Change your leadership style, not your workers’ location

Our co-founder H. Michael Miley, Ph.D. was one of the 600 attendees of a recent DuPage County Regional Business Outlook and shares a cautionary tale

· Consulting,leadership,hybrid,remote

I’m honored to have been invited to the 14th annual DuPage County Regional Business Outlook: “What Now & What Next.” I arrived curious, excited, and flattered to be included in an event featuring prominent politicians and business people. One giant room with 600 attendees ranging from small business owners to bank executives to Illinois’ Lieutenant Governor. People networked and grabbed some food before sitting around eight-person tables to hear a series of well-prepared and generally engaging speakers.

Unfortunately, one of the speakers served as a reminder of how much work there is to be done to improve modern leadership practices around in-person vs hybrid and remote work environments. The speaker lost credibility when signaling that they expect to see an improved corporate culture by enacting an in-office mandate. I heard comments close to “the best connections happen around the water cooler,” “I can’t wait to see people working again,” and “we are better in person.” Even if their return-to-office policy is well thought out and addresses every employee’s needs, the language they chose shows a lack of inclusive leadership. I could hear people talking after the event and parroting these potentially off-base, if not destructive, positions. Worse, there was a clear “if they are doing it, we should too” tone in the discussions that left me frustrated and almost angry about the damage likely done to dozens of attending companies. If you attended (or read the content) and thought “see... they said our culture will improve if we go back to in-person work,” let me share cautionary tales from others who did it badly.

Your Old Culture Isn’t Waiting in the Office

Unfortunately, we’ve seen return-to-office mandates based on “protecting company culture” that went badly. Our clients’ experience would predict the speaker is in for a rough transition if they create a return-to-office mandate using the company culture excuse unless they are willing to radically change their leadership culture. To be clear, I’m not against returning to offices as long as it addresses and improves the worker’s experience. I am, however, against mandates that don’t recognize a simple reality: your culture changed when teams modernized during the Covid shutdowns. Simply going back to the office won’t return your culture to its previous state.

Experience shows that return-to-office mandates are often a cover for cultural problems caused by inflexible and/or ineffective leadership. Managing remote employees requires different skills and demands more of the manager’s time to engage with their direct reports. Many managers adapted well, but not all embraced the extra effort needed. We understand the appeal to leaders… they often want to return to an easier management style that doesn’t require as much time for purposeful connections.

But here’s the thing…. managing people well takes discipline and time regardless if you are in-person or remote. We hear from clients that they had their first experience with purposeful management connections only when Covid sent everyone home. When they were in the office, leaders relied on random connections or the ability to pull someone into their office in the moment. Leaders tell us they miss this dynamic environment because they feel they could be nimbler and more adaptive. Unfortunately, talking with their employees often revealed that the manager’s on-demand nature created resentment amongst the team. Those who got pulled in on demand reported chaotic calendar interruptions and long hours finishing things displaced by the manager. Worse, those who didn’t get called felt disconnected, undervalued, and worried about future promotions. “It’s hard being deliberate when your boss only talks to the firefighters. I had to make up reasons to be in front of my boss just to be seen as useful. Now that I’m remote, I can count on a weekly touchbase and my relationship with my boss is at its best. If we go back to the office, I worry I’ll have to start playing those get-the-boss’s-attention games.”

We’ve also heard reports that those being forced back to the office might show potentially passive-aggressive behaviors due to their resentment of the change. And it makes sense if we look at the employee’s perspective. Before Covid, employees might have given the company 12 hours or more of their day as they commuted to work, worked an eight-hour office day, had an hour’s lunch (often working), commuted home, and done more work in the evening. Studies showed that during Covid, many worked more hours because of the flexibility of their day and lack of commute. So, to the employee, a nine or ten-hour day with flexibility to get personal things done was more satisfying and more productive than being in the office. As companies force a return to the office in ways that don’t address the potential resentment, employees tell us that they now work a stricter eight-hour day. This is a further indicator that a return to the office does not equate to a return to previous work habits.

How Inclusive Was Your Old Culture?

Client feedback also reveals that when Covid forced a remote work environment, many employees from often marginalized communities felt relief from well-meaning managers who had inadvertently created in-office environments lacking inclusivity. In 2021, Alexandra Samuel and Tara Robertson noted that “some traditionally marginalized employees felt that conditions improved” as they moved to remote positions. Their article, “Don’t Let Hybrid Work Set Back Your DEI Efforts,” rightly focused on adapting management styles and policies to support remote workers. As we return to in-person, their words resonate again, serving as a reminder of what organizations need to consider to support their teams.

While most managers want to help their teams and likely feel their direct reports can tell them anything, many employees are loathe to share personal struggles for fear of negatively impacting their careers. Parents may want to spend more time with their children. Workers with invisible limitations may not want to navigate workplace accommodations and the politics that often accompany them. Being at the office may pose a risk to family members managing chronic health issues. Neurodivergent workers may thrive in remote work environments. Countless examples show returning to an office may lead to reduced productivity or employee satisfaction for many groups. So, where management considers working from home a privilege, many employees likely feel resentment about having to choose between working in the office and various personal challenges.

Even if your return-to-office policy is welcomed and fair to all, check with your HR staff to see what impact the policy might have on recruitment. Instead of hiring the best candidates regardless of geography, your policy likely means hiring the best people who are willing to live near and come into your office. This may dramatically reduce your ability to hire or retain top talent. Also, consider that remote contract work may be part of your company’s workflow. One of our clients reported that their workload spiked when they returned to the office as they had to take on additional duties previously handled by freelance workers. If written too rigidly, mandating a return to the office may force managers to stop using freelance workers. And, according to Ozimek (2022), “flexible models allow small-task outsourcing for situations where hiring a full-time equivalent would not be justified and where the overhead requirements of traditional temporary staffing solutions would slow the project or be cost-prohibitive.”

Plan for Change

Remember, your pre-pandemic culture isn’t subject to your return-to-office policy. More than likely, a desire to return to the office is because your current culture isn’t what you want it to be. If so, begin today to adapt your culture, not just where people work. Regardless of being in-office or remote, culture change starts by adapting your leadership approach. Openly and critically review your past and current cultures, define what you want from your new culture, and adapt your leadership to drive towards those goals.

Rebbecca Newton offered four steps towards co-creating culture change a 2023 Harvard Business Review article: “Retaining the Best of Your Culture Amid Organizational Change.”

· Clarify what you want to keep and act on it.

· Listen to concerns

· Know when you’re being nostalgic

· Marshal data

Anonymously ask your entire team about your current culture. What is missing? What got better? What got worse? What advantages are at risk if you go back to the office? How do we keep the positives and avoid the negatives? Our customers tell us that remote work often increases employee satisfaction and loyalty because of a better work/life balance and offers more inclusive hiring and promotion options. Work out a plan to use this data to help improve employees’ lives and increase company perceptions.

Start With Hybrid

There is ample evidence that remote work is more productive, employees are more engaged, more satisfied, less likely to quit, and often work longer hours than in-office employees (Williams, 2022). Many report they feel more recognized than their fully in-office counterparts (Grant, et al., 2024). The downside is that many remote workers felt the desire to stay busy and began to burn out as they generated unnecessary work to increase the time it took to finish various tasks (Waytz, 2023).

If your preference, despite this evidence, is to bring your team back to being in-person, consider starting with flexible hybrid policies that blend the benefits of being in the office and of being remote. Heidi Grant, Ginnie Carlier, and Frank Giampietro from the consulting firm Ernst & Young reported that the company’s 2024 survey of more than 27,000 employees found benefits to remote and in-person roles. They contend that hybrid policies may provide positive outcomes as employees experience the best of both worlds. “Employees know that leaders are eager for them to return to the office, so office policies that allow flexibility despite leader preferences signal that employee well-being is paramount” (Grant et al., 2024. p. 3). They also found that hybrid employees felt “more recognized and appreciated than fully in-person employees.” Finally, the Ernst & Young data showed great success when teams co-created their hybrid policies rather than working under a top-down, one-size-fits-all policy applied across the company. The lesson for leaders is that your hybrid policies work better than fully remote or fully in-office, especially when designed at the team level with employee input.

Final Thoughts

A return-to-office mandate may be well-meaning but only move forward with a flexible plan that addresses your employee’s needs, not your management’s nostalgia. Don’t assume you know why people prefer to work from home or that they will even tell you. Train your leadership team to use language that doesn’t exclude those away from the office. Regardless of geography, if your culture isn’t what you want it to be, start today to make it something to be proud of. Use this change process to help employees benefit from the best of in-person and the best of remote work. But be careful and worry about who your culture excludes. Finally, understand that protecting your culture begins with changing your leadership style, not your workers’ location.

Bottom Line: You have a choice. Either work hard to improve your current culture or work harder to overcome resentment if you return to the office with no plan to address culture change.





Grant, H., Carlier, G., & Giampietro, F. (2024). Using Data to Design Your Hybrid Work Policies. Harvard Business Review.

Newton, R. (2023). Retaining the Best of Your Culture Amid Organizational Change. Harvard Business Review 101(11). 

Ozimek, A., & Stanton, C. (2022). Remote Work Has Opened the Door to a New Approach to Hiring. Harvard Business Review 100(3). 

Samuel, A., & Robertson, T. (2021). Don’t Let Hybrid Work Set Back Your DEI Efforts. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 1–7. 

Waytz, A. (2023). Beware a Culture of Busyness. Harvard Business Review, 101(2), 58–67.

Williams, J. C. (2021). The Pandemic Has Exposed the Fallacy of the “Ideal Worker.” Harvard Business Review, 126–128. 


Photo courtesy  Ian Lee under CCv2 license.