Returning to the office, it’s about a lot more than the office or the building

Many employees want to return to their offices not because they're so great, but because they want to renew human connections weakened over the past year.

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Many employees, federal and otherwise want to return to their offices to work, not because the offices are so great, but because they want to renew the human connections that have weakened over the past year or so. Smart managers understand how connections can spark several important benefits to employees and to the organization. American University Professor Bob Tobias spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin for more.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Bob, of course, now people are trickling back and the power of connections – that’s something you’ve been thinking about and reading about.

Bob Tobias: I have Tom. And as a result of the 100% telework, many leaders recognize the need to act proactively to create connections with those they lead, rather than waiting in their office and waiting for people to come to them. They thought they had to move out. And they did. And the result was increased employee engagement, as reflected in the Federal Employee Viewpoint scores, and some recent research by Deloitte that showed that the connections of federal employees with the public got increased satisfaction. So as employees return to work, will leaders continue to be proactive to create connections? Or will they go back to sitting in their office and proclaiming I have an open door policy?

Tom Temin: And then close the door?

Bob Tobias: And then close the door, right. So if we feel connected to our colleagues and connected to our leaders and connected to the agency mission, Michael Lee Stallard in a recent book titled “Connection Culture” concluded that the seven universal needs at work are met: Respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth, meaning and progress. Now, these concepts are not abstract, they seem to be but they’re not. If you think back over your career, and you remember a time when you were willing to give your discretionary energy to your boss – and what I mean by discretionary energy is that energy you choose to give, you use your full set of skills and your full attention, that you don’t usually give to accomplish organization’s goals and objectives. So you know, every element that Stallard just mentioned, and the question is, and the challenge for leaders is whether they will continue to do what they did in COVID to create the connections they lead, to provide a workplace where employees want to come back to work as opposed to staying at home.

Tom Temin: Yes. So in other words, the mere physical presence of people under the same roof is not the same as connections. And you have to work out of the perhaps more so when people come back, or at least work at it in a different way than you did when they were all remote.

Bob Tobias: Correct. And am I going to build on what I created over the last year? Or am I going to just – my brain go blank, and I’m going to revert back to what I did in the past because it’s comfortable?

Tom Temin: Yeah, those seven universal work needs that you named, the words are perhaps conceptual, but the effects of them are real. For example, recognition, there is probably no more debilitating sense that an employee can have than that his or her work is just unrecognized, or unappreciated.

Bob Tobias: If I don’t get validation that my work is good, I stop doing it. One of the primary reasons for giving employees feedback is to say, Hey, man, Tom, you did a great job. And if I tell you that, Tom, my chances of you replicating that behavior is fantastic. If I ignore it, maybe you will, maybe you won’t. So it’s that connection with you, first to notice and then to speak, that makes the difference.

Tom Temin: My guest is Bob Tobias, professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. And of course, you have a long history in the federal labor union movement, so to speak. And that’s a third element that will be kind of in presence, again, when people get back to the offices. So how can the unions play a role? How can union leadership play a role? or How can union local leaders in a given bargaining unit be part of this equation of rebuilding the connections that need to happen when people are back under one roof?

Bob Tobias: I think unions can play a quite significant role. If indeed, they return to collaborative problem solving. And by that I mean, issues that are driving employees crazy, issues that are driving managers crazy, if they can meet and work collaboratively to solve those problems they’ll meet both the recognition, the belonging, meaning and progress needs that employees have. If they’re excluded from the process, which often happens in a hierarchical structure, those needs are not met.

Tom Temin: And another issue I think, coming up for this whole idea of the skills and the recognition and the ability to get the, as you call it discretionary energy out of people, that is the government onboarded thousands and thousands of people in the past 14, 15 months, all not in person all virtually. And now, it’s possible that managers will see these people for the first time. And that seems to pose a special challenge. They’ve been working there for a year or longer, but nobody’s ever laid eyes on them in person.

Bob Tobias: Well, nobody’s ever laid eyes on them. And I think, at least based on, not a broad, sample, agencies didn’t do a very good job of onboarding, and acculturating new employees to the total agency goal mission and so forth. Because it was so important to get them on board and get them to work. And so I think that agencies ought to treat these people who are hired in the last 14 months as brand new employees. This is an opportunity to start over, it’s something that you don’t normally get an opportunity to start again. And I think that’s how agencies ought to treat these people who’ve been hired over the last 14 months.

Tom Temin: Yeah, the joke used to be that someone was so new, they didn’t know where the restrooms were. In this case, you could get to work, and you’ve been there a year and you still don’t know where the restrooms are.

Bob Tobias: Yes, unfortunately, the truth, Tom.

Tom Temin: But on the other hand, if it’s possible to onboard people, remotely, or virtually, that could be a useful tool to have, even though we’re beyond the pandemic. So how can that be done more effectively, if the need arises? Say you hire someone in Des Moines, and the agency bureau is in Grand Rapids?

Bob Tobias: Well, I think that the whole onboarding process is going to change as a result of the past experience. There are some things that can be given to you, orally on a Zoom call, background information. But you really do need that connection with your supervisor that occurred in the COVID environment, and now has to recur in the back to work environment.

Tom Temin: Well, there’s also the connection and the acquaintance with your colleagues, too, the fellow coworkers.

Bob Tobias: Yes, it’s true. I remember working with a group that was all over the country for about six months, and this was pre-COVID. And when they got together, it was like, “Oh, my god, that’s what you really look like? And you’ve got four kids …” and all the kinds of things, the offline chatter that doesn’t occur very often. And there was some of that that was stimulated in the Zoom COVID environment, but being in person can’t be replaced.

Tom Temin: No, that’s right. I’ve had thousands – I don’t know how many Zoom calls, Zoom interviews in the past 15 months, and I’ve seen spouses, I’ve seen children, I’ve seen dogs and cats wander in and out of the scene. But it’s still not quite like being in person with someone is it?

Bob Tobias: It is not. And especially when you’re – this didn’t happen in the workplace but when you’re dealing with masked people, I mean, just seeing someone’s eyes is not the same as seeing their total face. So those people who were even working and coming back to work wore masks. And so that’s going to be removed.

Tom Temin: And not a moment too soon. Bob Tobias has professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. As always, thanks so much.

Bob Tobias: Thank you, Tom. It’s a pleasure being with you as always.

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