Why return to the office shouldn’t be a “return” – and why orders and incentives won’t work.

Author: Michal Matlon

Leaders often ask us, “How do I get people back to the office?” And many have good reasons for encouraging employees to meet face-to-face regularly. But…

The return to the office requires a radical reframing. The world has changed. And with it, people’s expectations about the freedom to control their workday and the freedom from things like the commute that make their lives worse.

In the past, people worked in the office because that’s how things were done, and that’s what companies required. Leaders didn’t feel the need to explore, explain, and engage employees in answering why that was necessary.

On the one hand, this meant that few people openly questioned why work was done in the office. Although many certainly complained privately.

On the other hand, it meant that when leaders expected people to return after the pandemic, suddenly, no one was clear about why that should happen in the first place.

Reframing the return to the office

This is where a radical reframing of the problem comes into play.

And it’s also why mandates, incentives, and motivation won’t really solve this challenge. They will only delay the inevitable.

Because in people’s minds, “returning to the office” is not returning at all. The slate has been wiped clean, and remote work has become the new default. So instead of looking at how to get people “back in”, leaders need to imagine that office work never existed in the first place.

And that is where the magic happens.

Organizations that succeed in realizing the potential of their workplace without alienating their people will start from scratch.

  1. They will begin by asking: “What is the purpose of a workplace with regard to our organization’s future?”
  2. They will engage both their leaders and their employees in exploring and answering this question with an open mind.
  3. They will test and prototype with their employees to find the specific ways of working, technologies, processes, and types of space that work to achieve that purpose.
  4. They will develop a deep, shared understanding what kind of work should be done remotely and which activities need face-to-face presence.
  5. They will redesign their workplace to meet the needs, insights, and habits that emerge from this process.

How do we know this works? Because this is how we have successfully helped our clients address their organizational challenges for many years.

The process takes some effort. But at the same time, companies that don’t solve this challenge will inevitably face decline and talent drain to those that do.

Leaders may wish they had solved this problem yesterday. But it’s one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century. And it will not go away by itself.

That’s where we can help. Let’s talk.