Over the past few months, CEOs at some of the largest companies have called their employees back to the office. Their messages consistently hit on a few themes: workers are more productive in the office, collaboration and innovation require in-person engagement, and a vibrant company culture isn’t possible without it.
The not-so-subtle undertone could be summed up as, “We were understanding during the depths of the pandemic, but enough is enough. It’s time to stop lounging around and put your foot back on the accelerator.” It doesn’t help that many CEOs decrying the shortcomings of their workforce are out of central casting: older, hard-charging men who seem to view their traditional approach to work as the only path to success.
Unsurprisingly, these proclamations have been met with varied responses. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, made an initial attempt to get employees back into the office and couldn’t hide his frustration when many essentially ignored him. Across industries, a good portion of workers who returned to the office have done so grudgingly.
In reading these stories, I’ve had trouble putting my finger on the cause of this disconnect. What have CEOs been missing about the way work has changed? And why would employees prefer to work isolated in their homes with little in-person interaction rather than come into an office? A recent conversation with a friend (and former client) brought it into sharp relief.
I didn’t see this one coming
Evelyn (not her real name) has worked for professional services firms for nearly two decades. For a good number of those years, she worked remotely a few days a week—welcome flexibility that made raising two kids more manageable. Just before the pandemic, she took a job at a global firm with hundreds of thousands of employees. For the ensuing three years, her work experience—onboarding, training, collaborating with her team, interacting with other departments—was all done virtually.
When we got together for drinks, it marked Evelyn’s first time in the office in three years. She described her day: she didn’t know any of her coworkers—none of her team members is located in Chicago. She said hi to people in the hallways who barely acknowledged her existence. She logged on to a string of video calls and ate lunch alone. It’s hard to figure how that experience was worth her hour-long commute.
Then Evelyn told me she’d taken a second job. For the past nine months, Evelyn has logged at least 12 hours a week in the bakery of her local grocery story. When I asked what she liked about the job, she let loose with a fusillade: the job gets her out of the house; she gets to be creative in decorating pastries; she takes thousands of steps over the course of her shift, a nice contrast from sitting at her desk at home all day; she has learned to deal with customers, a skill she had to develop; and she’s made new friends (she had just gotten done watching a coworker’s dog for a week). When she arrives for a shift, her coworkers are happy to see her.
Evelyn estimates she made $7,000 last year at her second job. She acknowledged she could have just worked harder at her main job in the hopes that she’d get a raise. But she liked having more control over the outcome rather than leaving it up to some manager she’d never met in person. And besides, she was having a good time.
Evelyn’s story highlights everything CEOs are failing to grasp about the current climate. Before the pandemic, many people treated their job as more than a job: it was also their social circle and a big part of their identity. The past several years have irrevocably upended that dynamic: a job is just a job. Do it well and focus on the rest of your life.
A critical piece of the puzzle that may not have gotten enough attention is the impact of remote work on hiring. A number of articles highlighted the benefits: suddenly, companies had access to the best talent regardless of geography. The downside was less obvious. Teams are now spread across the country or even the world. So when employees contemplate a return to the office, it’s not into the welcoming embrace of an in-person team. It’s more like what Evelyn encountered.
A possible way forward
Employees might prefer the convenience of virtual work, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need something else to fill the void companies once did. Friendships. Experiences. A shared sense of purpose. That’s a full life.
In my opinion, both sides need to make a bit more of an effort than they might like. Companies need to give their workers a clear reason to come into the office now and then. That could take the form of designated days when enough people will be in to make it worth everyone’s effort. For example, in the first couple of months of this year, we had a bourbon tasting and a magic workshop (courtesy of one of our talented colleagues). It felt like the bonding sessions that used to occur more organically before the pandemic. We’re also in the process of figuring out ways to make our colleagues in other cities feel more connected.
On the other side, employees need to remember the benefits of in-person interaction. There’s no substitute for it; no amount of Zoom meetings equals the warmth and connection of shared experience. When people make an investment of their time—our most precious possession—it immediately changes the tenor of interaction. They engage differently and get a different response in return.
None of this might sound palatable. But the alternative is greater feelings of isolation among workers and a company culture that slowly dies on the vine.
If we collectively get it right, people won’t feel like they have to get a second job to fill that void.
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