Don’t force your employees back to the office. Instead, help them do their jobs…

COVID drove people out of the office. Now other external pressures are driving them back. And none of these external dynamics have been universally welcomed. Instead, they make people change their habits by force.

It’s true that many see working from home as a ‘good thing,’ and it’s often suggested that it was going to happen anyway—COVID just accelerated it. However, for many it’s a problem: space or privacy issues, a lack of team dynamics or the appropriate tools, loneliness and hidden costs—all these issues make working from home a far less attractive prospect.

It’s clear though that managers seem to have the most difficulty with the change. Mostly it’s a phenomenon amongst less sophisticated managers whose self-worth is linked to eyeballing their teams to ensure they have their noses to the grindstone. Great leaders don’t need that kind of engagement because they’re output-driven: why care where someone gets their work done, so long as they meet their targets?

What’s concerning is that staff are returning to the office not because they want to, but because they see it as the only option—Hobson’s Choice. Hobson was a 16th-century English livery stable owner who offered customers the choice of taking the horse nearest the door or no horse at all. So there really was no choice. This worked for Hobson—it prevented the best horses from being overused—but it wasn’t so fantastic for his clients.

Many of our employees will feel this way about returning to the office. In the US, many managers are telling staff to get back the office or find another job. In the UK, where the cost of living has skyrocketed, it’s freeze at home or stay warm in the office. Either way, not much of a choice.

So what should leaders do about it?

I think, as leaders, we should chuck Hobson’s choice. Let staff feel empowered to make the decision that’s right for them—in particular junior staff, who have never experienced high-inflation, diminished buying power, and politically unstable times.

We need also to ensure that staff have adequate support. There’s a tendency to complain about the level of support new people in the workplace appear to need, especially when they’re young. Right now, I’d say it’s fully justified. It’s a turbulent era, and although older people may have lived through similar moments, everyone is stressed and distracted.

So we need to assess the individual and their needs rather than create one or two solutions for all. If we provide flexibility, allowing people to work when, where, and how they want, they will appreciate the autonomy and bring their best selves to the task, wherever they are.

I know from my own company that our CIOs and CTOs take great benefit from being completely in charge of their own diary; many say it is liberating.

Finally, we’ve got to avoid playing Big Brother. There have been some recent horror stories in the press about managers implementing privacy-invading surveillance of their staff, and in my experience that only drives people to either game the system or rebel against it. If someone has enough time to deliver all I’ve asked them to and still has time to goof off during work hours, that’s my fault, not theirs.

So, if your team is going back into the office more, don’t see that as a good sign. See it as something that needs to be discussed and understood. This is not a time for, ‘Oh, nice to see you in person at last!’ Instead, it’s a time for more personal engagement. It’s a time to find out whether they’re okay and have everything they need to operate effectively.

These are the hardest times to be a leader but also the most rewarding.