It’s early December 2021 as I write this. Since well before the pandemic started, and throughout, our companies have worked with clients across the U.S., primarily in life sciences or healthcare, to help them improve their business performance in a variety of ways. Most of the individuals we’ve worked with are classified as “high performers” who have been given increased responsibility in the past year and have therefore asked for our help to make their ideas and initiatives a success. Over the past 18 months, most of our clients report great earnings numbers at their companies, and their success with developing new ideas during the pandemic has been amazing. However, all report problems with recruiting and retaining talent. Talent has the upper hand in business today, and great talent is commanding premium prices if you can even find people to fill open roles. Which is why, given the surprisingly high levels of business performance for most of the time that workers have been working remotely, and the level of challenges businesses are facing when it comes to recruiting and retaining great performers, we’re surprised that so many of these high performers, and their colleagues, now face a mandatory ‘callback’ to the office in early 2022
We define “knowledge workers” as as those who primarily create, analyze, and work with information, ideas, and plans for a living, as opposed to those whose work primarily involves physical items or physical contact. A product manager is a knowledge worker. A factory worker or a physician is not, under that definition. The pandemic has forced many knowledge workers to work from home (WFH). As we approach the two-year mark for the pandemic, most of these high-performing knowledge workers say that the WFH experience has been great for them, especially in 2021. It took some initial adjustment, due largely to the fact that many employees were often working three jobs as parent, teacher, and corporate employee in the early days. But now that kids are largely back in school, and the WFH kinks have been worked out, many of our high-performance clients report that WFH is a key reason they’ve been so productive. It’s not despite being away from the office, but in many cases, based on what they’re telling us and our own observations, becauseof it. Few of these high performers are eager to return to their old, commute-centric ways of working, a fact they often confide to us while being more neutral or “false positive” in what they tell their employer about returning to the office with any regular frequency.
Very few of the high performers we know think their performance will improve when they return to the office. Many are certain it will suffer. A few have commented that they may quit, and some have mentioned that other employers are already courting them. Both we and their employers have watched many employees that companies would have rather retained jump ship over the past 18 months, and we fear this rate of exodus may increase in 2022. Given that this is a sampling of high performers, that’s a huge potential for corporate brain drain at firms already engaged in fierce battles to retain and recruit talent. So, why is it happening?
The best we’ve been able to discern comes from reports in the press, in which C-level leaders who favor a mandatory return to the office cite vague needs for “the type of collaboration that only happens face-to-face,” or “serendipitous hallway conversations that only occur by chance.” That makes for nice soundbites, but where’s the recent data that support it? And given that most of these business leaders wouldn’t suffer being told that serendipity and random, chance encounters are at the heart of a subordinate’s business strategy, those reasons start to sound a bit hollow, if we’re being completely candid.
As the leader of a small company that has an unusually good seat in the stadium of high-performance knowledge workers, I’m just going to say it: I wonder how much of this desire for a mass return to the office can be translated as senior executives saying, “I didn’t come up through the ranks like that, so it can’t be the way things should be done.” Or “If I can’t see people working, how do I know they really are working?” It took some time for me to get comfortable with the idea of remote work. I get it. Change is as hard for CEOs as anyone, and maybe even harder, when you’re being challenged to rethink the hierarchies and control that come so easily in a “physical presence required” work environment, and that have served you well for your entire career. Trust is hard in any relationship, and extending that level of trust to hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of knowledge work employees is a monumental leap of faith, even for a CEO who is normally willing to take reasonable business performance risks based on the facts before them.
But the reality is, that leap of faith has already occurred. The pandemic caused it, and the result – for a surprisingly large number of companies – has been much better than expected, and often, pretty darn good. It turns out that most knowledge work employees really can be trusted. Most can think on their own, without a boss looking over their shoulder or holding their hand. Ideas, we’ve found, are not confined to a conference room or a cubicle and can be shared and developed when the person behind them is wearing a hoodie and fuzzy slippers as easily as if they were wearing business casual attire. And we’ve learned over the past 18 months that technology – which employees have mastered beautifully – can unleash a level of efficiency and collaboration that allows for the exchange of ideas and information faster, and often better, than we might ever have imagined back in the good ‘ol days of 2019. Who knew??!
So, we’ll see what happens in 2022 as more companies than we might have expected force their employees to return to the office. It’s a fascinating social experiment. Will performance rocket to even greater heights? Will new products be introduced even faster than we’ve witnessed over the past year? Will in-person collaborations spawn ideas that we can’t even conceive today, all enabled by the return of “serendipitous, face-to-face, hallway encounters?”
Something tells me that’s unlikely. What’s more likely is that some senior leaders will have a greater sense of control, and a more familiar and predictable environment than they’ve had over the past year and a half. That’s valuable to them. But I wonder whether it will be truly valuable to the businesses they’ve been charged with managing. And frankly, I wonder whether they’ll still be managing many of those same high performers who are developing great ideas for them today, working from home. Or will they instead be competing with some of those high-performing knowledge workers in a few years, and wondering how the companies those high performers have founded or now lead are so nimble, creative, and successful? That’s the real question, and one we’ll be watching as this great experiment unfolds. Start the popcorn popper. This is going to be one to watch.