When I was a corporate lawyer, I noticed an odd trend in contract negotiations. When an issue got really thorny, lawyers often migrated to minutia. They reordered paragraphs, wordsmithed, moved commas. Focused on the inconsequential and kicked the tougher stuff down the road.
The noisy return-to-office debate feels a lot like moving commas. This issue is not where people work. It’s how to keep them engaged no matter where they work. Gallup's annual global workplace report, released last week, spotlights the real issue. Surprisingly, 23% of the global workforce is thriving (the highest engagement level ever!), but 18% are actively disengaged. And most alarming, 59% of workers feel absolutely nothing. Neither engaged nor miserable, they are just going through the motions. And they are stressed. Fifty-two percent of U.S. workers report stressful experiences every single day.
Stress costs American employers about $300 billion a year in absenteeism, accidents and diminished productivity. But where people work is not the culprit. Gallup’s data shows that employees are much more stressed by lack of engagement than they are by where they work. It has four times the impact, in fact. Regardless of whether they are fully remote, hybrid or onsite, employees are burned out. By fixating on where they sit, rather than fixing the engagement crisis, companies are fiddling while Rome burns.
The antidote to disengagement and stress is building a healthy workplace culture. No wonder CEOs fixate on monitoring key card swipes and crafting restrictive hybrid work policies. It’s much easier to get your arms around those things rather than culture change.
But improving your culture is where the real payoff is. So, as difficult as it can be to change your mindset, your strategy and the common beliefs, values, and ways of working that bind your organization together — that’s what requires your urgent attention. Here are three ways to rethink employee engagement and culture change.
- Confront your biases about productivity
Covid showed us that productivity is not place bound. Data collected in summer 2022 revealed that over 75% of managers believed that flexible work increases productivity. But in another survey, 96% of U.S. executives admitted that they are more likely to notice the contribution of employees when they are in the office. This proximity bias clouds our judgment on what constitutes good performance. Presence is notperformance. Compliance is not commitment. Although some roles require employees to be present in a specific place, many do not. The measure of success of any role is never the location, it’s the quality of the work itself.
An out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to talent management is as ridiculous as it sounds. It discounts good people and breeds resentment. People want to be valued and respected for their work, not for supporting someone else's need to see them in order to recognize their contribution. Focus on supporting your best people no matter where they are, finding ways to value their work even if you don’t see them at the now much-mythologized water cooler.
- Wreck and rebuild your workplace so it works for your business and your people
You wouldn’t bring all the legacy code of your outdated technology system into your brand new one any more than you would hitch a trailer to a Ferrari. So, why do we design our workplaces like this? Let’s stop cobbling things together. Instead, start with a clean sheet of paper. Get creative about what work needs to look like for people (and your company) to thrive. But don’t do it alone. Who better to decide what your workplace needs to perform at its best than the people who actually perform. Instead of asking whether to be in person or hybrid, ask what your strategy needs, what the unique attributes of your business require. Are your teams already dispersed? How much collaborative work vs. quiet focus work do your team members need to be most effective? Identify the activities where in person work is most critical and solve for those, trusting your people to do the quiet work where they are personally most productive (it won’t be the same for everyone).
Ditch the toxic nostalgia about in person meetings (remember when we had them all the time? We hated them). Give people what they need to support the ways you decide to work: reimagined physical spaces designed to facilitate hybrid meetings, upgraded tools and technology that prioritize communication and keep information accessible to everyone. Reject the lure of productivity paranoia and focus on measuring results and impact. Remember that your most knowledgeable advisors are in your midst. Engage your employees as partners to find the right workplace mix for your business.
- Teach your leaders how to engage people wherever they work
The health of your business depends on how well your people work together. And that starts with leaders - at every level. Research shows the single biggest influence on whether an employee leans in or checks out is their direct manager. But many managers are flailing when it comes to overseeing hybrid or remote workers.
People being strong-armed back into the office feel betrayed—like their leaders no longer trust them to work from home. But this is more about leaders not trusting themselves. They may not admit it, but they're struggling and they’re scared. And rightly so. After decades of managing by walking around, how do you do that when no one is there? Leading far flung teams requires a much more complex and nuanced brand of leadership. It demands more skillful leaders who are empathetic, self-aware, and great at forging and maintaining connections. Don’t force your workers back into the office because of the low bar of leadership. Instead, upskill your managers to help them effectively lead and engage employees no matter where they sit. Teach them to make space for remote employees’ perspectives, get creative about team bonding experiences and effectively use one-on-ones and group check-ins to reduce isolation and boost communication.
Before you join the lemmings’ descent of companies using carrots and sticks to reestablish yesterday’s workplace, rethink the work that best supports your organization and your people. Collaborate with them to craft the best solution for your business, grounded in trust, respect, flexibility and autonomy.
A maniacal focus on work location at the expense of engagement and culture is a dangerous comma-moving exercise. Instead of focusing on the past, it's time to get back to the future of work.
First published in Forbes.com.