How to Overcome Return-to-Office Resistance


Many organizations that allowed knowledge workers to do their jobs remotely during the pandemic now seem committed to getting them back together in the office, and bosses are trying to get their teams on board.  Although the pandemic has been a once-in-a-century disruption to business, navigating this challenge is no different than managing any other kind of organizational change with professional and personal implications. The key is to engage one on one with people to move people them from active resistance to neutral or supportive positions.

Slowly, and in fits and starts, knowledge workers who did their jobs from home for most of the pandemic are now being asked to return to the office, full or part time. Leaders argue for a resumption of in-person work because it enhances collaboration and innovation. But many employees are balking. They liked the flexibility, autonomy, and feelings of safety that came with working remotely. And they cite many legitimate reasons for not wanting to go back: Covid infection risk, of course, but also long commutes, discretion, work-life balance, and office distractions. Rather than return, some are opting to become part of “The Great Resignation.”

Still, many organizations seem committed to getting people back together in the office. So they’re scrambling to design appropriate and fair policies, and bosses are trying to get their teams on board.  And, although the pandemic has been a once-in-a-century disruption to business, navigating this challenge should be no different than managing any other kind of organizational change with professional and personal implications. Any type of change engenders resistance in some, enthusiasm is others, and all the variations in between.

From an individual perspective, decades of research has shown that opposition or assent to change can be neatly captured by the figure below.

First, identify which employees fall into each of the categories. You can start by using your eyes, ears, and intuition. Some people will voice their disfavor, others their support. Some might say they just aren’t sure, or won’t say anything at all.

Some sources indicate that there is widespread resistance to returning to the office, reporting that around 65% of workers want to remain entirely fully remote.  My [James] own research is more surgical, demonstrating that opposition varies according to generation and job stage. Specifically, those early in their career generally want to remain at home, most of those in the middle stage want to head back to the office, and those in the later stage are mixed. Factor this into your investigation of who stands in which camp.

Second, talk to active and passive resistors to identify the nature of their objections. No problem solving can take place without a solid understanding of core interests. Remember that resistance is often rooted in feelings of “not being heard.” So, listen.

Third, expose those who fall into the neutral category to the passive and active support categories. Neutral means having no opinions about or mixed views on the change. But the more those people hear support expressed, the more likely they are to shift to the same positions. That said, don’t be heavy handed. Let neutrals morph in an organic way. Present the facts, state the case — or better yet have their peers do so — and let them make up their own minds.

Fourth, emphasize the benefits of the change to mobilize passive supporters. Focus on the difference between “zero sum,” where one party wins and the other loses, and “positive sum,” where everyone benefits. Passive supporters will be concerned that their support of a plan will draw the ire of those who resist it. Give them the language and framing to be comfortable in their position.

Finally, give active supporters a platform so they can help you reinforce the benefits of and legitimize the change. But don’t allow them to stand on a soapbox and imply that those who don’t share their enthusiasm are misguided or incorrect. Active supporters should extoll the benefits of returning to the office with welcoming words.

Leaders wanting to learn about managing change of this kind should consult the rich literature, especially John Kotter’s classic work, which is as true today’s as when it was published. If leaders believe it’s important for people to return to the office — full or part-time — they need a plan for convincing everyone that it’s the right thing to do.

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