Why 'going back' to the office is the wrong language and possibly the wrong choice for employee engagement

Going back to the office sends the wrong messageGoing back

What do you think of when you hear the term going back

Progress ... Learning ... Innovation ... Expansion?

Those types of words don't spring to mind for me.

Instead, I'm triggered into thoughts of Regression ... Constriction ... Convention ... Familiarity ... and perhaps even comfortableness.

When businesses are talking with workers about 'going back' (or returning to), there is an implicit message that things were better before, and worth going back to; that there is not much worth keeping from enforced new ways of working making  'going back' the best use of time and resources.

The actions and behaviours of leaders in determining what 'going back' looks like for the employee will certainly drive a very clear message to their people.

  • Going back for a few days a week that we've decided on your behalf,
  • Going back on a roster when previously a roster was not required,
  • Going back to strategically spaced desks, not going back to your desk,
  • Going back to in your face signage to sanitize on arrival, wipe down after meetings, keep a safe distance apart,
  • Going back to an environment where every cough and sneeze creates concern

These are anxiety-inducing demands dressed up to look like care, so there must be a really clear reason for putting employees through this by demanding their return to the workplace.

I visited a number of offices this week and was keen to do so after being isolated since late March. My keenness soon wained.

I didn’t like going to the city on the bus. Everyone was looking at everyone else through a lens of distrust and telegraphing “don’t you f***ing dare sit anywhere near me”

I didn’t like being confronted with sanitizer and signage everywhere to sanitize myself and my surroundings before and after every interaction with another

I didn't like taped off areas of public space that looked like crime scenes

Most interestingly though, the workers I was meeting with were not motivated by having to be in the office. They did not see the reason for being there. They did not feel comfortable being there and (this is the key one) the sentiment of their narrative was very negative; that on balance it didn't feel good to be back.

For many workplaces, there is no clear reason for 'going back' because their people have adapted and produced results without missing a beat in isolation and under self-management.

Therein lies the rub. Enforced work from home required degrees of freedom not seen before, and we are at the point where new habits are replacing old ones.

This is creating fear for some leaders that what used to give them power will soon cease to give them power.

Such leaders are in the 'going back' club for the wrong reasons.

Let's go back before anyone starts to wonder about the value of middle management, the need for red tape, control over workers' schedules, a hierarchy of command that gives unequal opportunity, rewards systems that value hours at the desk more than working smart ...  

They've worked hard for success in that system, so they are very motivated to go back to it.

Never going back

On the other side of this divide, some leaders have already signalled that there is no 'going back' for them.  They are going forward instead.

They are doubling down on work flexibility by permanently building what they have recently learned into new ways of working. 

They are shrinking their offices.

They are redesigning their workflows.

They are creating social connection without requiring attendance for work.

They are recognising that learning through osmosis in the proximity of others isn't effective, and they're creating digital learning experiences instead.

Most of all they have learned that dramatic change can happen really quickly and that they can be more ambitious with change than they would have ever thought.

Yes, they are re-opening their workplaces, and using language like "The office has reopened, you can work there when you choose". 

It's an option, not a directive.

It's a signal that they have learned to empower, rather than exert power.

It's a signal that those who have proven trustworthy will continue to be trusted.

It's a signal that they can gauge a good days work without looking over a workers shoulder to see it.

It's the beginning of a state of mind that work is something you do, not somewhere you go.

We hope to see more leaders open their minds to this, and role model these behaviours.

Choosing your direction

Our team can help kickstart this journey with you.

We have been running workshops to help workplaces identify systemic waste in their old ways of working.

Unknowingly or even consciously workplaces may be 'going back' to hundreds of wasteful work practices and organisational norms, comfortable in this familiarity and claiming without any evidence at all that going back is better.

If your business is thinking about going forward, not going back, you may want to arrange such a workshop to get clarity on exactly what that means for you.

We've redesigned our workshop format to run online so that it's inclusive of workplaces and workers from anywhere.

Please get in touch if you would like to know more.


We invite your thoughts on going back or going forward in the comments below.  What are you 'going back' to and how does that make you feel?


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