Back-to-the-office battles highlight a shift in workplace authority

Back-to-the-office battles highlight a shift in workplace authority

A CEO steps out of the corner office, looks into the abyss of a sparsely occupied floor, and only the abyss looks back. Perplexing questions arise: What kind of place is this and what kind of leader am I if so few people want to show up? What happened to my authority?

The hierarchy effect, already weakened before the pandemic, was further undermined by the living (and successful) experience of hybrid work. Mandates don’t seem to be working. And the new way of leading that executives developed during the pandemic, when managing a crisis, needs to be adapted again: All that openness and vulnerability – Zoom meetings at home giving glimpses into private life – may have captivated the leaders of their forces. of work. , but it is not necessarily effective now.

Leaders are facing more than a fight back in the office: they are struggling with a new post-pandemic identity.

Some responded by seeking to reassert some degree of traditional control. JPMorgan Chase, for example, couldn’t have been clearer in a recent staff memo when it instructed managing directors to be in the office five days a week “to lead by example.” Workers were not meeting the required target of three days a week in the office, the memo said, “and that must change.” The memo said managers could consider “corrective action” if their staff’s attendance levels didn’t improve.

Bank staff responded by lighting up its internal message board with criticism, leading to a comment block, according to Reuters.

“Colleagues got a taste of independence, if not freedom,” says Laura Empson, professor of professional services business management at Bayes Business School at the City, University of London. “We were effective in isolation. We are not going to automatically accept authority as we have done before.”

Eve Poole, author and leadership expert, compares this moment of return to the office to the paradigm shift that occurred after World War II.

Then, too, leaders had to adapt to a world in which deference and obedience could no longer be assumed, given the devastating (and equalizing) experience of war.

In today’s environment, the nervous leader who demands attention risks creating greater presenteeism rather than better results. “There’s also a chance that sycophants will haunt offices to overtake those who don’t,” says Poole.

“Leaders who want to maintain authority need to be good at maintaining control,” she adds. “They will need to be great at enabling and anticipating – more a coach on the side than a player on the field – and fabulous storytellers to build culture and loyalty.” Maybe that’s what employees deserve, she suggests: “We’ve proved that we can be trusted, even in an extreme situation, so why don’t you trust us now?”

Some leaders remain convinced that showing up physically might work better. Andy Jassy, ​​Amazon’s chief executive, wrote in his 2022 letter to shareholders: “Many of Amazon’s best inventions had their breakthrough moments when people stayed behind after a meeting and worked through ideas on a whiteboard or continued the conversation on the way back from a meeting or simply showing up at a teammate’s office later that day with another thought.”

To get workers back in the office, leaders will have to get the tone and message right. “Too much informality can be harmful,” said Empson. “People may like you better, but will they work for you?”

But even in a world where employees have more autonomy and flexibility, Kevin Ellis, chairman and senior partner at PWC in London, said people still want leaders to create “guards”. And the safeguards “also help leaders act with consistency and confidence,” he said.

Roger Steare, a consultant to corporate executives, cautions that the desire to establish authority misses the mark: The best work happens when there are strong human relationships in the workplace.

“It’s a little narcissistic and presumptuous of CEOs to believe they should have military authority,” he says. “A good job is a team effort. If someone seeks authority, he has a problem. You can’t enforce it: people choose to follow you – or not. Talented people will vote with their feet and walk away.”

His comments echo Peter Drucker’s management principle, which says that bosses should manage people not as “recruits” but as “volunteers.”

Stephen Carter, chief executive of Informa, a multinational events group, said his company demands “very little” when it comes to getting back to the office. “The only guideline I give when they ask me about it at town halls is ‘to be more than not to be,’” he said. “Not weekly – but over a period of time. You make a decision for yourself and your team. We are not a ‘presence’ culture,” he added.

Ultimately, leadership authority is bestowed by willing followers. Terri Kelly, who led high-tech and textile company WL Gore for 13 years, until 2018, was best expressed in a discussion with management guru Gary Hamel in 2010: “One of my associates said, ‘If you call a meeting, and nobody shows up, you are probably not a leader, because nobody is willing to follow you.’”

Stefan Stern is a journalist and author. Her next book, ‘The Lady Macbeth Guide to Ambition’, will be published next year.


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