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‘Return to office’: why collaboration and flexibility aren’t opposites

12th June 2023

Companies around the world are balancing the needs of their employees with the needs of their businesses. They want to offer flexible working, but they also want to foster collaboration – or worse, justify expensive office overheads.

We tell ourselves this is a problem created by Covid, and use phrases like ‘return to the office’.

But the problem is much deeper than that. 

It’s partly about the entry of Gen Z and Millennials into the workforce. Younger people who see the futility of compartmentalising their time between eight hours in the office during the weekdays and then squeezing their lives into the evenings and weekends.

But it’s also about human nature. Humans don’t want to be told what to do – they want to have a say.

What’s the problem?

The phrase ‘work-life balance’ is used a lot in this context. But if you’ve followed my story or read my book, you’ll know that I don’t believe in doing what everyone else does.

And I don’t want that for you either!

So how do you do it differently? It’s about understanding the problem and creating a culture that solves it.

When I see businesses struggle to attract their staff to workplaces, I always see a business that’s trying to answer the wrong question.

There are big businesses out there renaming their offices ‘studios’ or ‘collaboration centres’ in an attempt to effectively rebrand their workspaces. But the issue wasn’t ever the name given to the office! The issues was that the staff wanted a say in their own destiny – to have a say in where, when and how they completed the tasks they’ve been given.

Culture is the silver bullet

The answer lies in culture.

Do your managers command their staff to do their jobs? Or do they negotiate deliverables instead?

Do they set tasks, deadlines and methods from above? Or do they ask their teams how they’d best approach the problem? The key is always to get buy-in from your direct reports. As a CEO I know that starts with me, but if I know that managers all across my business are operating this way, I know that my culture is the right one.

And ultimately if your culture is right, your people will figure out the best way to get the task done.

If that involves office collaboration, they’ll make it happen. 

But if you want to bring people back into the office, just remember what problem you’re trying to solve.

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