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Wake up, Corporate America: You can’t bribe, threaten, or feed people to get them back in the office

In-person work is valuable, but many companies have forgotten what motivates people to do it.

The cafeteria at Hallmark headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., in 1956.Hallmark/NYT

The time has come for major corporations to admit that their approaches to getting people back to the office are simply not working. Some in the media have christened this effort “The Battle.” But that sounds more like fighting an insurgency than asking employees to actually do their jobs as expected.

Companies have tried almost every ridiculous strategy imaginable to incentivize, bribe, or even command work-from-home-fans to return to their desks. And the results are questionable at best, laughable at worst.

Giant financial institutions, for instance — many now laying off thousands — have built “contemplative spaces” where workers can chill out from all of that office stress. But these probably wouldn’t be necessary if open office floor plans weren’t so loud that employees need noise-canceling headphones and Adderall just to focus. It’s no surprise that people who have to deal with constant interruptions, long commutes, and no place to take calls would prefer to be productive at home.

Even requiring office attendance isn’t luring people in. Advanced Workplace Associates, a consulting firm, conducted a global study that found that requiring two days in the office produces 1.1 days of actual in-office attendance. Telling employees to come in either two or three days gets companies 1.6 days of actual attendance. Requiring three days produces 2.1 actual days. If coming in is a job requirement, and your employees still won’t do it, you have a problem.

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Throwing money at the problem hasn’t worked well either. According to a study by Blackhawk Network, it takes an average of $11,700 more in compensation to persuade employees to commute in. Unfortunately, that misses the point. If people are earning less than a living wage, more money certainly helps. For many knowledge workers, however, money isn’t the biggest motivator. People are driven by purpose, autonomy, learning, and growth. But instead of spending the time to create a culture that workers want to belong to, companies keep trying to offer golden handcuffs and incentives instead.

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Take Google. The tech giant threw a massive welcome-back party complete with a Lizzo concert. Sure, it sounds cool, but unless Lizzo will one day be my manager, what does a concert have to do with getting me to my desk day after day after day? Will there be daily concerts? Everyone was isolated for two years. How does attending a concert with people I’ve never met or barely remember better connect me to the company? Being alone in a crowd would actually remind me just how few friends I have at the organization.

@jenniferistyping2

Google held a return to office (RTO) concert for thousands of its employees in Mountain View, CA. with performances by @Lizzo. #returntooffice #RTO #shorelineamphitheatre #Lizzo #MountainView #google #googleemployees #covid19 #backtooffice

♬ original sound - Jennifer Elias

Then there are the perks. Connecticut-based consultancy Gartner offers employees food — though it admits that fancy snacks aren’t going to get people to tackle a long commute. That kind of honesty is refreshing. Sure, it feels good to have meals or massages, but companies need to realize that going into work for a pizza party is like dating someone because they have Paramount Plus. Also, let’s be honest: A work pizza party is not a party, and a party where you don’t know anyone is not a party many people want to go to.

It is a difficult situation. No one in management was trained for this. The people in HR may be great at finding talent, but they weren’t hired because they knew how to build culture and connection over video software. There’s abundant evidence that time in person is important for team effectiveness, communication, and happiness, but our approach to the topic needs some new perspectives:

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Perks don’t create an office we love going to. Culture does. When we have friends in the office and a culture of belonging, perks can strengthen those relationships. Companies need to ask: “What is the culture we want to have?” and then instill it at every step of the employee experience — from the way people are brought on board to how meetings are run.

Leadership needs to get real and learn to communicate. When I consult with companies on their return-to-office strategies, it usually starts with, “The CEO wants more people in the office.” What follows is an awkward conversation in which I explain that the leadership’s feeling of a lack of control or worries about underutilized real estate don’t matter to employees. Instead, management needs to be retrained in how to lead hybrid office-and-home organizations and communicate empathetically with employees. For me, the big concern is that people who have a best friend at work are more likely to stay, and people who have three friends at work are almost twice as likely to feel happy about their life. Unless your company has a fantastic remote culture program, you need people to connect in person, or the employees you value will leave for a bit more money because they have no relationships to keep them rooted. People need time together, but the question is how much and how often.

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Just because something is convenient doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Just as employers need to change the way they’re thinking about the office, so do a lot of workers. Our social skills get weaker the less they are used, and it can be uncomfortable to connect in person, but the solution isn’t hiding at home. If a close friend told you that their legs got weak from sitting too much, and instead of walking around to strengthen them, they will just stop walking, you would probably be concerned about their choice. We should probably be concerned when people tell us they never want to go back to meeting in person. Organizations would likely benefit from programs and resources focused on driving better social habits, bonding, and soft skills.

Companies that aren’t focused on culture, trust, and belonging will continue to have a “battle” over a return to the office. Eventually leadership will get frustrated with a lack of office attendance and will either mandate more days or use it as an excuse for cost-cutting layoffs. Neither of which makes the office more appealing.

There are no perfect solutions, but for hybrid work to have a chance, companies need to ask some important questions: Why do we gather, and how do we foster meaningful relationships? And then bring the answers to life so that people are actually excited by the opportunity to be part of a thriving office culture.

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Jon Levy is the author of “You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence.” Follow him on Twitter @JonLevyTLB.