Back To Our Future

September 8, 2023

I’ve been out of school too many decades to cop to and yet it never fails when Labor Day hits I get that back to school feeling all over again.

This week that nostalgic feeling has resurfaced for many people outside the academic calendar - either fondly or not depending on your vantage point. Companies large and small are making “back to the office” mandatory. Not all at once, but the fear about lost productivity, zero mentorship and a decimation of company culture has left many leaders feeling they have no choice.

The most popular reintegration is to roll it out in stages. I recently heard of one company where they’re bringing people back two days a week now, three days a week starting in November, and by the new year, it will be all in or you’re out. For people who have enjoyed the freedom of not having to commute this is going to be, to put it mildly, a bummer. Not to be Pollyanna here, but what if it’s also a chance to do things differently?

In line with the LOC mission of authenticity first, the best way to deal with the resistance is by acknowledging it and appreciating it. Call it out, hear people out and let’s do what we can to create an environment where people want to come be at work. This doesn’t necessarily require Donut Friday or 15 minute massages, although I wouldn’t turn those down. It’s something else now. It means making sure people feel seen and heard - that their voice counts. Evidence shows it’s also about doing our best to keep a sense of humor at work. Abandoning an antiquated “my way or the highway” attitude and easing up on perfection. Comedians love imperfection, we know it’s a goldmine for laughs, and in terms of business, can often be a source for innovation. Laughter on the job and welcoming contribution from all levels of seniority, these are relatively new concepts in business. In fact, we met with one Dickensian company where HR shared that the owners firmly believe that a person laughing and seemingly enjoying being at work is tantamount to stealing!

Au contraire!

In fact, this study found that people who are happy at work are 13% more productive. Harvard professor and bestselling author Arthur C. Brooks makes the strongest case I’ve read yet for happiness at work that has less to do with salary and everything to do with impact. His big idea is that people need to feel that they are being of service to others, that their work matters. He even goes one step further in the direction of back to the office adding that people who are happy at work, feel like they’re serving other people and they can see the faces of the people for whom they’re creating value.”  Zoom meetings, he adds, simply cannot deliver this.

Bottom line: People who are happy at work are more productive and their happiness is directly related to being with each other to witness the impact of their work. Because I’m a stickler for research, referencing Back to the Future led me down a Google cyber-hole for what made this movie so popular. Did Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale know they were launching a blockbuster? Were there any points they were trying to land with their sci-fi fantasy - other than time travel can be risky? I came across this as one takeaway,”if we can identify our mistakes and our limitations, we can correct them and improve ourselves.” So this is our Back to the Future moment after all. A non-fiction opportunity to reflect on the mistakes we made in earlier workplace cultures, to recognize where we may have had limitations in our thinking, and to rebuild with more humanity, more levity and more connection that will make people happier when they show up and undeniably more productive.