Why the Post-Pandemic Workplace Is Not About the Office

Author: Thomas Fundneider

A few weeks ago, I was asked in an interview about how to get employees back to the office. How should we motivate them? What should we add to the workplace? I think this question is wrong at its core. Why would we need to motivate employees to get into the office at all?

What is more, organizations now realize this is not their most troubling issue. They found out employees not only don’t want to give up their remote working freedom, but many don’t want to work for their current employer anymore.

I see this as a positive side of the pandemic. Thanks to it, employees were forced into an “off-site” retreat, where they could contemplate what is important for them in life. 

Hopefully, organizations will now also take the example and organize such retreats to think together about the Why and What, not only the usual How.

People have recognized a sense of autonomy that they haven’t experienced for quite a long time.

So why don’t a substantial number of employees don’t want to return to work? They had the opportunity to rethink what they wanted to do with their lives. They don’t feel connected to the purpose of their company (if there is any at all) and to its lived values. 

They also don’t want to deal with toxic colleagues or incapable leaders – an issue that organizations have often still not learned to deal with (or they don’t want to).

Why was it specifically the pandemic and the restrictions that came with it that kickstarted this change? It’s because the freedoms that come with remote working address a basic human need. People have recognized a sense of autonomy that they haven’t experienced for quite a long time. They have also proven highly productive during the pandemic, and many have delivered extraordinary results.

Some managers, many of whom before the pandemic said that this way of working wouldn’t be possible, are now advocating for a return to the old normal. But employees are not willing to give up their newly experienced freedom. So what should organizations do? I would suggest the following:

  • Enabling connections. People thrive in getting in resonance with other people, topics, and their organization’s values and purpose. They feel it when they develop mutual relationships and co-create something together with others. Usually, we focus on connections between people. However, this is not enough. Organizational spaces are great places for bringing people together, working on inspiring topics, and connecting the dots to create our future.
  • Doing real innovation work. No innovation theater, not incrementally producing more of the same, but creating new services, business models, and products with a desirable purpose at their core. This also requires leaders who support their teams when they deal with unknowns and ambiguity. It also means being honest about the value of innovations in case they might jeopardize the current business model(s).
  • Providing space and means so that employees can develop themselves. Since people are usually not engaged with classic training, we should allow them to self-actualize and provide them with assistance to do so. As they feel themselves personally growing, they are also developing their relationship with their organization which, in the end, benefits from it.

Concluding, nicely designed offices won’t suffice anymore. I am convinced that organizations need to take real accountability for the development and wellbeing of their employees. In German, we say “Verantwortung,” and as the term implies, accountability is about giving answers. However, to give good answers, we also need to pose the right questions. And this, in turn, means that leaders need to learn how to make change happen through people, not to them.

the enjoyable company banner