Why Mandating In-Office Days is a Poor Culture Move
Was covid-19 just a dystopian dream? – The remnants of it are barely visible, besides from that dusty mask lurking in your car’s glove box. But as we now sit on the other side of covid it feels as though all the progress that was made during that turbulent time has been cast aside in favour of going back to what we’ve always known. The office.
Mandating in-office days has kicked off at feverish pace as companies now try to rein in working from home, and force people back into the office. And if you don’t believe it’s by force, you only have to read the news and speak to people in your own circle to hear the amount of strong arming taking place. From changing employees contracts, to the more subtle nudge of rewarding in-office staff over remote staff (oh yes, that old chestnut is still going on!).
The mandating varies from setting specific days of the week where employees have to be present in the office, to employees having to log a set amount of days spent in the office.
Either way, both in-office mandates are as useless as the other.
Now, I do want to make clear that I’m not totally against working in an office, it works for many people. And if your in-office agreement has been co-created with your team, then this isn’t a problem. Many companies have managed to create a hybrid working environment without having to strong arm people into showing up. How they’ve done this, I’ll come onto later.
The real problems with the majority of mandating that’s occurring are these.
Firstly, it’s done from a complete top-down approach. In many cases of in-office mandating a senior exec or CEO has made the decision in an authoritarian style with zero dialogue or collaboration with team members. The underlying attitude being – “it’s my way or the highway!”
Secondly, the reasons given to people about why in-office mandating must be actioned are all complete and utter nonsense; culture being the biggest scapegoat. What makes me chuckle, is that people are being treated as if they’re stupid, that these reasons are the ‘real’ reasons companies are so eager to get everyone back in the office. When in fact, the real reasons are quite clear, and people know this – they are not fools.
The reasons being pedalled for in-office working
For a moment, let’s look at all the e
xcuses reasons, companies are mandating in-office working.
Culture is being dragged onto the stage as the biggest reason companies want people back in the office, claiming that their ‘company culture is suffering’. This from the companies who wouldn’t even know what a company culture is if it hit them round the face, and many of which have probably never done any work on actually developing their culture in the first place. I can guarantee that these are the same companies whose organisational values are all talk and no action.
Mandating in-office working for culture is a mute point. Not only is your office not your culture, but the type of mandating whereby people only have to log days in the office means that people barely experience any kind of workplace culture anyway. As one person commented sarcastically on a post of mine – “Yes, I really love the culture where I go into the office to sit on my own and do the same work I could have done at home.”
The culture these companies are protecting is the one where people are only working if they’re present, where being visible is valued more highly than results, and meetings are a space to micro-manage rather than support. They have a culture alright, but not one people willingly want to go back to.
Collaboration is also up on the list of reasons people need to get back in the office, because supposedly that’s suffering too.
But do these companies really have a culture of collaboration in the first place? Or have they just used the word collaboration when what they really mean is that people are struggling to communicate and work together?
That’s a culture problem that exists whether you are in an office or working remotely.
Junior employee development
“How are younger team members going to learn if they’re not in the same environment as more experienced colleagues?”
Learning by osmosis is a fair reason to want people to work together in the same environment, but it still doesn’t excuse forced in-office working.
People are all adults, they can decide and work together on when to come into the office to co-work and support each other. And if junior team members have a company mentor, this coworking can happen organically without any rigid rules being put into place, and about where and when this needs to take place.
Junior employee development is probably the most real reason among this list of excuses, but if we’re honest, I still don’t believe this is the root reason for mandating in-office working – I think it just feels to some companies that this is one reason people can’t argue with.
The REAL reasons people are being forced back into the office
Now we know the reasons being pedalled out to enforce mandated office days, let’s look behind the curtain at what’s really happening – the reasons companies don’t want to admit.
We can’t deny that many companies feel frustrated that they’re paying huge rental payments for a space that is no longer used every day. What once might have been the number one destination for work, is now a ghost town, and an expensive one at that.
Mandating a set amount of days is purely to ensure office space use – otherwise, to these companies it’s an enormous waste of money.
So, with an urgent need to make use of space, pushing people back into the office seems like the obvious thing to do.
Lack of trust
Unfortunately many companies still have the mindset that if people are not present and ‘being managed’, they won’t work. With such an ingrained lack of trust it’s no surprise that companies have been itching to get people back into the office.
Lack digital communication skills
With the adoption of AI moving at an alarming rate you would think that most companies are now digitally savvy and are equipped for hybrid working – unfortunately despite the sudden switch to remote during the covid-19 pandemic many businesses are still hobbling along with poor technical infrastructure, and even poorer digital communication skills.
Fear of being de-valued
For decades our worth at work has been tied to time and visibility. So is it any wonder that people are worried about what happens to their value if they’re no longer seen at work?
Although this fear can be present for many people at all layers of a company, the group we see struggle with this the most is managers. After all, do we even need managers if people can self-manage?
In a traditional sense, managers are seen as the ones to manage others, overseeing the work and ensuring the work gets done. This is why so many micro-managers have become Zoom obsessives, spending a lot of time and energy showing that their role is still of value. If people are in an office, it’s far easier to look busy and look like you’re ‘managing’ people.
The fear of being devalued, and even out of job is so great for many managers that they would quite happily support a mandate for in-office working. Plus it also gives them something else to manage – checking when people are in the office.
An alternative approach
I’ve been critical of mandating in-office work, but I want to clarify again, this isn’t just about where we work, it’s about how we work and the deep need to dramatically change our experience of work.
Hybrid working, and even set in-office days, does work for some companies, but it’s the way we co-create this that matters the most. Rather than dictating these days it should be a co-created agreement where people can have their needs met.
If you’ve been toying with the idea of mandating, I want to invite you first to explore an alternative approach and consider what you might do differently.
If you think people only slack off when they’re working from home, think again. Using in-office working as your basis for increased productivity can be undone by a multitude of research that proves remote working is still more productive. The truth is, you have a lack of trust.
The belief that people will slack off if not present is an outdated belief and continues to plague the workplace. The very few people who do slack off will find ways to do it at home or in the office.
If you can’t trust people to work from home, or use the office when it makes sense to, you have a much deeper problem with trust. No strong culture can work without high trust.
Increasing your levels of trust in your culture saves wasted energy and bureaucracy on treating people like children. When trust is high, we can all get on with our work instead of playing around ridiculous rules and policies that only create internal politics.
Too often we’re restricting many people at work because we’re worried about the few.
Give people autonomy
Fixed patterns don’t work for how people work. Each of us have our own patterns, needs and preferences when it comes to work, which means a blanket approach can work against people’s flow rather than with it.
Alongside trust, people should be given a high level of autonomy on how their work gets done. To some, this sounds like anarchy, but we all work better when we have agency on how we work. Let teams set their own goals, and then give them the freedom to achieve it in the way they know best.
Evolve your management style
As I said earlier, the way we manage needs to change. Especially when there’s no need for old school managers with old school methods. People no longer need to be told what to do, and when by, or to be checked on constantly that they are in fact working and not slacking.
The fear of managers being devalued is a limited frame of mind. It’s true that we no longer value authoritative management styles, which means we need to evolve the purpose of a manager. (And maybe while we’re at it do away with the outdated title of manager as well.)
In reality, managers should evolve to be more of a coach and supportive role – enabling people to have greater autonomy and moving things out of their way that restrict or limit their capacity.
People need support, not micro-management.
Create spaces that go beyond a desk
Reading this you might assume that I’m completely anti-office – which I’m not. In-person work is still vital to our need for human connection, but the office shouldn’t be seen as the only place to work.
I advocate for in-person working, but the trouble with the office is too many companies are still offering the same bland and uninspiring workspace. If you really wanted people to come in and use the office you would make it a place people want to visit.
Consider exactly what people might need the space for and redesign accordingly. You should make the office something beyond what they can get at home or anywhere else.
For example, having certain tech facilities available, communal spaces for eating together, and meeting spaces that inspire creativity. I’m no interior designer, but the list could go on. Instead I urge you to start a dialogue with your team about what would truly benefit them and enhance the experience for when they do want to come into the office.
Let’s stop making dull, lifeless spaces, and use this opportunity to bring about hubs of creativity and human connection.
Intentional face time
I will keep pushing the point that face to face work is still important but it’s not something that should be dictated. When in-person work feels forced, that usually means people are coming together to satisfy one person’s agenda.
In some weird way, I think companies are so fearful that people will never communicate face to face that they’re mandating these in-office days to force people together. Again, not trusting that people will come together when needed.
One of the faults of mandated in-office working is that it all feels a bit pointless. Why do we have to be together, if we don’t need to be?
Companies who have facilitated hybrid working well know that it’s about making time together intentional. They’re not just coming together to sit in a room and not speak to each other, they have rituals and operational work they wish to do in-person and in a collaborative way.
Improving your in-person time together may be a better step than mandating it.
Questions for the journey
Before you go full force into mandate mode, here are a handful of questions to help you consider an alternative approach. After all, people have had the taste for working how they want – you can’t take away that sweet taste of freedom now. You’ll have a mutiny on your hands.
What’s really important to you about in-office working?
What does the office provide that your team can’t get anywhere else?
What would greater trust look like and feel like in your company culture?
What does the team need from in-office working?
For more coaching and guidance on enhancing your ways of working, get in touch to discover how I can help you evolve your company culture.