Resolving the Return-to-Office Disconnect Between Leadership and Staff: A FACTS-based Approach
Recently, a group of Apple employees launched a petition demanding “location flexible work” after CEO Tim Cook said Bay Area staff must return to the office at least three days a week. Similarly, employees at AT&T distributed a petition that calls on their leadership to make remote work a permanent option. At the center of these stories lies the disconnect between leadership and staff opinion about where to work.
This disconnect is a primary driver of the Great Transition (aka Great Resignation). According to Future Forum’s summer 2022 pulse survey, 94% of employees want flexibility in where they work. Pew Research found that 45% of employees who quit jobs this past year cited a lack of flexibility as the reason.
It’s difficult for organizations to solve this problem of where to work, because there isn’t one proven solution. Many factors come into play: your organization’s history, culture, operations, practices, and people. However, we counsel clients to address this disconnect right away. Failure to do so erodes culture and causes employees to disengage or quit. It also leads to contentious and emotional exchanges in the workplace, making work model and workforce decisions even more difficult. There’s no getting around it: you must explore what’s behind leadership’s and staff’s desire about where to work.
A FACTS-based approach for understanding the workplace disconnect between leadership and staff
A Fast Company article suggests that “employers will have to engage in their own Great Transition—one that is more responsive to workers’ priorities and values.” A FACTS-based approach provides a framework for understanding those priorities and values that are leading to the disconnect experienced between leaders and staff. Many of these priorities may have changed during or because of the pandemic. It’s time for candid (and perhaps difficult) conversations and the transition to a new management mindset.
Feelings. You can’t move forward without understanding the feelings and needs of leaders, managers, and employees. Make the time and space for these frank discussions. Ask questions that get at:
- What do staff feel when they’re told it’s time to “get back to work” in the office?
- Do different modes of work make staff feel differently, e.g. energized? Isolated? Stressed?
- How do managers feel being caught in the middle?
- What do leaders believe they and the organization have lost in the shift to hybrid or remote work?
- What do they believe they and the organization will gain by returning to the office?
- What do employees believe they and the organization have gained with remote or hybrid work?
- What do they believe they and the organization will lose in a return to the office?
Are these perceptions based in reality? Some might be, some might not be. In either case, representatives of both groups must uncover and discuss the biases, assumptions, and facts behind these feelings and beliefs.
Assumptions. In these discussions, strive to uncover the assumptions guiding people’s work. For example, we’ve found that leaders often think they’ve communicated plans to staff, when they haven’t communicated clearly or completely, if at all. Leaders are then working with the assumption that everyone has the same understanding when they don’t. If you’re starting to feel like you have over-communicated something, you’re on the right track.
Communicate. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate. In fact, it’s a necessity. Use several channels of communication for critical messages and always check around to see if people have understood (e.g., announcement in staff meeting, email with more background, confirm understanding in 1:1s, etc.). Lastly, reinforce communication through repetition. Once you have people telling you, “you’re repeating yourself,” you’re finally getting through.
Transparency. One of the biggest gripes we hear from staff is a lack of transparency. It often comes up when discussing feedback. Many feel their input goes into a black hole and never gets addressed. Make it obvious that you intend to understand and address staff feedback. Always share what you’ve learned from their feedback and what you plan to do with it. And most importantly, don’t ask for feedback if you don’t intend to listen or change. Transparency issues also arise when it comes to decision-making. Provide a general timeline of decision-making and factors being considered when possible. Leaders don’t always have to have all the answers. But if you can provide context and grounding for what is happening, it can go a long way.
Stay engaged with staff. Always keep employees in the loop about decisions that affect them. Be aware that expectations have changed over the past two years. Employees now expect to have more of a voice than before. Naturally, leaders make the final call on work model decisions, but when employees feel recognized and included as valuable contributors, they’re more likely to support decisions, even ones that don’t go their way.
The FACTS approach lays the foundation for a trusting employer/employee relationship. But yet, the decision remains: do you return to the office, adopt a hybrid approach, or stay remote? Our next post offers a framework for considering multiple factors and helping you find the right solution.