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Struggling with return to office? It’s an ‘organizational change problem’

Peter Cappelli, Wharton
Peter Cappelli
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He can be emailed at [email protected]

The big news in remote work is that companies are trying more aggressively to get more employees back in the office but employees are resisting, sometimes dramatically so as Amazon’s HQ employees did this past week. Some observers are apoplectic about this and assume the reluctance to return is because “kids today” are soft, missing the point that the employees who most want remote work are middle-aged with kids, the bedrock of corporate workforces.

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The resistance is completely predictable because remote working has become the new normal. The average tenure with an employer in the US is about four years now, and COVID-dictated remote work has headed into its fourth year, so many employees have not seen their employer without it. They have adjusted their lives around remote and hybrid work, in some cases even where they decided to live. Moving back to the office would be a huge disruptive change.

Well, you might argue, moving out of the office was an even bigger change, and they managed that when they were told to. Yes, and they did because the alternative was to have no job and possibly watch your employer go under in the process. It was as big a “burning platform” to get change as most of us have ever seen.

Behind return-to-office resistance

How we got here is in part on the employer’s side by bad luck. Most employers were telling workers they would be back in the office by the summer of 2020, then by Labor Day of 2020, then a new COVID surge pushed it out further. Then, summer 2021, then Labor Day 2021, then the Omicron surge in 2022, and employers stopped predicting. And in most cases, they stopped talking about returning to the office.

The problem, though, is that by saying nothing further, the current remote practices became the status quo, especially if employers were telling employees how well things were going. What employers should have done was tell them that the goal is to return to the office, and here is what we are waiting to see first, even if we don’t know the date of return.

OK, it was a mistake not to do that. But what to do now? The first thing is to figure out the goal. Is it important to get everyone back in the office all the time? Everyone most of the time (hybrid)? Some roles in the office a lot and others less? It’s important to be right about it as we don’t want to go through another big change again.

How to return to office compassionately

If the assumption is that we want everyone on the same arrangement and not, as some Silicon Valley companies said, that we are OK with remote workers if we can pay them less, then we need to treat this as an organizational change problem. Start with a compelling reason for coming back, and that has to be real evidence that things aren’t going as well when employees are out of the office. Without that evidence, demands to return just sound churlish. I would also admit that we didn’t know all the dimensions of performance that were affected by being remote before, such as mentoring.

Next, go back to the things that smart companies did when employees first returned: Make it more attractive to be in the office, including perks for those in the office. Then change expectations for the next cohort of new hires by requiring that they all be in the office. Yes, some candidates won’t take the jobs with those requirements, but if you want people to be back in the office, that is the place to start.

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Then consider how long we are willing to wait to get everyone on the new arrangement. The longer that is, the more employees can be persuaded or at least can adapt their lives to returning to the office, reducing the pain to them.

Don’t forget the special cases

Are we willing to “grandfather” remote arrangements for some employees out of compassion or other unique circumstances—someone relocated to be near a sick relative, for example? Grandfathering arrangements traditionally did not mean that everything continued as normal for those employees. It meant that they were frozen: You can keep what you have until you retire or some fixed date, but don’t expect to advance along with your peers. Grandfathering reduces some of the newsworthy and cringe-worthy examples of a painful transition we are otherwise likely to see.

The worst outcome for management is to set a new policy and then find people don’t do it. If you don’t respond, then employees rightly ask, “OK, what other policies can I ignore?” But if you do respond by firing people, that builds resentment that even those who come back voluntarily will likely remember. The better the job we do of organizational change, the less likely that is to happen.