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How Leaders Can Coax Their Top Employees Back To The Office

Ken Ashley’s a Cushman & Wakefield tenant rep practicing globally for over 25 years. He lives in ATL and thinks about real estate. A lot. 

Let’s fast forward the tape to the beginning of 2022: The global pandemic is in the history books and the economy is booming again. You take the temperature at your company and people are whistling while they work. It’s nice to see so many smiling over the video meetings but you yearn for the days back in the office. The sports talk and the chit-chat that seemed so meaningless now is something you miss. “How the heck do I get people back for office banter and after-work beers,” you ask? An avalanche of ink is being spilled on the whole work-from-home phenomenon. Given that we have thousands of companies and millions of workers with widely differing realities, the crystal ball is going to remain cloudy for some time. Let’s get the global illness handled first, shall we? But in this imagined future, let’s consider how you can get employees back in the office. 

The Tip-Top

We can examine one class of workers and have a pretty good understanding of what work will be like for them in Q1 2022: knowledge workers who are at the top of their game. These are top consultants, senior law partners, top tech executives and leading corporate salespeople. As a class, these superstars really move the needle in their respective marketplaces. They’ve risen to the top of their professions and are viewed as leaders. I bet most of them are quoted in the media constantly and are seen as masters of their universe.

What do they all have in common? They control their schedule. They get compensated, bonused and recognized based on their outputs — not their time in the office. Early in a career, we trade our time for money. At the rockstar level, they trade their value for money. They will not go to the office just to go.

Everyone in leadership assumes these superstars are doing the right thing for the company no matter where they are, and hey, if they want to walk the dog or do laundry on Tuesday afternoon, no problemo. Our top producers are superstars who get large dollops of corporate benevolence and vast amounts of schedule and locational flexibility.

Leavening

There is just one problem to this complete freedom, and it has nothing to do with the top performer. The problem is the rest of the company. The rest of the team, aspiring to be a top performer, yearns to be around our leading executives and their effect on the rest of the team is like leaven in bread. This association has real benefits, but it also creates and enhances culture. Everyone wants to hang with a winner, after all.

A senior executive at a Fortune 100 company recently told me his philosophy on managing large populations of salespeople. He said, “You have to manage the middle. The senior folks will always figure it out and the subpar performers will be leaving our organization sooner than they realize.” He went on, “The continued growth and success of the mighty middle is a needle mover and always will be.”

Oh, Please Come Back to The Office

So how do we get our top 1% to come back to the sticks-and-bricks we pay so much for? The recipe will differ in every instance, but there are some common themes we can already see.

1. The physical design needs to be leading-edge. Yes, I know, you painted and installed new carpet before the pandemic, but that was so 2019. Now we need to consult with our architects to create a less dense environment that encourages meetings over heads-down work. Sure, you can make the space bright and fun and post your company’s values on the “hero” wall. Remember though, we have to provide our rockstars with something they can’t get on a video meeting from Vail: a place to assemble the troops bursting with the latest technology.

2. Clean is the new green. We must assure everyone that they are breathing clean air, touching frequently cleaned surfaces and generally operating in a safe environment. For example, take a look at what the airlines and hotels are saying in their advertising. What is your corporate version of this campaign? You must be authentic in what you are doing in the physical space, but also messaging the “safe story” to the entire company. This is critical to rebuilding trust in the office.

3. Adopt the use of the office as part of the corporate imperative. In March 2020, we had a wholesale evacuation of virtually every office in America. “Do Not Come To Work” was messaged widely. Fear ruled the day and we were encouraged to rapidly adapt. Well, we have to undo that messaging. It is healthy, productive and expected that you come in. Hello Ms. Top Performer, we need you to spend time with the team. We can negotiate how many days and when, but we expect you will be here with some frequency.

4. Lead by example. Remember, in this scenario, we’ve jumped to Q1 of 2022, so we’ve run a lot of road since the present day. The C-suite has to use the office and fly the flag. Hold meetings, town halls and get-togethers of all kinds. Cushman & Wakefield’s recent “From Pandemic to Performance” paper stated, “Leadership will need to plan for in-person interaction and managers may have to actively dictate in-office team meetings. This can come in many forms, from using software to manage and reserve office space, to team managers mandating in-office attendance on certain days of the week or month, or corporate executives having greater socialization events, retreats and conference-like ‘all hands’ sessions.”

Eventually, the FOMO (fear of missing out) will tug at the emotions of even the most senior performer. “What if that other top sales pro gets some advantage that I do not?” could be the thinking. It feels better, doesn’t it, being onsite? Having the senior performers socializing with the mighty middle in the office will make another group of people smile: your investors when they see amazing financial results from real collaboration.


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