“How do we get our employees excited to come back to the office?”
This question is echoing across empty corporate hallways and reverberating over zoom meetings. Companies are coming up with creative perks, like free lunches for a month and team building surprises reminiscent of summer camp.
Yet, the jazz-hands perks meant to conjure excitement aren’t doing a great job at covering up workforce apprehension. Instead of blindly staying the course, the empathetic leader focused on employee engagement and a healthy company culture, is going to pause and ask herself: Where is the apprehension coming from? Are we even asking the right question?
2020 threw the world a curveball.
Adjusting to working from home was difficult. We jumped off the deep end with virtual meeting culture, working in increasingly cramped spaces divided up between spouses or roommates, and layered on patch-worked schedules for kid care and remote schooling.
Each of us was expected to create an entirely new mode of operating, while continuing to perform as if nothing had changed. Things broke. Like the global supply chain, along with our ability and desire to pretend everything is ok all the time.
Through these cracks, humanity, humility, and authenticity entered the workplace.
As months turned into a year, which turned into two, we settled into a new way of operating. Kinks were worked out. Selfcare took a seat at the table. Intentional space was created to breathe.
Along the way, an unexpected gift crept in.
Once the fear parted and the masks lifted we recognized this gift. Like a diamond created from extreme pressure, through dedication and grit we forged a new operational model, and this model gifted us with one of the drivers of human motivation and happiness: autonomy.
It’s hard to let go of something after you’ve experienced it.
People will work far harder to avoid a potential loss than they will to achieve a potential gain. This human tendency is called Loss Aversion. That means, your workforce will react more strongly to losing their newfound autonomy than they will to any creative perks aimed at luring them back into their 9-to-5 cubical.
Ask yourself: Why is jail an effective punishment?
Because it strips an individual of autonomy.
At the heart of autonomy in the workplace is trust. Trusting you hired the right people. Trusting they can manage their work and their motivation. Trusting they know when they need to pull in others for collaboration, and when they can run with it on their own. Trusting they know where their limits are. Trusting there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creativity, productivity and problem-solving.
Once Alice sees Wonderland, she’ll never forget it exists. Even if you could physically force her back through the rabbit hole, knowledge is a one way passage. It’s the same with your workforce. Once they’ve experienced more autonomy in their worklife, they won’t be able to forget how good it feels.
As a leader, set aside the question, “How do we get our employees excited to come back to the office?” Instead, ask yourself, Who benefits from the decision to return to the office, and who doesn’t? What message is communicated when autonomy and trust are dialed down?
If the answers to these questions don’t support the culture you’re trying to build, then it’s up to you to forge a new path in Wonderland. A path rooted in trust and collaboration with your workforce.