How can leaders support the return to the office


Recent data suggests that leaders can expect a wave of job switching as England returns to “Plan A”.


According to a survey of over 1000 people, about one in six white-collar workers are considering changing their jobs because they are forced to return to the office, increasing the pressures of the Great Resignation. The research found that while failure to increase pay and poor bonus scheme were the most common reasons to look elsewhere, being forced to return to the office also played a significant part. A fifth of respondents also feared that leaders will favour employees who will decide to be present in the office, increasing concerns about proximity bias.


Addressing the proximity bias


Compared with employees who work from the office, remote team members can often feel at a disadvantage, because of proximity bias – the preferential treatment shown to those who are physically closer to their managers. Proximity bias, like any bias, is unconscious. It’s a part of our cognitive decision-making process, shaped by evolution to enable us to make very quick judgments, which typically prioritise our safety. However, the use of these mental shortcuts doesn’t always lead to the level of accuracy we think they do.


Proximity bias is an incorrect assumption that employees will produce better results if they are physically present in the office and can be seen doing their jobs. This has been a long-standing expectation of businesses pre-pandemic, however today, with new technology and communication styles, it’s no longer true. And yet there is still this expectation, creating cultural conflicts and divides between the office and remote workers.


With different employees spending significantly different amounts of time in the office, being aware of proximity bias is key – both, from an employee and a leadership perspective. Some organisations see success with standardising the number of days in the office per week, while others rotate who is in the office when, or introduce regular in-person check-ins between managers and employees. Whatever the path, it’s worth spending time to recognise and address this bias.


The transformation of how and why we work


The pandemic has prompted a profound rethink of how we work, and organisations have spent the last two years looking at transforming their working models, as well as their cultures and values. LinkedIn’s data suggests that globally, the demand for remote and hybrid work continues to sky-rocket - in just one year, roles offering remote work went from 6.5 percent in November 2020 to 12.6 percent in November 2021.


The past two years have also seen employees rethink why they work, and what they most want to do with their careers and lives. Data from The World Economic Forum shows that employees are voting with their feet - in October 2021, the share of employees changing roles was up 25 percent compared to the pre-pandemic period two years earlier. Employees are also more likely to transition into new industries, with better compensation, alignment with their values and career progression being the key factors in changing industries.


In this new era, listening to employees is critical. So is recognising and rewarding employees with in-person or virtual kudos for their achievements. In addition, both, the leadership team and employees must be transparent in their communication and understanding of hybrid plans, and everyone should receive the same information at the same time, and in a timely manner. Because no matter where they are based, no one wants to feel that they’re the last to know.


At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at simon@askacumen.com.