listen to employees.

In this refusal to do surveys, the confirmation bias is compounded by another cognitive bias, called the false consensus effect. This mental blind spot leads us to envision other people in our in-group—such as those employed at our company—as being much more like ourselves in their beliefs than is the actual case.

What about the specific challenges these resistant leaders brought up related to working from home, issues ranging from burnout to deteriorating culture and so on? Further inquiry on each problem reveals that the leaders never addressed these work-from-home problems strategically.

Leaders transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. Perceiving this shift as a very brief emergency, they focused, naturally and appropriately, on accomplishing the necessary tasks of the organization. They ignored the social and emotional glue that truly holds companies together, motivates employees, and protects against burnout.

That speaks to a cognitive bias called functional fixedness. When we have a certain perception of how systems should function, we ignore other possible functions, uses, and behaviors. We do this even if these new functions, uses, and behaviors offer a better fit for a changed situation, and would address our problems better.

Conclusion

The post-pandemic office will require a realignment of employer-employee expectations. Leaders need to use research-based strategies to overcome their gut reactions that cause them to fall victim to mental blind spots. Only by doing so can they seize the competitive advantage from using their most important resource effectively to maximize their retention, recruitment, morale, productivity, workplace culture, and thus their bottom line. Quality professionals need to help their leaders see this reality.

For more on this topic, be sure to attend the free webinar, “Why Do Quality Professionals Ignore Serious Risks in the Post-Covid Recovery (and What to Do About It,”) Aug. 24, 2021, at 11 a.m. Pacific/2 p.m. Eastern.

Discuss

About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Dr. Gleb Tsipurskyhelps quality professionals make the wisest decisions on the future of work as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is the best-selling author of 7 books, including “Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters” and “Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.” His cutting-edge thought leadership has been featured in more than 650 articles in prominent publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and USA Today. His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and more than 15 years in academia as a cognitive scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipurskyLinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course.

Comments

Good points, but…

The biases raised in this article are very valid. Some acknowledgment that there may be real value in having employees in the office would help balance it a bit. Also, missing is the point that employees themselves may be biased to favor work from home solutions and to overestimate their productivity. 

Response

Of course there's value in having employees in the office - the ones who want to be there, which is the majority who prefer a hybrid schedule. It's not wise to force those who want to do full-time remote to come back to the office, as they will be disengaged, dismotivated, and looking for an exit. Why would anyone want employees in the office who are looking to leave as soon as they possibly can for a remote job?