We have our Back to Work approach all wrong

As companies try to recover productivity and sales, the corporate “back to work” voices are getting stronger and, unfortunately, harsher. Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google have been providing policies and deadlines herding (pardon the term) their employees to return to work. With mixed results of hybrid programs and increasing economic pressures, some executive voices are escalating these requests. In June, Elon Musk sent a “pretend to work somewhere else” message to Tesla employees. In July, Google’s Sundar Pichai sent a similar message threatening layoffs. Once again we are being reactive and tactical. Yet there is a much better way…

What happened to supporting our employees during COVID? What happened to the empathy we demonstrated last two years? Do we honestly expect the mental damage of COVID to end as soon as the virus is contained?

There are times when, despite our best intentions, our actions and communications are not consistent. Our employees can have a very different experience and interpret our back to work policies as…

What are we, the executives, doing incorrectly? Despite widespread media coverage of impending economic depression predictions, the issue is NOT that we are turning to assist our stockholders and investors. No, it is NOT that we are asking our staff to return to the workplace that is the issue. It’s also NOT we are not concentrating on boosting production. We have been tactical, not strategic, and even lazy during the past few years.

1. We were tactical when COVID landed, and we rushed our staff to their homes correctly prioritizing their well-being… but not balancing the shorter-term “how we work” changes with longer-term “How are we going to keep our sales up.”

2. We were tactical when, with empathy, we listened to our direct reports explaining the mental health strain they were under. Yet our “how can I help you…” was never coupled with “how do we make healthier choices while ensuring our targets are being met”.

3. And now we are being tactical once again, pivoting our messaging and pressuring our employees back into the office, expecting a massive turnaround in productivity and profits.

What CAN we do to be more strategic? Here are a few to get started…

Realize this was never a zero-sum game. The two sides, people and profit, must co-exist and thrive together. Even within yourself, you can only thrive when both the person and the professional flourish.

Let’s not blame our employees for not coming back to the office. Understand why they are not doing it. Let’s understand it’s mostly emotion-driven, not logical. Understand that no matter how eloquently written our “return to work” policy is, it’s nothing compared to the stress, fears, and burnout created by the last few years. Let’s accept that bringing burned-out and stressed employees into the office will not increase our productivity or sales… probably quite the opposite (read HBR’s “Leading an Exhausted Workforce“, McKinsey’s “The burnout continues” and of course Gallup’s “State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report“).

Equally important, let’s not blame our shareholders. They’ve been patiently waiting and investing over the last few years. In some ways, we’ve neglected them for too long and they haven’t seen the benefits we promised. And this recent pivot “herding” (again pardon the term, that’s what it feels like sometimes) people back into the office… again shows we are being tactical, not strategic.

Start having REGULAR MEANINGFUL BALANCED conversations with people reporting to you, “What do you need in this new reality to be healthy AND meet our targets?”

If you want help understanding how both people and profit can thrive together, reach out to Renaissance partners. From assessments to small workshops to large organizational programs… we can help you, shareholders, and employees thrive together.

Here are some “back to work” messaging that better connects to why employees may want to return to work… their fears and desires.

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