Recently, while coaching a frustrated Chief People Officer, he vented to me about his company’s plan to bring back the workforce – 3 days in the office, two from home. The leadership team would prefer to have everyone in every day, but they know that will make it almost impossible to recruit new hires and could further damage their already falling engagement scores. And now, they are struggling with a whole set of new problems: how do they track who’s coming in and when, and what do they do about those who aren’t following the guidelines? Why don’t the employees appreciate that the “gift” of flexibility that is being bestowed upon them? It seems like whatever solution the company offers some portion of the work force is unhappy.

In talking with executives, this story comes up over and over. The leaders want things to go back to “normal” – meaning pre-pandemic times – and employees want something else. And they are puzzled by how to respond. Yet when I ask if they are partnering with their employees to find solutions, I often get blank stares in return. The idea of asking employees what they want in this situation seems to horrify many leaders.

Missing a big opportunity for buy in and guidance

Based on my own days as a CHRO navigating this kind of challenge, I am struck by how much these leaders are missing by taking this view. There are clearly so many advantages to involving your workforce in their future workplace! We are all in this together after all – and designing the workplace of the future should be exciting and fun.

Imagine the enthusiasm for the outcomes that will follow if representatives of all levels and departments contribute to the solution and the deeper understanding of business needs that would come from their involvement. And by pulling in key leaders, they will benefit as well, because they will develop better insights and respect for the challenges and constraints many employees are experiencing.

Why leaders are afraid

I realize leaders are afraid to involve their workforce when considering their workplace of the future and other changes. Why? I see 3 primary reasons:

  1. It takes too much time
  2. Employees may lack the critical business insights needed to make informed decisions
  3. Participation might lead employees to have unrealistic expectations for the outcome

It’s true, the planning and preparation can take longer, when getting more input and involving more people. And sometimes employees don’t have the “big picture” regarding the business needs. And, if you aren’t careful, participants in the change may have unrealistic expectations. But I can tell you, having had the pleasure to lead many corporate teams that had a balance of members from all parts/levels of the organization, these challenges are easily mitigated. And worth managing, because the outcome will lead to better business outcomes, provide sustainable solutions, and increase employee engagement and commitment.

Paving the way for a quantum give back

I’ve led and watched successful teams help their companies drastically change their performance management approach, implement department re-organizations, enhance their employer brand, and develop new sales strategies. In each case, the additional time upfront saved us time later when we avoided re-work and re-communication due to poorly conceived ideas. We carefully set the stage by explaining the challenges and needs and ensuring that the team consisted of individuals from a variety of levels throughout the organization to ensure a strong business focus.

We also made it clear to the participants the criteria and boundaries that were involved, who needed to approve it, and how their recommendations would be managed. I have found time and time again, our employees are grown-ups and if treated that way, will behave that way. They can handle being told no if they understand the “why” behind the “what." In fact, I have had employees approach me after townhalls and other group meetings, where the leadership had to say no to some employee requests, with a handshake and a thank you for being transparent and trusting them to understand and support good business decisions.

Asking your employees for help gets you more than you can imagine

Perhaps my favorite example of a time when a team of employees and leaders worked together to improve the business was with an organization that was working on improving the employee perception of their Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) efforts. The company was very committed and had implemented many solutions to ensure improved representation and inclusion for all, and especially for their women and people of color. And yet, they were confronted with a steady decline of employee perception of company commitment to DEIB. To change this perception and make things better, the organization spent months engaging over 100 of their employees and leaders in teams to find ways to improve.

Within one year, the organization really moved the needle:

  • Numerous organizational and programmatic changes were firmly in place based on the teams’ recommendations and employee perception rose from 78% favorable to 83%.
  • Deep friendships and connections were made across those teams and leadership opportunities emerged for many of the employees that participated, an important goal of the initiative in the first place.
  • The executives involved were surprised and delighted by the new insights and awareness they gained from the process, as well as the progress made on a complex challenge.

Was one year a long time to take to achieve all of that? I don’t think so.

I have been afraid before, too, for the reasons mentioned here. But I promise you, if you take the time to do it right, you will soon forget your fears and find there’s a better way of operating: improving the future with your employees – not doing it for them or to them.




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