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When Your Team Doesn't Want To Return To The Office

As talk begins about opening back-up the economy, and many companies are discussing how to safely bring people back into offices, many many individuals are not able to make a decision about staying at home. Many individuals will find it difficult - or impossible - to speak up to their bosses. They will be fearful that if they speak up they might be risking their jobs. There will be social pressure - from bosses and from other colleagues - to put on a brave face and come back to work.  I'm not making the case for whether employees should go back to work sooner than they feel 100% comfortable - rather I think it's important for all employees to feel comfortable expressing their concerns to their managers.

So, during this crazy time, it will be important for you, as a manager, to make sure that your team feels comfortable speaking up.  

Before we get into the how - how to make sure your team feels comfortable speaking up - let’s first understand the why. Why is it really hard to speak-up and disagree, especially during this time of corona? 

1. We subconsciously defer to people in positions of power or those who we perceive to have more expertise than us. This is how the Challenger crashed and how the Bay of Pigs occurred. The group members did not challenge authority, despite having the data that showed that the decision the authority figures were making was wrong (and as individuals get more power, they tend to listen to dissenting opinions less - a double whammy!!). Our team members might assume that we have more information or expertise than them about going back into the office because of a position of power, and therefore not question the choice. But, as the pandemic has clearly shown, most of us are flying blind when it comes to decisions.

2. We come from a culture of wanting to be strong and are encouraged to not show our emotions in the workplace. An expression of emotion in the workplace might be perceived as a weakness, therefore our team members might not be comfortable expressing anxiety or fear about this upcoming change. The tendency to quash our emotions at work may be even more pronounced by gender, race or other differences. An employee, because of their gender or background, might feel pressure to be seen as brave, not anxious or scared which may be their true feelings. 

3. Our workplace is a social system and we feel the same social pressures to conform, to maintain our status, and to not be cast as outsiders as we did in 7th grade. 


Any good student of psychology has heard of the Hawthorne Effect - when research subjects change their behavior because they are being observed by researchers. What fewer students realize is that the power of the Hawthorne Studies - a research project in a Western Electric factory in the 1920s - lies in the finding that the workplace is a social system. And that the social dynamics of groups at work has a far greater impact on productivity than other incentives or punishments. Yup, we behave the way we do at work not because of bonuses or accolades, but because we want to align to group norms and not be shunned by our colleagues. We want to do a good job so that we don't let our team down, not because of some "punishment" that might be doled out.  

There are positive elements to this, but what this means in the time of corona is that employees will go to extreme lengths to not let their colleagues down. We are so worried about disappointing others that we might do things (e.g., come back to work sooner than we feel comfortable) that are counter to how we actually feel.  


Okay - so now is the time for the how. How can you help your team to speak up about the anxieties they may feel about returning to work in the upcoming weeks and months? 

  • Build into your management practice (e.g., your 1:1 meetings with your team members) questions that ask how your team members are feeling below the surface (and be quiet and listen when they start to talk!). Former surgeon general Vivek Murthy calls this the “What’s up below?” question and it helps to go beyond the niceties. In building this into your practice, you’ll start to make your team feel comfortable sharing how they are truly feeling. Don’t know where to begin? Here’s a list of questions that can help you gauge employee emotional well-being during this crazy time.  

  • Appoint a devil’s advocate for team sessions when you’re talking about return to work. Make sure the opposing view point is always at the table for these sessions. Not only does it ensure that you are not all using the same arguments, it also provides space for somehow who might disagree with the group to state his opinions.  

  • Send around a short, anonymous survey that gauges your team’s discomfort (or comfort) with decisions. Ask, in general, their anxiety levels about the pandemic, what they are most worried about and how you could better support them. Your team members are likely coming from different places: some team members might be most afraid of losing their jobs, others might be afraid of getting sick, and others might be anxious about having to maintain a large workload with kids at home.


  • When making the decision about returning to the office, change the framing of the discussion from the assumption of: when are we going back to the office? to Why would we go back to the office? For many organizations, we are starting from an assumption of going back to the office, and then solving how we make it happen. But changing the lens to not going back and then arguing why we should go back can shed a different perspective on the situation. For some organizations, there isn’t a compelling reason to go back to the office: our cultures may be better now that the whole team is remote, people may be more productive, and costs to the organization may be lessened. 

When we are in an ambiguous social situation and don’t know how we should act, we assume that others around us know more about what’s going on, and we therefore mimic / follow their behavior. This is a concept known as social proof, first coined by the incredible psychologist, Robert Cialdini. And, this concept - though developed in 1983 - is SPOT ON for the pandemic. None of us have any idea what to do. We follow the herd and assume that if someone is doing something, he must know a bit more than we do. So we follow along. The challenge is if we all follow along in the wrong direction. 

So help your team members feel comfortable speaking up and speaking out. As we move forward, we need voices of dissent on our teams, we need to make sure our teams feel comfortable expressing their dissent. Good luck as this next phase of our crazy world commences.


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