The challenges that many companies are facing in their hard-line, inflexible approach to returning to the office highlight deeper issues of broken culture, social contract, and trust in these companies.
For instance, recent reports reveal that Apple has been threatening action against employees who refuse to come back to the office by tracking employee attendance and threatening action against those who don’t work from the office at least three days a week.
Similarly, Twitter has been dealing with its own return-to-office problems. Elon Musk apparently emailed employees at 2:30 AM, writing that “office is not optional.” Musk complained that half of the San Francisco headquarters was empty the day before.
Obviously, company leaders aren’t going to complain about a problem that’s not happening: their complaints indicate serious opposition by employees and a breakdown in trust. And this brekadown in trust is happening at many other companies mandating a hard-line office return. Amazon’s head of HR dismissed an in-house plea endorsed by nearly 30,000 workers concerning the organization’s return-to-work strategy. Staff at Walt Disney Co. are opposing an order to spend four days per week in the office, while Starbucks workers have penned a public letter expressing their disapproval of the company’s mandatory office return policy.
Broken Culture and Social Contract
Based on my experience helping 22 companies transition to hybrid and remote work, such strong-armed approaches not only cause tensions among employees but also put the company’s culture at risk. These incidents indicate a broken culture and social contract within the companies, where employees no longer trust their employers to prioritize their wellbeing and work-life balance.
Trust is the foundation of a healthy working relationship between employees and employers. When companies like Apple and Twitter take a hard-line approach to returning to the office, they risk damaging the trust that employees have placed in them. This lack of trust can lead to disengagement, decreased job satisfaction, and increased employee turnover.
Companies that mandate a strict return-to-office policy demonstrate a disregard for employee wellbeing. By not considering the unique needs of each employee and not offering flexible work arrangements, these organizations are signaling that they prioritize their own needs over those of their employees. This attitude can lead to a toxic work culture, negatively impacting employee engagement and productivity.
The Impact on Companies with a Hard-Line Approach
Companies that adopt a hard-line, inflexible approach to returning to the office may experience several adverse effects.
In today’s competitive job market, with a historically low unemployment rate, talented employees have many options, despite the headlines about recent layoffs. Companies that don’t prioritize employee wellbeing and work-life balance risk losing their best talent to competitors that offer flexible work arrangements. Furthermore, attracting new talent becomes increasingly difficult, as job seekers may perceive these organizations as unsupportive of their needs.
When employees feel betrayed and mistrustful of their employer, their engagement and productivity suffer. Employees who are disengaged or unhappy at work are less likely to go the extra mile and may even become actively disengaged, undermining the company’s goals and objectives. That’s why we see so much quiet quitting in companies forcing a return to office.
As the stories of Apple and Twitter’s struggles to bring employees back to the office become public, these companies risk damaging their reputations. Negative publicity can make it more difficult to attract new customers, partners, and investors, as well as hamper efforts to retain existing ones.
A Better Approach: Building Trust and Flexibility
To avoid the pitfalls faced by Apple and Twitter, companies should adopt a more flexible approach to returning to the office, prioritizing trust and employee wellbeing.
Establishing trust starts with open and honest communication between employers and employees. Companies must be transparent about their intentions and willing to listen to and address employee concerns. By engaging in genuine dialogue and considering employees’ perspectives, companies can foster trust and demonstrate that they value their workforce.
Embracing flexible work arrangements, such as hybrid and remote work, is crucial for modern organizations. Companies that offer flexibility show their employees that they prioritize their wellbeing and understand the importance of work-life balance. This approach not only enhances employee satisfaction but also boosts productivity and engagement.
Companies must prioritize employee wellbeing in all aspects of their operations. This includes offering mental health support, fostering a healthy work environment, and providing resources for personal and professional development. By investing in their employees’ wellbeing, companies can create a positive work culture that promotes trust, engagement, and productivity.
Leaders play a critical role in building and maintaining trust within an organization. They should lead by example, demonstrating flexibility, open communication, and a commitment to employee wellbeing. This approach will inspire employees to trust the organization and contribute to a thriving work culture.
Cognitive Bias and the Return to Office
The struggles faced by companies like Apple and Twitter in their attempts to bring employees back to the office are not only indicative of broken trust and culture, but are also influenced by cognitive biases. Two specific cognitive biases, status quo bias and loss aversion, play significant roles in shaping employee perceptions and attitudes toward return-to-office policies.
Status quo bias is the tendency to prefer the current state of affairs over changes or alternatives. Employees who have adapted to remote work may be influenced by status quo bias, as they’ve grown comfortable with the existing work arrangements and feel resistant to returning to the office. This bias can make it more challenging for companies to persuade their employees to embrace the change, as individuals may perceive the shift back to office work as more disruptive and inconvenient than it actually is.
To overcome status quo bias, companies should focus on communicating the benefits of returning to the office and providing a clear rationale for their decision. By highlighting the advantages of in-person collaboration and addressing employee concerns, organizations can make the transition back to the office more appealing and reduce resistance.
Loss aversion refers to the tendency for individuals to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains. In the context of returning to the office, employees might experience loss aversion when they perceive the potential loss of flexibility, autonomy, and work-life balance that they enjoyed during remote work.
To address loss aversion, companies should emphasize the importance of employee wellbeing and demonstrate their commitment to preserving the positive aspects of remote work, even in an office setting. By offering flexible work arrangements, supporting work-life balance, and engaging employees in the decision-making process, organizations can mitigate the impact of loss aversion and foster a more positive attitude toward the return to the office.
The problems faced by Apple and Twitter in getting employees to return to the office are indicative of broken culture, social contract, and trust within these companies. The hard-line, inflexible approach taken by these organizations is not only damaging to their employees’ wellbeing but also poses significant risks to their productivity, employee retention, and reputation. By adopting a more flexible approach, prioritizing trust and employee wellbeing, companies can avoid these pitfalls and create a thriving, supportive work environment that benefits everyone involved.
Returning to office risks trust & wellbeing. Flexibility & trust-building are critical for talent. Overcoming biases with open communication & highlighting benefits helps… >Click to tweet
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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. Dr. Gleb wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams (Intentional Insights, 2021). He authored seven books in total, and is best know for his global bestseller, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, with 8 years as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7 years as a professor at Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.