Expert Insights

How to earn the commute and win back your people 

Covid changed the way we work, enabling millions to either do their jobs from home permanently or drop into the office occasionally. But while hybrid has advantages, many companies are concerned about its negative impacts. So what can be done? Employee and customer experience expert Debra Ward believes it’s time for organisations to rethink their culture and start earning that commute. 

“This is it,” says Debra. “This is the time. If you don’t look after your people or create a compelling affinity for your culture now, you’ll lose.”

It’s a stark warning that comes as businesses struggle to get the hybrid working balance right, post-Covid. Debra says if firms are concerned, they need to reframe their thinking. “Instead of asking why won’t people come into the office, we should be asking why are they staying home. And the answer’s usually: time, cost and convenience.

“What they – and you – are losing is less tangible, but no less vital. No interpersonal connections, no serendipitous learning, less visibility (particularly detrimental for women) when it comes to promotions and handing out interesting projects – and a lack of innovation, problem-solving and creativity.

“The other big factor is, if people don’t see each other, where’s their connection to the company? No affinity means no loyalty – they get a better offer, they’re gone.”

Putting people first

Debra isn’t against hybrid working, but right now she feels things have tipped too far one way. Leaders may wish to consider setting clearer boundaries, and also address something Debra has been championing for years: the employee experience.

“There’s a reason Google’s back to pre-Covid occupancy levels. They have free food, massage chairs, sleeping pods, running tracks – why would you ever go home? It’s no secret that the companies that put their people first see the results reflected in ROI and retention rates. Investing in your people is a no-brainer.”

According to leadership expert Jacob Morgan, companies that invest most heavily in employee experience are 11.5 times more likely to feature in Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work and over twice as likely to be in Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies. This obviously impacts employee (and customer) retention and ultimately return on investment.

So if companies want their people to want to come into the office more often, what should they do? Debra has this advice:

1. Listen to your people

“How are you going to know what people want unless you ask them? Everyone’s situation and motivations for coming in are different, so it’s important to understand them. Maybe the older, more experienced people are not keen to come back in, but what if you give them the power to meet with, influence and mentor the younger generation and future leaders?”  

2. Rethink your space

“The reasons to come to the office have changed dramatically, but we haven’t changed the office dramatically enough. People have got used to working in all sorts of environments. Think about your spaces innovatively and create inspiring places where people can connect, collaborate and relax. Barclays is a great example of a company that has transformed mundane offices into vibrant places to work.”

3. Learn from hotels

“Hotels have occupancy directors who look at their forecasts and offer incentives to get people in – free breakfasts, show tickets, etc. Why not have that capability in corporate buildings? You want people in next Friday? Bring in a top-notch speaker or robot chef! Offer free parking or a free creche on certain days. Free coffee on a Friday isn’t going to cut it anymore – think smarter.”

4. Go back to your ‘why’ and live your values

“In a client’s boardroom recently I put up four vision statements and asked the board which one was theirs. They couldn’t answer. Everyone was obsessed with Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, but so many failed to internalise it. Companies need to get back to their ‘why’ and tie their values into it. You have to live those values, creating a culture that resonates on a visceral level, which in turn translates into experiences in your office. If people believe in you and your vision, they’ll want to come into work.”

5. Hire a chief experience officer

“We invest in and know so much about clients and customers, but what about your people? Disney, Virgin, etc, have all got chief experience officers whose job it is to focus on creating that fantastic employee experience. Someone asked me recently what was the difference between me and a former competitor. I said, he tells his people to smile and I don’t; I just make their life so great they can’t help but smile. That’s what a chief experience officer can do for you – and it won’t just sort out your hybrid-working problem, it’ll improve performance, talent attraction and retention, and profitability.” 

Debra Ward is a former managing director of Mitie Client Services, MACE Macro and Condeco, and an expert in creating customer and employee experiences. Debra has a passion for developing people-led and technology-enabled solutions that enhance business value and bring about sustainable organisational and cultural change.

Williams Bain is a specialist supplier of executive interim managers, independent consultants and executive-level permanent hires. Our discreet professional service supports the leaders of large PLCs, privately owned businesses, large family-owned businesses, equity partnerships, private equity-backed businesses, entrepreneurs, investors and lenders.