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It's the Autonomy, Stupid!

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

By David Schonthal

Rewind the clock to early March 2020 and poll employees about their preferred mode of working: in an office with their colleagues or alone in their spare bedroom or kitchen. Which do they pick?

Surely, a fringe case or two wants to work at home. But the vast majority prefer to go into the office.

Then, ‘the unpleasantness’ of mid-March 2020 shows up. And here we are, two years later. Working from home has become the norm, and the idea of working in the office is now the foreign concept.

However, employers are tired of paying for empty office space and want their workers back under one ceiling. Many, if not most, do not want a new norm, believing a full row of cubicles equals better productivity and good management requires supervising the workday.

They are busy drafting back-to-office policies to be ready once government and health officials signal the OK. And, to soften the blow, some are devising fuel-based approaches to entice employees back to their lives of commuting and face-to-face meetings around the conference table.

What is a fuel-based approach? They think if they make the office a more inviting destination, people will want to be there. So, they load up the goodies: Let’s pay for people’s commutes. Let’s give them free lunches. Let's talk about how we’re sanitizing the desks and common areas…all in service of making the idea of the office more desirable.

If they are not tempting employees with food, employers are souping up the workplace itself.

The Wall Street Journal reports: “Businesses trying to wean employees off remote work and lure them back to the office are spending more than ever on upscale workspaces, reaching deep into their pockets to pay high rents for modern, amenity-rich buildings.”

Trying to solve the wrong problem

We could spend hours debating employers’ assumptions about productivity and management. But what is clear, based on an understanding of human psychology, is the well-intentioned carrots they are devising are misguided. It’s a classic case of Friction Theory at work.

The problem isn’t office-desirability. It’s that in these last two years, workers have gained something they value greatly: autonomy.

They now can choose to a large degree when they work and how they work, molding the job around family needs or other interests, whether hitting the gym or walking the dog.

A primary reason many employees are resisting returning to the office is not because working there isn’t attractive enough. It’s because employers – perhaps without appreciating what they are doing – are threatening to take away employees’ autonomy.

Employers who understand that distinction will have a much easier, and ultimately more successful, transition to the next normal – because, like it or not, the old normal is not coming back.

Power shift at work

Employee autonomy isn’t the only change we’ve seen in American work life since March 2020. Today, not only can workers control their workday like never before, the same is true of work itself. Employers used to hold a power advantage over workers, many of whom were reluctant to leave a job even if they hated it, fearful they wouldn’t find another. Now, for every talented person, there are probably dozens of jobs available for them. The power balance has shifted and with it has come the Reactance we’re now seeing around returning to the office.

So, the right question for employers to ask is not, “How do I make coming back to the office more attractive?” It is, “How do I preserve for employees some of the autonomy that they have come to value?”

In other words, employers need to shift their focus from fuel-based mindset to a friction-based one. Reducing friction isn’t about holding up shiny lures to attract people. It’s about removing elements that make humans resistant to change.

How to get everyone on board

In this case, the first step toward reducing employee friction would be inviting them to co-design their new work model, rather than imposing a top-down, one-size-fits all policy, especially one that pretends the past two years did not happen.

Better yet, to minimize the powerful friction of Reactance bosses would do well to engage employees in co-designing a few experiments to determine the best model for all. Employees might want autonomy and flexibility. For companies, it’s productivity and growth. The challenge is designing a bridge that satisfies both.

The key to accomplishing this is to engage workers in the process.

When framing the process as an experiment, employers and employees alike agree to see at the end of a discreet period what works and what doesn’t. If employers are transparent about the process and frank with the results, even if the outcome is, “We're tried this, and we're down 25 percent this quarter, so we've got to tweak it a bit” employees that have been invited into the process will not feel it has been imposed on them. They will feel a sense of inventorship.

They will have retained autonomy, not only in their lives, but in the process that governs a major part of their lives.

So much about the future, short- and long-term, is still uncertain. But one thing we can be sure of is the idea of autonomy as an employee value proposition – in hiring and retention – is here to stay.

Employers who engage workers in discussions about it will surely stand out.

David Schonthal is the Clinical Professor and Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at the Kellogg School of Management and coauthor of the Wall Street Journal bestseller The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas.

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