Over the course of the pandemic, only one thing has been certain: Nothing is certain. Thanks to cresting waves of infection, shifting vaccine timetables, and unprecedented supply chain snarls, most offices have written, torn up, and rewritten their back-to-office plans multiple times by now.
Some degree of confusion is probably inevitable, but that doesn't mean employees have endless patience for ever-shifting plans. As top VC firm Andreessen Horowitz recently pointed out, remote work policies aren't just about remote work. They're also a subtle sign of what a company's leadership personally prefers. And they often reveal more about a company's culture than they intend to.
Rigid, overly prescriptive, or poorly communicated plans convey to your employees that those at the top are untrusting, bumbling, and unempathetic. Send those signals and, in the current employment environment, many of your best employees may decide to try their luck elsewhere.
How do you send better signals? Recently, in her Culture Study newsletter, journalist Anne Helen Peterson suggests bosses scan their latest, greatest back-to-work policies for a handful of red flags that are likely to send terrible messages to your team.
1. Last-minute communication
As the boss it might be relatively simple for you to decide to change the date on which you're requiring employees to be back in the office. So why not go ahead and do that in response to rapidly changing conditions?
Because, Peterson notes, just because it's easy for you doesn't mean it's not hellish for some members of your team. Citing a friend whose company abruptly changed a January return date for one in November, she writes, "Think of how this mandate is affecting people who'd been in the process of arranging child or elder care assistance for January.'' In an incredibly difficult child care market, "it is also extremely difficult to arrange for new child care solutions in the middle of the semester," she notes.
Lack of thoughtful, long-term communication about back-to-office plans isn't just a massive logistical headache for those with caregiving responsibilities (as well as a source of performance-killing stress). It's also a sign that an organization doesn't understand or empathize with the struggles of parents and other people with complicated lives. Is that really the message you want to send?
2. Mandating Fridays in the office
There are legitimate reasons bosses might be concerned about leaving the choice of which days to work from home entirely up to employees, including surveys showing that basically everyone wants to take three-day weekends. Allow that to happen and offices could be unproductively deserted some days and uncomfortably overcrowded other days. But Peterson insists that strict limits on working from home on Fridays are still a serious red flag about a company's culture.
These blanket bans are a sign of a company "that fundamentally does not trust their workers to complete their work," she writes. "When you mandate office attendance until 5 p.m. on a Friday, you are communicating that 'good work' is not the quality of the work, or even necessarily the quantity of the work, but an arbitrary understanding of when the company says work should be completed."
Good workers get the message and either learn to put on productivity theater for the benefit of the higher ups, burn out pushing their brains to produce more when they're running on empty, or just get fed up with the lack of trust and quit.
3. Ignoring feedback
What's worse than not asking for feedback from your employees about what policies would work best for them? Asking them and then totally ignoring what they tell you.
"It's like asking someone to pick where you want to get take-out, listening to them carefully, nodding attentively, and then choosing what you wanted anyway. It indicates that a company's leadership team either doesn't understand or doesn't respect that other people work differently than they do, which is particularly noxious given that most senior leadership is older and/or doesn't have primary caregiving responsibilities," Peterson writes. "This isn't just the sign of a bad back-to-office plan, but of pretty poor leadership style."
These are only a few of the red flags that Peterson mentions in her long, thoughtful newsletter, so definitely check it out if you're worried about the signals that your efforts to settle everyone back into some post-pandemic normal might be sending. But the bottom-line takeaway for bosses is that your back-to-office plan conveys more than when you expect to see butts in seats. It's also a mirror held up to your leadership. Make sure what your team sees there is flattering.