With all the talk about return to office these days, we’re seeing companies offer perks to lure people back in– from private concerts, to higher compensation for working out of HQ, to happy hours with CEOs (that may breed more proximity bias than employee engagement). These extrinsic motivators seem to be working to get people back in the office, at least in the short term. Data conducted by Future Forum shows that more than a third of knowledge workers are now working from the office five days a week, more than at any point since the summer of 2020.
But these kinds of perks aren’t helping with long-term retention– in fact, they may be doing more harm than good. The Future Forum data shows that employees are struggling in the face of top-down “return to normal” mandates. Over the past three months, the employee experience scores of knowledge workers who have returned to the office full-time have plummeted, including steep declines in work-life balance, overall satisfaction with their working environment, and work-related stress. It turns out that cupcake socials at the office do not compensate for hours-long commutes (and a lower quality of life).
This data taps a deeper current that’s reshaping what people want from their work lives. These past two years have led many to realize that more purposeful work is possible. Employees want their performance to be judged by their impact, not the speed with which they respond to a message or their in-office attendance record. They want more flexibility in how they spend their time, so they can see their families more, flourish a new hobby, or take better care of themselves. And they want leaders who motivate and inspire trust by communicating transparently.
In this environment, fixating on the right combination of carrots and sticks to get employees back in the office is entirely the wrong approach. Instead of focusing energy on “getting people back in,” leaders themselves need to take a step back and refocus on how they can provide a more fulfilling work experience. They can start by better defining the purpose behind their policies, providing more autonomy to employees, and investing in the mastery of their frontline leaders.
Define the purpose behind policies.
Today’s leaders have a massive opportunity to renovate how their organizations work, investments that will enable them to stay relevant and competitive for years to come. Because these policies will fundamentally shape both employees’ work lives and company culture, leaders need to be very intentional about articulating the purpose and principles behind them, and how they relate to their organization’s core beliefs and values.
Provide employees with a deeper explanation– for example, offering flexibility will equalize opportunity for all employees, regardless of location– and whatever you decide to do, gather feedback: across teams, functions, demographics and locations. Feeling heard is an easier road to finding purpose than a seemingly arbitrary top-down mandate.
Provide more autonomy to employees.
Autonomy is another key component of a more fulfilling work life. So much of the future of work conversation has centered around where people work that it has obscured the broader trend: people want to be trusted to make their own choices, especially with respect to when they work. They want the freedom to work inside or outside the confines of the 9-to-5, so long as the job gets done. They want to take that walk in the middle of the day or spend time with their kids. Maybe they work better at night, or first thing in the morning. Yet this level of autonomy has remained out of reach for most people; two-thirds of knowledge workers report that they have little to no ability to adjust their work hours (outside of the occasional appointment).
We’ve found that “flexibility within a framework,” or “Guided Autonomy,” is an effective way for organizations to balance teams’ need for structure and individuals’ desire for autonomy. This means setting basic guardrails around what work looks like at your organization and then letting employees choose what works best for them within those broad parameters. For example, groups with “core team work hours” ask all team members to be available a few hours each day for meetings and real-time collaboration, but otherwise allow individuals to determine for themselves when they want to work.
Invest in the mastery of frontline leaders.
To build a more fulfilling work-life, leaders also need to consider how they can better support employees on the path toward mastery and growth. The data shows that middle-managers in particular have struggled at their jobs over the past two and a half years. Many have functional expertise, but have been chronically undertrained when it comes to leading with empathy and transparency; they’re not equipped to lead distributed teams, much less translate unpopular top-down mandates with little context. And that sentiment trickles down to their teams, fueling attrition: most people leave managers, not jobs.
Successful organizations will invest in upleveling their frontline leaders from gatekeepers, to nurturers– managers who are trained to guide employees to thrive professionally in day-to-day work and career development. This includes developing leaders’ skills engaging in two-way feedback. Managers need to learn how to take and give feedback while advocating for their employees and representing their needs and wants. The ongoing backlash to employers’ rigid “return to office” policies speaks to how underdeveloped our current feedback muscles are– the data shows that two-thirds of leaders are failing to consider employee input and preferences when planning for the future of work.
Today’s conversations about the Great Resignation often calculate the impact of employee departures in terms of lost productivity or replacement costs. While those metrics matter to the day-to-day cost of operating businesses, there’s an even starker stat about unfulfilled capital: the average worker will spend 90,000 hours working in our lives, and for too many of us, our current working conditions are creating dread, resentment and a lack of motivation. The cumulative downstream effects of this malaise– to both our personal and societal wellbeing– are sobering to imagine.
So as employees re-evaluate the role of work in their lives, perhaps it’s also time to re-evaluate the role of perks: when employees have purpose, autonomy and mastery, maybe the nature of work can become a perk in its own right.