Autonomy, choice and the potential hybrid push-back

Recent weeks have seen several large (mostly US) companies reverse some of their post pandemic hybrid and remote policies, mandating a return to office or requiring a certain level of in-person attendance.  Such moves have been largely unpopular and have resulted in push back from employees. 

We have by now heard every reason in the book to support the ‘office is best’ narrative.  We need it, so they say, for creativity, for innovation, for team building.  For ‘the culture’. 

These reasons are rarely, if ever, backed up with actual hard evidence, even of the anecdotal kind. We don’t hear ‘we have tried it and it didn’t work, our productivity dipped by X%’.  Instead we hear beliefs, attitudes and opinions – often those of a small number of (mostly male, mostly white) leaders at the top of the tree.  People for whom the (office) system has worked well. Only yesterday I saw one of these so-called justifications from a CEO containing the words ‘I believe [transformational work] can only be done effectively when we are physically together’. One person’s belief, creating strategy.

We are all now aware of the employee preference for hybrid work.  The surveys have been telling us this for nearly three years.  But here’s the thing that some organisations and some managers do not understand: it is more than a mere preference.

When people say that they want flex, hybrid or remote, this is the surface stuff.  Underneath is a strong driver for choice, autonomy, personalisation, freedom.  It is the desire to craft a work situation that allows for life, balance, family.  THAT is the fundamental and powerful need that organisations must address.  I have written about repeatedly during the pandemic.  Organisations that don’t understand this cannot craft policies, practices and approaches that will truly engage, retain and motivate their people.

Deep down, there are many organisations (and their leaders) who aren’t that keen on this hybrid stuff anyway.  They never really wanted it, but were persuaded (kind of) by the huge employee demand for hybrid that emerged post pandemic and fears about the talent implications of not responding.  Given the chance they will revert back.  This is what I believe we are seeing right now.  The labour market has shifted a little, employee power has diminished by large lay-offs and cost of living fears, and leaders are taking the opportunity to re-establish the old normal. 

Flexible forms of work have the opportunity to radically improve our lives – when we embrace them at their fullest (and this includes the so-called deskless workforce who might not be able to do remote but can certainly have flex).  But they won’t deliver if we continue to work like we did before the pandemic, before technology to work remotely existed, like we have for decades.

There ARE some things worth bringing people together for.  There are very clear benefits for certain activities and processes in working together, in a room, connecting and engaging.  Hell, there is probably even a benefit to bringing people together around a watercooler.  But not for everything.  Not for the default.  Not at the expense of giving people choice and autonomy in how they work. 

Autonomy is a fundamental need.  It is a motivator, and an enabling of wellbeing.

Organisations ignore this at their peril.

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