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To Get Employees Back to the Office, Address These 4 Frictions


Nov. 18, 2022 Kellogg Insight

“Employers are stuck in the way things used to be, where employees have moved on,” observes David Schonthal, a clinical professor of strategy at the Kellogg School and coauthor of the best-selling book The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas

Resisting change is human nature, Schonthal says. But too often, when leaders try to implement a new idea or roll-out changes—like return-to-office mandates—they focus primarily on their own vision for the future of work, or alternatively, on hammering out nitty-gritty details. What can get lost in this is the broader challenges of overcoming inertia and resistance.

“Forces of resistance are present anytime you’re trying to convince somebody to make change, anytime you’re trying to inspire somebody to do something new,” Schonthal explains.

Schonthal and his colleague Loran Nordgren have identified four “frictions” that can derail any change or new idea from taking hold. Schonthal says that leaders who want employees to increase office time will have more success if they address some of these frictions head on.

Acknowledge That People Don’t Like Change—or Being Told What to Do 

Most of us have “an overwhelming desire to stick with things that are familiar,” Schonthal explains. Therefore, one of the primary frictions that leaders face when trying to make a change is inertia. 

After more than two years of remote or hybrid work, employees no longer see office work as the norm. “Something that was once status quo has become a foreign concept in a short period of time,” Schonthal says. 

At the same time, the dynamics between employers and employees have shifted during the pandemic. For one, many employees now value the autonomy they have gained more than they value their in-person interactions with their colleagues. They also feel emboldened by a hot job market. 

“At this moment, there are more positions open than talented people to fill them,” Schonthal says. “While this shift in the power balance may be tenuous given current market volatility, employees’ preferences changed just when economic conditions gave them a lot more chutzpah.”

This change in dynamics is amplifying another friction, that of “reactance,” or our natural aversion to being changed—being told what to do—by others. 

“When employees feel like they are being required to come back into the office at certain times, they may view such a mandate as a frontal assault on the autonomy they gained during the height of the work-from-home era,” Schonthal says.

Seed Ideas Early and Often

But while a certain amount of inertia and reactance may be inevitable, there are things that leaders can do to ease the transition, says Schonthal.

He points out that people don’t respond well to big announcements that surprise them. On the contrary, we are more likely to accept significant changes when we’re introduced to the idea over time. So he advises that leaders seed designs about the return to office into internal communications early and often. 

“Make sure that you’re not asking somebody to commit to something the first time they hear it,” he says. “The more frequently people hear about something, the more open to it they will be when the time comes to make a decision—because they’ve had time to get used to the idea. In this way, unfamiliar new ideas have time to become more familiar to the audience.”

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