How do you reverse a trend?
Overcome momentum that has built up over an extended period?
Turn back the clock? Swim against the tide of a popular narrative? Defy conventional wisdom?
Manipulate individuals into taking action contrary to their own best interests? Action that incurs significant costs, both in terms of time and money.
Divert them away from all they hold dear.
Herd them towards the very thing that many can’t wait to escape at the end of a business day. The end of a working week. The end of a professional career.
How do you convince those people to take this action voluntarily? Dare I say it, enthusiastically?
In short, how do you get white-collar professional workers to come back to the office? Not just the ambitious political animals and the socially isolated, the megalomaniacs and the insecure micromanagers. No, I’m talking about the silent majority. The acceptably competent. The reasonably experienced. The suitably skilled professionals who just want to get the job done.
This is the challenge that currently confronts many employers of knowledge workers, big and small.
A few went all-in on the “new normal”. Embraced the opportunity presented by a fully remote workforce. Reduced fixed costs. Increased flexibility. Having spent the last 18 months honing and refining their business processes and operating models. Learning to trust and support their staff. Providing them with the tools and technologies they require to thrive and succeed. Will their efforts prove to be a lasting competitive advantage? See them recognised, in hindsight, as early adopters of the next big thing?
Perhaps. Time will tell.
However, most employers have not.
Not because it can’t work.
Not because it doesn’t work.
But because they don’t want it to work.
So what do you do when faced with a seemingly insurmountable business challenge?
One that lies beyond the competence and experience of your own staff and management?
You hire consultants. Expensive consultants. Consultants who promise you a solution.
A solution that may even work.
If it doesn’t, then at least the incumbent management have plausible deniability. The ability to save face later, by shooting the handsomely paid messenger. All part of the service. Included in their fee.
This is exactly what one employer did, after realising that more than half their workforce had joined the firm since the lockdowns started. Remote by default out of necessity. Learning vastly different corporate survival skills in the virtual world, to those deployed by the great and the good in the days before COVID.
The firm engaged a specialist consultancy, with a remit of rebooting the firm’s working culture.
Indoctrinate employees old and new into the firm’s values. Attitudes. Behaviours. Ethos. Origin story.
Instil a shared mission and purpose.
Provide the missing sense of belonging.
Convince workers they were part of a family. Not just interchangeable cogs providing commodity services as part of a faceless corporate machine.
Establish the interpersonal networks and sense of community that gets workers to pull together and go the extra mile. Not because they are being paid to, but because they want to.
Want to help their colleagues.
Want to contribute to the team.
Want the firm to not just succeed, but to thrive.
The consultancy interviewed the firm’s C-suite to gain an understanding of exactly how they wanted the firm to operate. The original plan was to host training sessions and workshops. Teach from the run book. Establish mentorship programmes and a buddy system to share preferred ways of working.
There was just one minor technical problem. None of those things actually existed.
Their client defined themselves through differentiation. Boasting of all the things that they weren’t.
Which created some challenges when it became apparent they could not articulate what they were.
What they stood for.
Why customers and staff should choose them over their competitors, when they used the same tools, operated in the same markets, and provided much the same services.
A triumph of style over substance. Of branding and marketing over customer satisfaction and delivery.
The consultancy changed tacks, proposing a plan B.
Gather all the firm’s staff together. From all around the world. To a single location. For several distraction-free days.
Close the doors. Switch off the phones. Leave the laptops behind.
Provide the opportunity for them to get to know one another. Share their stories. Make new friends.
But not talk about work. The business. The competition. The industry.
Forget about strategic outcomes. Roadmaps and goals. Objectives. Appraisals. Advancement.
Instead, bring in a small army of charismatic experts from diverse fields. Task them with entertaining and delighting the assembled masses. But also to challenge. Guide. Inspire. Learn. Listen.
Most importantly of all, to get the staff to think.
Develop self-awareness. Communication skills. Empathy. Perception.
Think about what sort of working culture they wanted for their firm?
Think about the role they played and where it fitted into the big picture.
Think about how they could band together to succeed.
Think about how they wanted to be working?
The consultancy would randomly assign staff from all levels and departments into the equivalent of school classes. These classes would then be educated by some of the brightest minds on the keynote speaking circuit. Internationally renowned academics, authors, coaches, choreographers, leaders, and psychologists. All successful in their chosen fields. Some celebrated. Some decorated. Some famous.
The sessions would be collaborative. Challenging. Intentional. Interactive.
There would be no hierarchies or judgements. Just ideas and acceptance. Lots of ice-breaking exercises. Getting to know a little about their colleagues, the people behind the job titles.
Hopes and dreams.
Frustrations and fears.
Aspirations and ambitions.
A recurring theme would be that of individual stories.
Origin stories. I was. Where did I come from? How did I find myself here?
Future stories. I will. Where I am headed? What can others do to help me on that journey? What legacy do I hope to leave for those who follow in my footsteps?
A fascinating cast of characters would likely emerge. Outside of the corporate jungle, the firm’s employees were probably backpackers and fashion designers. Novelists and musicians. Brewers and pilots. Volunteers and students.
The consultancy would instruct the experts to treat all participants as equals. To focus on them as people, rather than the roles they performed for a living. Ignore their job titles and professions, family circumstances or locales. Just listen to their goals, histories, and interests.
Sit the CEO next to the marketing intern. Get the Head of Strategy collaborating with the janitor. Security guards and hospitality staff might offer help and suggestion to people with grandiose job titles containing words like “global” and “enterprise”. Lots of laughter. Little ego.
Mealtimes would be relaxed and informal, with more enforced socialising. Randomly assigned seating. The experts scattered amongst the executives and employees. Lots of alcohol. An attempt to break up the corporate cliques. Foster discussion, debate, and generate new ideas.
Everyone would stay overnight in nearby hotels.
Coaches provided to and from, ensuring nobody got lost or found trouble along the way. Expect four and five-figure hotel bar bills. Have an ambulance crew on standby, to patch up those inevitable few who enjoyed too much of a good thing.
By the end of the adventure, there would be many smiles and new friendships. A general feeling of camaraderie and goodwill. Publicly proclaimed optimism. Privately held doubts, about how many of the lessons shared and learned would be actionable. Implemented. Practically applied.
The C-suite loved the sound of the proposal, instructing the consultancy to proceed. To make their vision a reality.
Offices were closed. Employees assembled. Arriving by plane, train, taxi, and coach.
The consultancy staged a truly world-class show. A good time was had by almost all.
Then, as suddenly as the event had come into being, it was over. The employees were drifting home. Basking in corporate afterglow. Nursing hangovers. Revelling in newfound friendships. Contemplating the broadened perspectives, sense of self-awareness, or different ways of thinking they had learned.
As the employees journeyed back towards the real world, connectivity returned, and corporate communications devices were powered back on. Allowing the staff to catch up on what had happened in the world while they had been blissfully analogue and offline.
One by one, the employees discovered a tersely worded edict from the top. COVID is over. The remote working holiday is over. The firm’s expensive well-appointed offices were to be fully occupied with bums on seats. No debate. No excuses.
The new normal is the old normal.
Conventional wisdom remains conventional for a reason.
Welcome back to reality.