“Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development”

As questions about hybrid workplaces and how, when, and where we do our best work continue to take center stage moving forward from COVID, one of biggest reasons leaders give for seeking a return to the office – either by mandate or by guessing on a magic number of days – is the need for onboarding, training, and developing talent in today’s flexible work environments.

This was the topic of a recent conversation I had with Jeanne Sahadi of CNN Business and the focus of her resulting article, “Return-to-office mandates won’t magically improve young employees’ career development.”

As I told Jeanne, and as I tell every leader who will listen, “Fixating on the question of ‘how many days should employees be in the office?’ is the wrong approach. One size will not fit all. That is why mandates are failing.”

I advise leaders that the better approach is to let individual operating units within an organization decide for themselves how often they need to be in person after addressing the same series of questions:

1. What work needs to be done?
2. How should we train and mentor new talents to achieve that?
3. How, when and where can training and work happen best?

When mandates are handed down in the name of enhancing the onboarding process or being necessary to preserve an organization’s culture, it sets up what I call the clash of contexts: employees fail to see the need to be in the office when they’ve been satisfied and productive remotely; organizations fail to clearly define how on-site work supports the purpose and goals of the business.
My suggested questions put the focus back where it needs to be: on the work that needs to get done. And, as I also shared with Jeanne, “Included in the answers are issues of onboarding and how to successfully foster observation and learning — while realistically assessing what is best done in person versus what can be accomplished remotely. In general, there has been a lack of intentionality of how we develop young people. It wasn’t awesome pre-COVID either. This is an opportunity to do better.”

To be clear, in-person absolutely matters, unless time together is spent siloed behind closed doors on randomly mandated days. But leaders have to start by defining their why or purpose and then work with their teams collaboratively to re-imagine how in-person time supports culture and collaboration and, in turn, fosters productive and meaningful onboarding and training.

Finally, a quick shout out to Mark Gilbreath who recognized the importance of this topic and included Jeanne’s article in his “Another week, another wave” round up newsletter, which includes 5 news items from the world of work and workplace you can digest in 5 minutes.