Clinical Professor of Strategy; Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at Kellogg; Faculty Director of the Zell Fellows Program; Director of the Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice
Leaders implementing return-to-office plans for fall (for real this time!) face a strange reality: what was once normal now feels unfamiliar. Many employees don’t want to go back.
“Employers are stuck in the way things used to be, where employees have moved on,” observes David Schonthal, a clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School and coauthor of the best-selling book The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas.
Resisting change is human nature, Schonthal says. But too often, when leaders try to implement a new idea or roll-out changes—like return-to-office mandates—they focus primarily on their own vision for the future of work, or alternatively, on hammering out nitty-gritty details. What can get lost in this is the broader challenges of overcoming inertia and resistance.
“Forces of resistance are present anytime you’re trying to convince somebody to make change, anytime you’re trying to inspire somebody to do something new,” Schonthal explains.
Schonthal and his colleague Loran Nordgren have identified four “frictions” that can derail any change or new idea from taking hold. Schonthal says that leaders who want employees to increase office time will have more success if they address some of these frictions head on.
Most of us have “an overwhelming desire to stick with things that are familiar,” Schonthal explains. Therefore, one of the primary frictions that leaders face when trying to make a change is inertia.
After more than two years of remote or hybrid work, employees no longer see office work as the norm. “Something that was once status quo has become a foreign concept in a short period of time,” Schonthal says.
At the same time, the dynamics between employers and employees have shifted during the pandemic. For one, many employees now value the autonomy they have gained more than they value their in-person interactions with their colleagues. They also feel emboldened by a hot job market.
“At this moment, there are more positions open than talented people to fill them,” Schonthal says. “While this shift in the power balance may be tenuous given current market volatility, employees’ preferences changed just when economic conditions gave them a lot more chutzpah.”
This change in dynamics is amplifying another friction, that of “reactance,” or our natural aversion to being changed—being told what to do—by others.
“When employees feel like they are being required to come back into the office at certain times, they may view such a mandate as a frontal assault on the autonomy they gained during the height of the work-from-home era,” Schonthal says.
But while a certain amount of inertia and reactance may be inevitable, there are things that leaders can do to ease the transition, says Schonthal.
He points out that people don’t respond well to big announcements that surprise them. On the contrary, we are more likely to accept significant changes when we’re introduced to the idea over time. So he advises that leaders seed designs about the return to office into internal communications early and often.
“Make sure that you’re not asking somebody to commit to something the first time they hear it,” he says. “The more frequently people hear about something, the more open to it they will be when the time comes to make a decision—because they’ve had time to get used to the idea. In this way, unfamiliar new ideas have time to become more familiar to the audience.”
“The danger of inviting people into the design process is that they feel like every ingredient they throw into the recipe is going to be used.”
— David Schonthal
Along these lines, Schonthal says that a common mistake leaders make is to wait until their plans are fully developed before giving employees any notice that changes are underway. Even the most thoughtful return-to-office plan, complete with opt-in and opt-out policies that took months of leadership deliberation, can lead employees to feel blindsided if it is unveiled without notice.
Instead, he offers a lesson he learned from his time as a consultant: use regular check-ins to give employees a window into your thinking throughout the process.
“That way, when the final idea, strategy, or offer shows up, I’m not pulling back the curtain on something you’re seeing for the first time,” Schonthal says. “These ta-da
moments can often backfire. Instead, I’ve been slowly warming you up to the idea over time, so the change that you see at the end is only a moderate alteration of what you saw in the previous iteration. This makes the big idea much easier for you to digest, because I’ve served it to you in courses instead of all at once.”
This could also help with another relevant friction: effort. A preview of what’s to come makes it easier for employees to both envision how this will change their job responsibilities as well as plan for important decisions around relocating, commuting, and caregiving.
Schonthal also recommends engaging the team in the process of planning your return-to-office strategy—to an extent.
For example, instead of disseminating a list of what employees will or won’t be able to do under the new policies, ask them to identify benefits they’ve experienced from working in the office. This approach will help employees reintroduce some of the positive aspects of office work into your conversations, instead of forcing predetermined solutions upon them.
However, be careful not to overpromise as you gather input.
“The danger of inviting people into the design process is that they feel like every ingredient they throw into the recipe is going to be used,” Schonthal warns. “Framing how and why that feedback is going to be used is really important.”
Codesigning return-to-office plans does not necessarily mean soliciting input from everyone in the firm. After all, businesses aren’t democracies.
“Having 50,000 voices contributing to a return-to-work program is not helpful. That’s noise,” Schonthal says.
Instead, he recommends identifying a design team with representatives from different employee points of view.
And throughout, it is critical to articulate your constraints. Employees need to understand that return-to-office plans aren’t designed from a blank slate. Constraints might include business objectives, KPIs, or interpersonal goals for company culture.
Schonthal recommends creating a short list of design principles—like hitting business targets in a set timeframe. When the return-to-work design team meets, ask questions like: “How might we design plans that allow employees to experience the flexibility and autonomy that they value while making sure that we meet company goals?”
As leaders solicit input, Schonthal coaches them to listen to the motivations that underpin what employees recommend. For example, if they suggest splitting the work week between two days in the office and three days at home, ask, “Why is that feature important?” If employees want to spend more time on their hobbies, or have more flexibility in their schedule to deal with caregiving challenges, or find an aspect of their workplace distracting, for instance, this is good to know—and material to the design of the strategy.
“It’s less important to identify what people want and more important to understand why they want it, which is where I think there’s real opportunity for innovation,” he says.
Finally, Schonthal recommends that leaders frame return-to-office plans as an experiment.
“People tend to be more willing to say yes to an unfamiliar idea when it doesn’t feel like they’re committing to it indefinitely,” he explains.
Ideally, experiments are evaluated over a set time frame. If, for example, you say that the experiment will let people choose which days they’re in the office or permit certain teams to remain remote, then you must also agree upon success criteria. If it works after six months, continue. If not, you try again.
And as an organization, the ability to experiment will be a huge asset going forward, he points out. After all, the virus is not going anywhere soon—and an ever-growing list of geopolitical and climate disruptions face many industries. Growing concerns about a recession could also further upend employer–employee dynamics.
“Employers are going to have to think about and evaluate sources of friction frequently as almost everything is going to be a “new idea” every six months if the world continues like this,” Schonthal says. “We need shift our focus as leaders to not just think about the new idea, but rather how we introduce it to an audience whose context is constantly changing.”
Susan Margolin is a writer based in Boston.