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Fellow CEOs, here’s why your employees are angry about being asked to return to the office

The head of an AgTech company says that bosses must recognize employees have been through a transformative event and therefore, the implications of it.

Fellow CEOs, here’s why your employees are angry about being asked to return to the office
[Source illustration: arthobbit/iStock]
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Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke made headlines last year when he announced most of his employees would never return to a physical workplace, tweeting “Office centricity is over” just three months into the pandemic. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill turned heads this May for penning an op-ed in the Washington Post where she mused about withdrawing benefits from Washingtonian employees who didn’t want to return to the office, turning them into contractors.

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Both of these responses represent a critical misstep executives are making around the world as circumstances improve from the pandemic: You can’t ignore the fact your employees may feel differently than you, or even each other, about the future of work.

As a CEO, this is the time to consider how your experience may differ from that of your team. To make a sweeping decision for everyone at your company glosses over the reality that each and every one of us endured the pandemic in our own way, and we all figured out the set-up that worked best for us.

What’s clear is that our employees have been through a huge event. As their boss, it would be a mistake not to take a measured break and gather the lessons learned over the last momentous year.

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The previous model was long overdue for change

I’ll be the first to concede that full-time remote work and Zoom meetings weren’t on my radar before March 2020.

When we sent three-quarters of our roughly 100 employees home, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the reaction of the entire team over the past year has spoken volumes. We were able to give people their time back—they no longer have to commute to the office or sit through in-person meetings, and they can work more flexible hours to take care of family commitments.

As someone who spent career-wasting time in traffic and flying around the country, I also felt these benefits on a very personal level.

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For leaders who now insist on seeing commuters shuffling through the front doors and butts back in seats, this is a good chance to ask yourself why you really want to return to the office. And do those concerns about employee engagement and productivity really hold up to scrutiny? A Stanford study of 16,000 workers found those working from home were 13% more productive and their attrition rate was cut in half. When the experiment ended, the people who chose to stay home saw their productivity shoot up even higher. Other, smaller surveys have suggested as many as 77% of remote workers felt more productive while working offsite.

Remote is an imperfect science that will take time

All that said, I want to be balanced here. Remote work isn’t a panacea. It doesn’t work for all employees, and it runs up against certain business realities that I can’t ignore as a CEO.

I run an AgTech company, and I realize there are positions that just can’t be done remotely. Plants need to be grown, and machines need to be built. At the same time, there are elements of in-person work that are undoubtedly better when done in-person, such as networking, mentoring, and passing on knowledge more fluidly.

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Moreover, even when remote work is possible, it’s not necessarily preferable for the individuals involved. My employees break down into a few categories—some love remote working and would do it forever; some are social creatures who want to be in the office; some just don’t have the setup at home and know they can work more comfortably in an office; and others are open to either format.

This sort of multi-dimensional preference is not unique. Throughout the pandemic, data showed an even spread of people who preferred to be at home or in the office. The research showed that a majority of workers preferred some sort of blended approach. Further, extensive research by Gallup has shown that the most engaged employees are ones who spend three to four days a week working remotely. Those same employees are also more likely to feel like someone at work cares about them.

Finding a way forward

When it comes to devising the optimal return to work plan, I don’t have a fixed or easy formula, and I don’t really think there is one. But I can share how we’ve tried to make this work.

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  • Lean into regular communication. Even before the pandemic, 74% of employees in a Gallup survey felt they were missing out on important company news. To this end, we held monthly town halls during the pandemic to streamline all critical info in one place. We also opened up anonymous feedback channels directly to top leadership for employees who felt uncomfortable voicing concerns openly. These types of transparent communication have been critical in shaping reopening plans.
  • Consider the power of trust. If you’re concerned about your employees becoming complacent while working from home, you’ve probably hired the wrong people. Workers who are engaged with the goals of the company will get the job done no matter where they are. Listen to those employees and their managers. Having this level of trust baked in with our team has made it easy to extend remote working options to employees who want them.
  • Be flexible and be real. The way forward isn’t an either/or. As of now, we haven’t set a required number of days to come into work, but there is a shared understanding that some activities—from team building events to onboarding—are better done in person. And, of course, the people who have to be on site understand it’s just the nature of their job and we can do that safely.

When I look at the future of work, it seems clear we’ve been stuck in a rut for decades because we relied on tradition and didn’t listen to what people really wanted. It’s taken this global upheaval for us all to thoroughly examine our past approach. I don’t just want to go back now because we’ve had two vaccinations, and I don’t want people to stay remote just because it saves office space. The future of work is more about communication and compassion, rather than rigidly dictating where and how people do their jobs.


Dave Dinesen is the CEO of CubicFarms, a local-chain agtech company specializing in automated, commercial-scale indoor farming technology.