Why your people don’t want to come back to the office

This article first appeared in the September issue of Australian Printerauthored by Meqa Smith

It feels like the business world has been turned upside down over the past few years. COVID closures, remote working, The Great Resignation – an ongoing economic trend where employees voluntarily resign from their jobs en masse – and now, the refusal to return to the office is what many employers are facing.

There’s no doubt that we’re experiencing a dramatic change in the way we live and work, catalysed by the pandemic, but the forces at play here go beyond the lock-down related shift to physically working from home.

The way human beings are hard-wired, ‘The Human Operating System’, hasn’t changed since we lived in tribes, but our world has changed so dramatically and so fast that it no longer resembles the environment we’re hard-wired for.

This process has been going on for decades and is the underlying cause of so many of our social problems of today including depression, anxiety and addiction.

Why, you may ask. It’s because human beings are hard-wired to live in a world where each person belongs to a tribe of about 35 to 50 people, has a specific valuable role in the survival of the tribe and each tribe is 100 per cent focused on survival.

To make sure we stayed put and did our work, our brains were hard-wired to associate not having a purposeful role in the shared mission with rejection resulting in death, as this would actually have been the case back then.

Fast-forward to today though and our brains are still craving the same things, even though our world doesn’t work that way anymore.

We crave three things:

  1. A shared sense of purpose (mission)
  2. A clear role (being valuable)
  3. The ability to achieve our mission (belonging)

For our brains, having no value means rejection, and rejection means death. These primal needs are to our brains like oxygen and water are to our bodies. So, even without us knowing that they are, they drive our behaviour every day.

This is why we choose certain clothes, cars, restaurants and even careers. We want the people we feel are important, to see us as valuable. We also want to be accepted; to belong.

Our choices serve as a shorthand to the world around us for who we are and what we value. That’s why we love brands. Brands have done the hard work of creating an associated meaning. Now all we have to do is buy something that others can see with that brand on it, and we associate ourselves with those qualities.

The reason people don’t want to come back to the office is because they don’t have that sense of belonging, that sense of shared purpose, nor do they feel valuable. 

But, they have to work to live. So, if they can do that in a more convenient way, which is by not coming into the office, then of course they will.

The truth is, people haven’t wanted to come to the office and be forced to ‘play nice’ with a bunch of other people they share nothing with, don’t feel connected to, and where they’re watched constantly and expected to wear things, say things and do things in an uncomfortably unnatural way. 

They used to have to, now they don’t. 

The only way you’ll ever get people back in the office is to create a sense of shared purpose, show them how they are each valuable and give them the chance to experience belonging.

Caveat – this won’t mean everybody rushes back full-time. But it will mean that you’ll be able to have some in-office days in the mix and you won’t need to waste money with ridiculously tone-deaf ideas like office Mardi Gras and ineffective bribes like free pizza. 

If you’ve got money to burn, spend it on employee salaries and bonuses. Think creatively about amazing experiences you can offer your people to say thank you, like a long weekend away at Seaworld Resort for a young family, a high-end dinner out for a couple, or an indulgent spa day for an employee who would never book it for themselves. 

Research shows that experiences leave lasting positive impacts on employees where cash bonuses do not.

Here’s a bonus point – if you can, come up with an experience that helps your team to understand what it feels like to be a customer, in a way that helps them experience the value that they deliver and the impact of this not being done in the way you need it to be delivered. 

The only real way to engage your people is through the ‘Human Operating System’.

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at editorial@sprinter.com.au.  

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