Breaking the Bond of Trust
Issue 97, March 2, 2023
One of the unexpected outcomes of the pandemic was the development of a new level of trust between leaders and their corporate level workforce. With entire skilled workers at organizations forced out of the office and working remotely, the workforce and management had to implicitly trust one another to meet deadlines, goals, and quarterly expectations. During this time a shift to measuring performance by outcomes, not time or face-to-face contact emerged. This change shed the layers of an industrial age mentality for a predominantly white-collar workforce.
For a command-and-control leader, this was a moment of crisis infused with insecurity, suspicion, and defensiveness based on a lack of clarity or established baseline in how to lead this new model. The acceleration of non-stop, on-screen meetings was an attempt to keep control … or at a minimum, a way to keep tabs on employees. But using the same on-site leadership skills with a remote workforce quickly failed. Some super controlling organizations moved to measure screen time, keystrokes, and other computer-based metrics to monitor their newly remote workers. It was a time when everyone had to rethink work and reinvent how and where to get work done.
Connecting the Dots
During the pandemic at 2040 we counseled our clients on the necessity to release the past in order to adapt and change in a highly dynamic, tech infused world where many individuals reassessed and realigned what was truly important to them (and their mental health).
Our newsletters have focused on the essential strategies that helped organizations navigate through new terrain. Shared Purpose reframes the concept and reality of organizational culture and goals; What Role Do You Play introduced how we adapt and change ourselves depending on a situation or environment; Why Do We Follow Rules and Why Do We Lie uncover our inherent responses to the actions and words of others. Most importantly, How Do We Trust tackled trust between leaders and workers with the intent of helping leaders see how they need to adapt to critical workforce needs to support positive outcomes.
In terms of our clients and our larger observations on leadership, many have had deaf ears to the new reality of “work,” regardless of sector, industry or type of organization. At the heart of the problem is trust. When the bond of trust is broken, particularly at a time of societal and economic upheaval, an organization and its leaders will quickly fall behind their competitors, devolve into conflict internally and lack direction with their customers and stakeholders.
Adapt or Die
On the plus side, at least in the beginning, employees began to experience a new sense of wellbeing with a work/life balance in their own hands. Scores of documented reports and research validated that most people were happier and more productive working from home. Parents benefitted from having more flex time to take care of children. At the same time, employees’ managers had to evolve into a new management model to keep pace with the behavioral changes of their workers. And at first, we all figured out how to adapt, thrive, and keep the wheels from falling off the organization. The workforce changed their lives and recognized the value of creating balance while getting the work done. That was a major realization.
But that was then. Three years later (and counting) the bonds of trust that were built out of necessity and changed the relationship between management and their workforce are starting to break. Leaders are forcing their employees back to work, and this may be a case of massive hubris with leaders tone deaf to the needs of their workforce. Here are some big names (based on Insider research) in tech and finance that recently came to the conclusion that work in the office was non-negotiable.
- Amazon: Corporate employees are required to spend at least three days per week in the office beginning May 1 because “it would be easier for employees to collaborate, and that in-person work would strengthen the company’s culture.”
- Apple: In August, workers were told they had to return to the office at least three days a week to restore “in-person collaboration.”
- Citigroup: Vaccinated Citigroup employees across the US were asked to return to the office for at least two days a week in March 2022,
- Disney: In March, any Disney staff member working “in a hybrid fashion” had return to the office four days a week.
- Goldman Sachs: In March, all employees were asked to return to the office five days a week.
- Google: Starting April 2022, employees in the San Francisco Bay Area and several other US locations were told to return to the office for at least three days a week.
- JPMorgan: Half of its employees were required to return to the office five days a week and another 40% to go in a few days a week.
- Salesforce: A return-to-office policy requires three days a week in the office for non-remote employees and four days a week for employees in “non-remote” and “customer-facing” roles. Engineers would be required to work from the office 10 days per quarter.
- Starbucks: Starting January 31, employees within commuting distance were required to return to the office at least three days a week.
- Uber: Beginning April 2022, Uber staffers in 35 of the company’s locations were required to return to the office at least half the time. Other days staffers were allowed to work remotely and that some could be entirely remote if they get clearance from their managers.
You have to ask the question: If work was successfully performed remotely for three years, what is the true necessity for the change to return to the office? Is the employee no longer trusted to work off-site? Is there an issue about their WFH performance? Are they no longer trusted to work within a new framework?
Change is hard, and most people are hardwired to resist changing their routines and their lives. But we all know that evolution is a prerequisite for survival. So, does a work culture really have to be physical? Or can shared purpose thrive regardless of place? These are big existential questions that are going to require realistic answers.
Seeing Is Believing
Confirmation bias is reflected in behavior by individuals having to “see” it to believe. It also relates to being influenced by others and conforming to a set of accepted behaviors and expectations. Being a CEO in a digital age requires a reset in terms of how to manage a workforce. And that can trigger insecurities and anxieties among traditional leaders who prefer a command-and-control style and a foreman approach to management. Plus, it threatens leaders who need to fit into the mainstream to believe they are doing the right thing to manage their workforce.
In terms of remote work, leaders and managers through default confirmation biases are more comfortable with a team sitting in a conference room than on a screen. The fallacy of this belief is that all too often people spend time on their phones, answering emails and searching the internet during meetings. The bigger fallacy is that leaders think everyone else thinks the way they do and will welcome returning to the office with open arms for a schedule of too many meetings with too few outcomes. A few outliers in the tech sector have already moved proactively to significantly reduce meetings to free up time to actually get stuff done. Unfortunately, since change is hard, too many have defaulted right back to 2019/2020 operations, and one must ask are they really using what they have learned and are they rising to the occasion to be more productive?
Regarding work/life balance, is someone sitting in a workstation in an office surfing the web for vacation spots any different than sitting in a remote office surfing the web for vacation spots? Seeing is not always believing in terms of what employees are working on. Ultimately, it is more important to assess what an employee has accomplished, integrating a range of digital activities, regardless of location.
On Again, Off Again
The elephant in the room about remote work is the problem with corporate headquarters’ and satellite offices’ physical footprints. A rationale to bring everyone back to the office can justify the cost of commercial space. The expense of empty office space has put organizations into a tailspin looking to break leases or find ways to sublet the unused space. The shift in office occupancy has also been a nightmare for landlords and real estate developers. We’ll see corporate offices eventually transformed into residential and mixed-use spaces – at a great cost.
Organizations also support a network of businesses within their communities. If you’re in retail and food service, it’s a confusing time. After three years of empty offices, many local retail businesses adjacent to commercial buildings have shuttered. There are empty corridors of small businesses that once prospered from a workforce that supported them. This unintended consequence may have the most permanent collateral damage. Restarting a small diner or retail store is almost next to impossible after three years of no income. On a macro level, has the organization broken its bond of trust with its community?
Envisioning a Fair Future
It is agreed that you solve the problems of the most underserved and special needs individuals, you solve the problems for society at large. So, for disabled, remote employees hired over the past three years with the promise that they could work from home, how will they be affected by new demands to return to the office? Will they be fired? Are they devalued by the limitations of working fulltime in an office?
The return to the office may backfire. Across industries, employees at Amazon, Starbucks, and other brands are pushing back about returning to the office. And there is a renaissance in unionizing as frontline workers and factory workers in unexpected industry sectors that are forming coalitions to petition for better working conditions and higher pay. If you are student of unintended consequences, you could see this one coming.
Despite the arguments that working in an office enhances creative teamwork and the random connections that can lead to innovative thinking, the demand to return to work falls into the hubris category of management. The divide between leaders and workers may never be bridged until leaders are trained in more than chasing the bottom line. Without support of the workforce, there is no business. Shared purpose must be based on more than profits; it needs to meet the needs of a workforce on mutual terms. Who wants to work in a draconian management structure? Although we are no longer living in the industrial age, it is beginning to feel like it with workers pitted against management in the information age. Trust is the anchor of all relationships between managers and workers. It is a bond that can never be broken. And a risk absolutely not worth taking.
The Path Forward
At 2040 we work with clients to help them navigate the minefield of running a profitable organization while balancing the evolving needs of a workforce. Even with a loosening labor market, individuals still have options. The demand of return to office is causing many workers to assess and determine what is more important. Being forced to return to work can cause a dramatic shift in wellbeing and contribute to mental health challenges. Given the choice, most individuals will choose family and quality of life over commitment to an organization with non-aligned values and beliefs. Return to the office is one such shift in values and beliefs.
As the pool of skilled workers shrinks, organizations are going to find themselves without the talent necessary to be competitive. Individuals will seek organizations where they are trusted and valued regardless of where they are located to do the work at hand. Be forewarned. Times have changed and it’s not business as usual.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.