Does Mandating A Return To Office (RTO) Disqualify A Leader From Being An Empowered Leader?

“Unhealthy organizations compel behavior. Compelled behavior is inherently destructive.” — Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa and recently deceased management deep thinker

As this commentator has observed several times in pandemic and post-pandemic work world articles, it’s a tough time to be an effective leader. There aren’t many playbooks that leaders can consult for guidance for the many dilemmas, challenges and competing demands they face as leaders. And as I suggested in an article earlier this year, VUCA (Volatility; Uncertainty; Complexity; Ambiguity) is still with us and continues to be a barrier to leaders’ ability to make sense of the world.

About the only thing that is certain in the Sturm und Drang of the current business world is that so much is uncertain.

My view is that among the many competing demands on leaders in this era, one of the most challenging is how to balance requiring employees to return to the office (RTO) and at the same time aspiring to be an empowering or servant leader. Forced RTO is based on traditional command-and-control. On power relationships. On an emphasis on compliance rather than on commitment. And it’s become a very divisive issue.

Empowerment (and its more encompassing relative Servant Leadership), on the other hand, is based on very different principles. Those principles involve leaders creating the conditions for their people to achieve successful outcomes for the organization and for themselves. It’s a workplace that fosters commitment and engagement.

Servant leadership, as the name implies, goes beyond conventional empowerment and posits that the leader’s role is to serve the members of his/her team. It turns the organizational pyramid on its head. It’s empowerment on steroids.

Those “bottoms-up” leadership approaches rely on providing broad opportunities for employee discretion in planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. In an empowered team or workplace, employees have more say-so within defined parameters. It does not mean that work is a democracy or that employees can do whatever they want.

Can a leader, then, simultaneously embrace those seemingly mutually exclusive principles underlying RTO and empowerment? Or does an RTO mandate disqualify a leader from also being an empowered leader?

I think the answer is a conditional “maybe” for empowerment. For the more far-reaching servant leadership approach, I think the answer is no.

Empowerment Principles/Mechanics Backdrop

Empowerment, of course, is not a definitive one-size-fits-all approach to leadership and followership. It involves an arena of clearly defined, understood, and accepted areas of discretionary action for the team member. Team members have the ability to make choices/decisions without having the boss’ approval for those individual decisions.

Empowerment should be thought of as a continuum, ranging from decision making for minor/granular issues (approving a supplier invoice) to decision making for major issues (the ability to halt an assembly line when a defect or problem is observed).

And in an empowered workplace, leaders must ensure the team members have both the will and the skill for making those everyday decisions or choices and the leader must have confidence that those decisions — overall — will be the correct ones and in the best interests of the organization. A leader who is truly empowering cannot jump in and try to grab the reins or second guess the team members.

In an empowered workplace or team, it means that a particular decision might not even be the same decision the leader would have made but the decision is seen as accomplishing the desired result and is made within predetermined guardrail parameters such as cost, quality, safety, customer delight, etc. An empowered leader defines the “What’s” and the “Why’s” and allows for the team members to have a lot of control over the “How’s.” The leader defines the end and the team members define many of the means to that end.

Is RTO A Legitimate Management Prerogative — A “What?”

So, the crux of the mandated RTO dynamic gets down to this, I think. Is the choice of working in the office or working remotely (Work From Home or WFH) a legitimate leader-defined “What” or does it fall within the employee-defined “How?” Is where the work gets done something employees should have the freedom to define or is it a classic “management prerogative?” This is not a navel-gazing question — it is at the heart of the matter.

Even the most zealous advocates of empowerment would agree that defining the business strategy and the key operational methods for achieving that strategy is the proper agency of management, European models of co-determination and works councils arrangements notwithstanding. For most countries in the Americas, first-level employees and their immediate bosses are not involved — nor care to be involved — in defining the “What’s” and the “Why’s.”

In most of the high-profile cases in the press, senior managers who mandate RTO explain that employee co-location and the related interactions help drive superior business results and culture building. Regardless of how convenient video conferencing apps like Zoom/Teams/Webex are, many leaders — and some employees — contend that the dynamics and opportunities for productive interchanges by being in the office together is a business imperative.

Positioned that way, employee work location is a “What,” not a discretionary “How” and a manager should have no qualms about defining workplace locations because it’s a strategic decision and does not violate any principles of empowerment. It’s a business model choice — like product/service offerings, markets to compete in, execution strategies, etc. This framing of the RTO issue would conclude that there is plenty of room for leaders to empower on many other aspects of the business.

Hence, in that perspective, there is no inherent conflict between requiring staff to be office-bound and at the same time providing broad latitude to team members on tactical issues and trusting them to make good choices.

But Many Employees See It Differently…

At least, that’s how some senior leaders see it. Many employees see it differently, though. There has been much push back to RTO mandates and several studies have found that while most employees think they’ve been even more productive than they were before the pandemic, far fewer of their leaders believe that’s true.

Many of those employees who are reluctantly returning to the office because it’s become a condition of employment chalk up the RTO requirement as micro-management, lack of trust on the part of management, managers who are control freaks, and/or management resistance to change about traditional work arrangements, especially among leaders who have gray hair.

All those negative perceptions about management’s “real” motives for RTO can drive employees to seek out other jobs that provide more flexibility for remote work options, adding to the “Great Resignation.”

Because of the resulting workplace tensions and dissatisfaction made possible by mandated RTO, my belief is that employees are less likely to be willing to take independent action (empowerment) because management has “failed” the litmus test for acting on behalf of their employees. The resulting reduction of trust levels among employees leads to a reduction in their enthusiasm to act on behalf of the organization: taking responsibility for discretionary actions, AKA empowerment.

Many employees want some “trust reciprocity” from management and if they believe they are not trusted to work remotely, or if they think their leaders are dismissive of their workplace preferences, they might decide to withhold some portion of their hearts and minds that would otherwise be dedicated to the organization’s goals.

Having been an employee for 45 years and also having had formal leadership roles for almost 15 years of those years, I’ve seen this play out on issues important to team members similar to mandated RTO.

Leaders are also put in a compromising position of wanting to build a positive work culture (trust, commitment, willingness to go above-and-beyond, etc.) but at the same time mandating compliance with a policy that many employees disagree with. Employees can see that as disempowering because making workplace location a management decision reduces the overall scope for employees to take independent actions (empowerment).

The risk is that employees will see empowerment as only involving “safe,” relatively unimportant day-to-day workplace decisions. They conclude they have no control and even limited influence over an issue that has an outsized impact on their daily work lives. Managers might see it that way also when they reframe empowerment in a similar way and they might simply deemphasize empowerment because of all the other competing demands for their focus.

In that scenario, empowerment for office-based employees becomes yet one more thing to breed skepticism or worse, cynicism. It can lead to a disappointing stalemate. It can become lose-lose.

The Answer To The Overall Question…

In sum, then, the answer to the question that headlines this article (“Can A Leader Who Mandates A Return To Office (RTO) Also Be An Empowered Or Leader”) is that yes, a leader who mandates RTO can also be an empowering leader but it will be a diminished kind of empowerment that comes with a diminished level of enthusiasm on the part of the employee population. Sorry to say, it is one more example of collateral damage from the pandemic.

However, people and organizations are resilient and over time I’m confident that new models of the workplace “social contract” as well as both the meaning and meaningfulness of work will continue to evolve. It always has. We won’t be stuck in this place forever.

As baseball player/philosopher-king/malapropist Yogi Berra famously said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant, and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote many thought leadership pieces for DDI when he was there. He also wrote a business column for 12 years. His recent commentaries — including many about leading during the COVID pandemic — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

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Mike Hoban

Mike Hoban

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Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.