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Why Are So Many Leaders Botching the Return to the Office?

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Following resignations and significant backlash from employees, Uber recently abandoned its plan to make all corporate employees go back to the office. You’d think Uber’s leaders learned nothing from Amazon’s June 10 decision to permit employees to work on a hybrid schedule after employee turnover and opposition. And neither Uber nor Amazon seemed to have learned from Google already reversing its intention to have everyone in the office.

Each of these companies wasted millions of dollars in employee churn, recruitment challenges, decrease in morale and productivity and changes to staffing and office-management plans. Yet now reports are suggesting that Apple faces similar pushback from within.

You must be wondering why these and plenty of other top leaders are pressuring their workers to go back to the office. Surely they must be aware about extensive, in-depth surveys that highlighted employees’ preference to keep working from home? These surveys were conducted from early Spring 2021  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)  and quizzed workers about how they feel about a return to the office after the pandemic. More than three-quarters of respondents wanted a remote work setup at least half of the time. Meanwhile, a quarter to a third of those surveyed wanted to work from home permanently. In addition, 40-55% said they would resign if a remote option for at least half the work week wasn’t offered.

This segment of respondents also said they would quit if they were not allowed to fully work from home. There is also a significant preference for remote work for minority workers, who expressed that the setup may help them evade in-office discrimination. However, many companies still plan to coerce their employees to move back to the office for most or all of the work week, even though these workers can easily work remotely.

Related: Telework Burnout and Zoom Fatigue: Much More Complicated Than They Appear

Leaders often claim that people are a company’s most important re, yet those who shun telework do not abide by this principle. Instead, these leaders stay in their comfort zone, no matter how it erodes employee engagement, morale and productivity. They insist on what they want even if it damages recruitment and retention, and regardless of the harm it does to inclusion and diversity. Ultimately, these leaders’ behavior poses a major threat to their organizations’ bottom line.

Why do many leaders dislike remote work?

I interviewed 61 leaders across 12 organizationson on exactly that question and assisted them in developing the best strategy to easing employees back into the office. I discovered that a great number of the leaders wished to go back to what they perceive as a “normal” work routine. That meant they wanted to return to the way things were in January 2020, prior to the pandemic. Leaders also cited their personal discomfort. They liked the energy of a buzzing office full of people and wanted to be surrounded by others while working. Other reasons were anchored to issues particularly related to a work-from-home setup, including declining company culture and worsening Zoom fatigue and remote-work burnout.

Leaders also highlighted an increase in team conflicts brought about by issues in virtual collaboration and communication. Finally, leaders were worried over how to effectively evaluate workers, as well as how to address a lack of accountability.

Mental blindspots leading to poor remote-work strategies

No matter how resistant the leaders are, the way to an effective post-pandemic work culture is obvious. Undoubtedly, most workers would strongly benefit from a hybrid model. A full-time permanent remote work option should also be available for those who prefer it and have demonstrated their productivity. So, why do leaders continue to shun these options? This is due to cognitive biases, dangerous judgment errors that lead to disastrous strategic decisions.

Fortunately, by gaining a good understanding of these biases and taking a research-based approach in dealing with them, we can get back on track to making better decisions. Those who want to go back to the pre-pandemic world have fallen victim to the status-quo bias, the longing to continue with or return to what they view as the right way of doing things. Then, there’s the anchoring bias, the judgement error that propels us to remain anchored to initial data or experiences. This bias causes leaders to want to return to their old office life due to their personal discomfort with remote work. Because they’ve previously enjoyed a career surrounded by other people, they want to recapture the vibrant energy of the pre-pandemic workplace.

Even though there is compelling evidence that remote work functions well for the majority of employees, leaders who are averse to making a shift insist on how things were done before. This is an effect of the confirmation bias, which causes our minds to cherry-pick beliefs that confirm our existing beliefs and pushes us to discard anything contradictory.

Resistant leaders tell me they’re not inclined to do surveys because they are confident that the majority of their workers would rather work at the office than remotely. They dismiss the fact that the opposite is shown by large-scale public surveys. Interestingly, one of the key complaints by Apple employees is that the company has failed to run effective surveys and listen to what employees are saying. This refusal to do surveys shows how the confirmation bias can be exacerbated by the false consensus effect, another cognitive bias. This judgment error causes us to view other people in our in-group, such as our co-workers or those employed at our company, as having beliefs more similar to ours than is actually the case.

What about the particular issues that the resistant leaders cited related to remote work, ranging from deteriorating culture to burnout? I discovered after much probing that the leaders never tackled these remote work issues strategically. They hastily shifted to remote work as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. Thinking that the change would only last for a short period, they prioritized working through their companies’ crucial tasks, shrugging off the emotional and social connection that really keeps employee morale afloat and shields from burnout. This is a prime example of functional fixedness. When we already have a specific view of how systems should work, we dismiss other potential uses, functions and behaviors. This happens even if the alternative offered to us is a better fit for a new circumstance and would help us deal with attendant issues. 

Related: Should Business Leaders Be Worried About the New Covid Strains?

A successful post-pandemic workplace calls for a re-examination of employer-employee expectations. Leaders should deploy research-based strategies for returning to the office to defend against impulsive actions that push them to commit dangerous judgment errors. Only by making the best strategic decisions can they gain a competitive advantage from maximizing their workforce by boosting their recruitment, retention, productivity, work culture, morale and, ultimately, their company’s bottom line.



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