In a remote Russian village, there once lived a frog who sat contently in a rut. Despite the pleas of his fellow amphibians to venture out and experience a life of freedom, the stubborn frog refused to make the effort to jump out of the rut. He preferred to stay in the familiar, even if it meant limiting his potential.
One day, a horse-drawn carriage approached, and in a split second, the frog leaped out of the rut to avoid being crushed. It was a moment of urgency that forced the frog to take action and change its habits without hesitation. This story is often used to illustrate how a sense of urgency can sometimes be the catalyst for behavioral shifts, even if those behaviors are deeply ingrained.
The sudden shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of such a dramatic behavioral change driven by an external shock. When the pandemic hit, businesses around the world were forced to adapt quickly and transition their operations to a remote work model. Employees and leaders alike were thrust into a new way of working that offered flexibility and freedom.
However, as the pandemic started to recede and businesses began to reopen, there was a surprising trend emerging. Many leaders and employees who had grown accustomed to the freedom of remote work were returning to physical offices. This reversal was influenced by new work requirements imposed by organizations.
To understand this trend, Professor Schlevogt introduced the “Inverted office power pyramid” model. This model explores the various levels of influence on office mandates, including organizational economics, behavioral economics, leadership and managerial factors, and personal preferences. By analyzing these factors, we can gain insights into why leaders are calling their employees back to the office.
At the leadership and managerial level, it has long been believed that effective leadership requires being physically present in an office setting. However, Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter’s research challenged this notion. He found that effective managers and leaders often act in a less systematic and formal manner than previously thought. They engage in informal meetings and interactions, allowing them to develop networks and get a sense of the state of work.
This concept of “leadership in the hallway” suggests that personal contact and spontaneous interactions are crucial for effective leadership. Virtual substitutes, such as virtual water coolers, have proven to be ineffective replacements for the informal interactions that occur in the office. The reliance on virtual leadership makes it difficult to role-model behavior, inspire others, and drive transformative change.
Furthermore, there is a growing gap in leadership within organizations today. The focus on compliance and complex regulations has overshadowed the importance of creativity and innovation. Leaders are now recognizing the need for personal contact to effectively lead and develop their teams.
Additionally, organizational development imperatives play a role in the return to physical offices. Certain processes, such as collaboration and competition, are better suited for in-person interactions. Team production, where the output is collectively created by the group, cannot be divided and assigned to remote employees working in isolation. The richness of in-the-flesh communication cannot be replicated in virtual exchanges.
Top leaders at renowned companies like Amazon, BlackRock, JPMorgan, and News Corp. have highlighted the importance of office work in organizational development. They argue that intensive collaboration and competition require a physical presence. Remote work may offer flexibility, but it hinders the success of team production and limits the ability to effectively develop an organization.
In conclusion, while the COVID-19 pandemic initially led to a shift towards remote work, the return to physical offices is driven by a combination of leadership needs and organizational development imperatives. The frog in the rut demonstrates how urgency can prompt behavioral change in the short term, but in the long run, familiarity and the need for effective leadership and collaboration bring us back to the office.