In a recent interaction with the Chief of Staff at a Fortune 500 company, I was curious when he mentioned that he’s facing immense pressure from his CEO to get people back into the office. This Chief of Staff is a strong propagator of hybrid work, but he isn’t finding the internal support to make it happen. When I asked him “why” his senior leadership feels a return to office is the best solution, there was a long pause and that silence said it all.
As a researcher who focuses on Organisational culture and leadership, I wonder how many business leaders take the time to ask themselves “the why” when making such big decisions about where work should happen. How many are willing to question the traditional mindsets and assumptions entrenched in their organisational DNA around where and how work should happen?
As organisations chart their post-pandemic talent strategies, we’re witnessing a fast-changing debate about whether people should work in the office or remotely and how much time should be spent in each location. Elon Musk famously became the latest spokesperson for the push to return to the office. “Everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week,” he clarified in a follow-up memo outlining his decision to make Tesla Inc. employees return to the office or start packing. He added, “If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.”
This is one of many examples of return to office announcements that are being met with pushback from their workforce and causing a lot of debate.
Without leaders questioning old assumptions and being open to shifting their traditional beliefs, they are bound to be missing out.
Asking the right questions
The pandemic and the social upheaval over the last two and half years have fundamentally changed people’s relationship with work. People are not only experiencing a new world at work but also living in one. We’re all re-evaluating the role and importance of everything in our lives, including, work. It’s no surprise, then, that people’s fundamental idea of how to connect has also changed dramatically.
During the fieldwork for our recent research “From always connected to omni-connected”, we found several examples where organisations are still stuck in the dialogue around the location—what would a return to office look like? How do you get workers back in the office? How many days and hours?
Our research challenges the assumption that working only on-site makes people feel more connected. Our research uncovers that the location of work does not determine the strength of connection to their work, teams or to the organisation. Our findings show that workplace culture thrives in relationships, not places and spaces.
People who work on-site, compared to those who work in hybrid or remote workplaces, feel the least connected of the three groups we studied — 42% of on-site workers say they feel “not connected” versus 36% hybrid and 22% fully remote.
Why? They lacked flexibility and the tools to be most productive and connected; and experienced a greater sense of inequity.
It is a critical dialogue to have, but what we find more relevant are a few questions every business leader needs to ask themselves: How can you unlock people’s potential so that they feel connected and inspired and can deliver their best work, irrespective of where they are working? How can you empower your frontlines as well as your remote and hybrid workers, provide them with equal opportunities to advance and grow, fuel creativity and imagination, and drive innovation that will in turn help propel the organization forward? How can you cultivate a culture of connection so that every employee feels a sense of purpose and belonging and finds meaning in their roles and in the organization?
Rethink space and place
To solve this, we need a new language and framework to capture the complexity of connection today, as it requires transcending location, time zones and different ways of working. We call this framework omni-connected experiences. It occurs when people are connected and feel a sense of pride in their work regardless of where the work takes place when people feel connected in a way that they freely share ideas, their individuality and move in the same direction as a team, and when people feel a sense of commitment and alignment to their organization’s purpose and values.
When people are connected to their work, they’re more inspired, and driven and they deliver their best work. They’re learning and growing in their roles and moving forward in their careers.
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Workplace culture thrives in relationships, not in places and spaces.
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Unfortunately, too many conversations about organizational culture are still anchored to space and place. And many leaders don’t understand the lack of connection at work. Our research revealed that people believe leaders generally overestimate the connectedness of their people by 2X. Only one in six people surveyed felt they were benefitting from an omni-connected experience at work.
Why culture and connection matter more than ever
The numbers bear it out. A culture of connection that’s fostered by omni-connected experiences produces major benefits for people and the business. We think it is critical for businesses to understand this because truly meaningful human relationships lead to truly meaningful growth for businesses. Omni-connected experiences that result in a heightened sense of personal—and measurable business—impact, thrive through vibrant, human relationships.
The opportunity that connection offers is significant. We found that when people feel highly connected to each other, their leaders and their work, their companies stand to gain a 7.4% revenue growth boost per year. Omni-connection also builds trust, with 29% of omni-connected workers saying they feel more likely to experience a deeper level of trust in their organization. Additionally, being omni-connected accounts for 59% of an employee’s intention to stay in their job, and over 90% of omni-connected people say they can be productive anywhere
Where should CEOs start?
So now that the reasons for omni-connected experiences are clear, as are the benefits of delivering these experiences, we need to consider where we begin to meet people’s needs and unlock their potential at work. Given the importance of creating these experiences, business leaders need to know what steps they should be taking and cannot rely on approaches that have worked in the past.
Our research identifies the management behaviours leaders should not only start embracing, but also those they should stop demonstrating to create omni-connected experiences and lay the foundational norms that foster a culture of connection. The shift to embrace omni-connected experiences can feel overwhelming at first. But it’s about creating your organization’s unique roadmap to move from outdated cultural norms to people-centred, omni-connected work experiences.
Embracing the Omni-connected mindset
You can strengthen a culture of connection by embracing a new set of cultural norms that encourage omni-connected experiences. Below is a summary of key shifts in the cultural norm and leadership behaviours for this new era of work.
Novartis, a leading global pharmaceutical company, has taken this to the next level by flipping the pyramid and moving from a top-down, hierarchical culture to one that is inspired, curious and unbossed. They no longer have a team in support of a boss; they have a boss in support of a team. They want their leaders to focus on nurturing a psychologically safe environment in which people are willing to speak their mind and bring diverse experiences, skills and perspectives to the table[i].
To truly embrace a culture of connection and successfully incorporate omni-connected experiences into their business, leaders must embrace new mindsets, lead with clarity, and manage through autonomy. Shifting focus from oversight to outcomes and from rigidity to flexibility pays dividends across the board—leading to better, more productive, happier, truly connected experiences for everyone. This will be true wherever you are, whenever you work, and with whomever, you work alongside.
[i] Winning Secrets: Novartis' 'Choice with Responsibility' programme makes for an inspired, curious, and unbossed culture (humanresourcesonline.net)