The return to the office is a reckoning for leaders locked in the past
In 1977, the still-fledgling running shoe company Nike ran a print ad campaign with this signature line: “There is No Finish Line.” The message was simple: Hard as it may seem, winning a single race in a single moment isn’t the point. It’s the long game, and therefore the bigger picture that matter.
While intended to sell shoes, the ad was incredibly popular in part because it was perceived as a metaphor for any undertaking in which one hopes to be in the lead. It’s a timeless lesson, one today’s leaders appear to need to be reminded of.
Over the last few months, as organizations have grappled with the challenges of what a post-pandemic return to the office should look like, management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. conducted a study. It was designed to gauge the views of both leaders and those they lead about the uncertain terrain before them. McKinsey asked participants questions ranging from how they felt about returning to the physical office or the prospect of hybrid options for doing so, all the way down to specifics like how many days a week each felt they needed to be face-to-face to be effective.
On the surface, there was nothing unique about the study. Similar surveys have popped up by the dozens over the first eight months of this year because, in short, there are no easy answers and everyone is in need of perspective. But looking across the responses on the McKinsey report, one thing stood out: Leaders, it appeared, were overwhelmingly focused on the small and the finite. It was their employees who appeared to grasp the bigger picture of the true race to be run.
To be sure, the answers to specific questions were interesting. A full three-quarters of the 504 C-suite executives polled expected employees to be back in the office three or more days a week, and soon. It was the larger message the answers came wrapped in, however, that was eye-opening. The researchers noted that leaders’ responses were most often accompanied by an implied "finish line."
In other words, leaders signaled that they believed a stable status quo in the workplace, one they implied would last for years, was imminent. Just exactly how leaders concluded this, especially in the face of continued disruption, wasn’t made clear.
As striking, an equal percentage of the more than 5,000 employees surveyed flatly disagreed. Employees made clear that for them there was no new status quo coming. Indeed, for them there wasn’t a finish line in sight.
The finding spotlights far more than a simple disagreement about tactical details. Unlike most leaders, workers sense and are even fueling a sea change in how work gets done -- and, perhaps inevitably with it, a change in who gets to decide what work will look like and who will lead.
As one important indicator, instead of waiting for direction from those at the top, 26% of US workers are already looking for new jobs, McKinsey says. Another 40% are preparing to leave their current place of work by year's end. It’s broadly been called "the great attrition" or the "Great Resignation." But on closer examination, it really speaks to a difference in perspective as to what it takes to thrive in these ambiguous times.
It would be easy to assume that all of us, by default, want to believe in a finish line -- some kind of conclusive end to the uncertainty enveloping us all right now. But this time around, employees seem to have a greater grasp on reality that uncertainty is our new abnormal. Theirs isn’t a doomsday view, either. In survey after survey, employees report being optimistic that they can thrive in the prevailing uncertainty, maybe even better than they did in their past work lives.
So, why do leaders assume or feel a need to project an elusive finish line? Perhaps it’s the weight of expectations -- that leaders often feel that they must have a definitive answer or a foolproof solution. If so, it’s a misreading on their part, and likely not the only one.
McKinsey suggests there’s reason to be concerned. The report offers that the “finish effect,” as they label this short-term view many leaders appear to be taking, might just increase attrition, as employees conclude that their leaders are clueless, disingenuous or simply not the all-knowing heroes we’re told they should be.
Stepping back from the minutia, these are the key takeaways leaders would be wise to grasp. We live in a new abnormal, one where there is no finish line. In such a landscape, adaptability is something that we must be able to call on -- not now and then, but ongoing.
In other words, adaptability must become our strategic mindset. That form of adaptation is a job too big for any one person, leader or otherwise. The undertaking must be a collective one.
To enable that, a leader’s primary job is to create an environment in which everyone can lead and adapt to uncertainty repeatedly in order for all to thrive. And that begins with acknowledging and embracing that uncertainty is here to stay.
Do the details matter when it comes to questions such as how we return to work? No doubt. But they are tactical questions, questions concerning single races, and ones with inevitably temporary answers. It’s thriving over the long run that’s the objective, and for that there can be no finish line.
Larry Robertson is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. Robertson was named a Fulbright Scholar in 2021. He’s also the author of two award-winning books: "The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity" and "A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress." As founder of Lighthouse Consulting, he has for over 25 years guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth to lasting success. His third book, "Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times," was released June 1, 2021.