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Leadership Insights

Hybrid Happiness? The Power Struggle of the Office Return

5 min read

Landing on the right return-to-office approach is fraught with peril, risking disillusionment, disrespect and disunity. Two years into hybrid working and few leadership teams are getting it right.

Our leadership development experts explain why addressing mindset, corporate identity, and uniting intergenerational teams can solve the power struggle preventing leaders and employees aligning on returning to the office.

When Apple tried to introduce a return-to-office policy last year, its employees revolted. 76% responded negatively, while over half wanted to leave the company. Apple subsequently delayed its return-to-office several times amid the rebellion, before settling on three days a week in the office.

Others are taking a tougher approach. Goldman Sachs are mandating employees come back into the office five days a week, while other banks are enforcing their return-to-office policy by monitoring staff passes to identify those not coming into the office frequently enough.

So, who holds the power? In reality, it is held in a shared tension. If policies polarize, it becomes impossible to unify around a productive approach that meet the needs of the individual and the organization.

Hybrid happiness takes a combined approach - challenging and realigning leadership team mindsets, confirming the corporate identity and breaking down generational divides. These steps are all key to dissolving the power struggle and achieving a unified and productive approach. 

Shifting leadership team mindsets

A truly effective leadership team will inspire change rather than mandating or coaxing employees into action. Inspiring change requires confidence, connection, honesty and the willingness and capacity to adopt new mindsets. Self-doubting or poorly connected leadership teams can be stuck in ‘no man’s land’ or fall back on traditional forms of leadership, unable to tackle complex challenges and inspire new perspectives.

Establishing this new mindset requires new thinking beginning with honest reflection, asking: ‘why would people want to come and work with us?’ and ‘what do we offer as leaders that warrants calling people into the workplace?’ When considering the return-to-office message, ask ‘would I like to receive this communication myself?’ and if the answer is ‘no, but we have to’, determine what the leadership team can do to connect with the underlying issues and demonstrate understanding.

This mindset shift involves stepping into the employee’s shoes and imagining what it feels like to be on the receiving end of their leadership. In doing so, they should be able to answer the questions: ‘are we a team to follow and get behind, and if not, why not?’ and ‘how can we inspire followership confidence and strengthen our connection with the organization?’

A truly effective leadership team will inspire change rather than mandating or coaxing employees into action. 

Elizabeth Stewart Partner, Head of Leadership Advisory

Confirming corporate identity

To bring employees back to the office, an organization needs to understand its own identity. Beyond establishing ‘purpose’, this requires leadership teams go deeper and answer the questions: ‘what do we need our organization to do and be?’, ‘what are our customer expectations?’ and ‘why is this expression of our identity right for us?’

For example, food and drinks company Smucker’s introduced a ‘core weeks’ policy, which requires employees in the office during 22 ‘core weeks’ of the year. These core weeks reflect its inherent identity centered around connection and relationships. The model incentivizes pivotal blocks of time for the company to be together, with employees reportedly keeping diaries open during these weeks for impromptu catch-ups with co-workers and spontaneous hallway conversations.

Leadership teams capable of establishing their organization’s identity in this way, communicate confidence and success. This in turn inspires employees, fostering loyalty, engagement and connection with the organization.

Uniting intergenerational teams

Exacerbating the return to work power struggle is a workforce fragility with generational divides. Millennials and Gen Z – more likely to desire remote work than older generations – are dispositioned to ‘voting with their feet’, while Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are more inclined to return to the office.

This poses additional instability challenges at a time when cohesion and loyalty is needed most. New tensions are growing, with leaders wanting to take their business forward but hesitant about the potential cost to workforce resilience.

However, these divides present the opportunity to unify an organization beyond attitudes and instead around principles, outcomes and impact. Leaders need to authentically understand anxieties and workplace desires, fostering followership around collective goals of creativity and collaboration in service of the identity and purpose of the organization.

In practice, this might look like shadow executive leadership teams, next generation councils and reverse mentoring. However, intergenerational workshops are particularly powerful. These create an environment of trust where connection, creativity and collaboration can grow – ultimately delivering the confidence to move forward at pace and provide the basis on which to make decisions around returning to work. Importantly, when leader-led, these workshops create expressions of care, people-generated changes and a new determination to deliver.

Inspiring employees in this way, and giving them reasons that foster the loyalty, engagement and connection with the business that employees are asking for, strengthens a return to work plan and gives your people a reason to want to be in the office more.

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