Ditch the return-to-office mandates and address your culture

Nahla Khaddage Bou-Diab explores the right way to get staff enthusiastic about office life
BizAge Interview Team
Office workers

The last four years have seen constant shifts in the working experience. From five days of commuting to working at the kitchen table during the pandemic, there hasn’t really been a workplace norm.

Several firms, however, are trying to change that. Enter ‘return to the office’.

Whether it’s Boots, JD Sports, Manchester United, Deutsche Bank or Dell, several of the world’s most recognisable firms have slapped a broadscale, return-to-office mandate on the table. And all in an attempt to revitalise some ‘lost’ productivity or, more likely, to reinstate their pre-pandemic workplace cultures.

At their core, however, these mandates are incredibly misguided and, in fact, could have the opposite effect of what these firms intended – they could fracture the workforce.

Let’s take the Office for National Statistics as an example. Faced with an order to swipe into the office two days a week (Bloomberg), Public and Commercial Services union members in the statistics agency have voted overwhelmingly to strike. The mandate, purposed to bring teams back together, has caused an internal dispute.

And this is not an isolated example, either. Lloyds staff have also expressed sharp discontent about their respective order (City AM) – and so has Deutsche Bank’s (Fortune).

The fact is that return-to-office mandates fail to account for the needs of the modern workforce. Across all organisations, these last few years have seen an unprecedented level of humanity and flexibility not seen before in the working world. Plus, beyond that, the office has now lost its clout.

These days, ping pong tables, full office pantries, extravagant Thursday happy hours or even team yoga are no guarantors of culture. You can’t dress up your office with wild perks and expect your staff to genuinely feel a sense of belonging. They are looking for a lot more.

Control isn’t one of them. In the UK, as of April 2024, 15% of adults have only worked from home, 21% reported a hybrid working arrangement, and 40% have exclusively travelled to their workplace in the period of a week (Office for National Statistics). Many working people have settled into a remote or hybrid lifestyle. Return-to-office initiatives burst this comfort.

You can’t look to the office as your organisational saving grace. Companies must pivot to meet the needs of the new workforce and change their cultures accordingly.

The first step is obvious – companies need to let the whole human into the organisation. They have to ditch limiting hierarchies, ditch quotas, ditch the metrics – ditch anything that dehumanises people into KPIs and deliverables.

And it’s on the leadership to execute this move. Now that there are increased expectations for the C-suite to become visible (Edelman), they have to take the reins of the organisation and spearhead these cultural shifts. They have to leave their glass-walled offices.

As the faces of the organisation, leadership teams have a responsibility to echo the thoughts of their workforce both internally and to external stakeholders. If they accepted their responsibility towards organisational culture, there’s a chance employees could naturally gravitate back just by virtue of the improved, more human environment. After all, they would now know who they work for.

Amid the mistakes companies will inevitably make by following the return-to-office trend, there’s a real opportunity for firms and their leadership to spearhead cultural innovation. They could show a genuine understanding of their staff and their needs. It’s an open goal. A golden chance.

So, to all those 98% who have encouraged staff back to the office (HR Magazine), stop taking this lazy route. End whatever controlling return-to-office mandate you’ve rolled out – and address the core culture of your organisation instead.

About Dr. Nahla Khaddage Bou-Diab

Dr. Nahla Khaddage Bou-Diab is a culture and leadership expert, chairman and general manager of Oneness Mgmt, and CEO of AM Bank. As an award-winning leader and advocate for organisational change, Nahla has developed a step-by-step methodology to assist leaders in transforming their company culture. She also holds several senior roles in the banking sector and spearheaded the Gender Diversity Group for the World Union of Arab Bankers, in which she developed the first charter for gender diversity in the Arab world. Prior to her role in financial services, Nahla launched the management consulting services for Ernst & Young in Beirut. She is also a published author of several books, including Untamable and A Leadership Shift, which was published recently on 28th March.

Written by
BizAge Interview Team
May 28, 2024
Written by
May 28, 2024