CEO Wants Everyone Back in the Office? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I manage the US Eastern region for a global manufacturing company. Our new CEO, who is in Europe, is very frustrated at our US employees’ resistance to return to the office.

He has decreed that everyone who wants to keep their job should be in the office five days a week, and that if people want to work remotely, they need special permission to do so—even for one day. He claims that employees in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are much more compliant with the return-to-office mandates.

My Midwest and Western counterparts are doing a little better with the mandate than I am, but we are all in the same boat.

The managers who report to me are up against it. We had a remote work culture before the pandemic where many of our people were already coming to the office only one or two days a week. Several people on the East Coast gave up their city apartments during the pandemic and moved to rural areas. Some moved to other parts of the country, having been given permission to work remotely. They are now taking care of elderly parents. Their kids are going to new schools. And the people who live within a reasonable distance are thrilled not to have to spend hours every day commuting—and I know for a fact that they work longer hours because they don’t commute.

Our productivity and numbers are exactly where they need to be and our hybrid culture works very well for us. Our former CEO didn’t focus on that kind of thing; he focused only on performance and results.

To comply with our new CEO’s unreasonable demands, we are probably going to have let go of 25% of our workforce and hire new people who live in cities that have headquarters or who are at least within commuting distance. That is going to create a laundry list of problems. First of all, we don’t have the recruiting and onboarding staff to manage that kind of volume—it’s an absolute HR nightmare to let so many people go. It also will be distracting and will cause a significant drop in productivity. And the emotional impact will be, well, awful. It just seems so willfully wrongheaded and wasteful.

I have had a long career and have a lot of experience, but this one has me stumped.

Any thoughts?

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

______________________________________________________

Dear Between a Rock and a Hard Place,

This seems to be a common problem these days.

I wonder where your CHRO or HR regional partner is with all of this. Your CEO might be getting terrible advice.

 It sounds like you are the kind of person who has already tried using facts and evidence to make the case for maintaining your hybrid culture. If you haven’t, that would be a good place to start. The cost of letting people go will be massive. It is hard to understand why anyone would want to let go of loyal, competent employees. You will want to read the fine print on the employment contracts of anyone you might have to fire as well, because if the job was originally classified as hybrid or remote, you could risk a lawsuit. And the cost of recruiting, hiring, and onboarding new people will definitely set you back productivity-wise. If you were to create a clear picture of the costs of enforcing a back to the office mandate, that might make a difference.

If your CEO refuses to be swayed by facts and evidence (which is predictable), your only next option is to try to influence by simply asking questions and getting to the root of what is driving the demands. In a very interesting book titled How Minds Change, author David McRaney postulates that the only reliable way to get someone to change their mind is, first, to create rapport. Listen to their thinking on the topic. Ask open-ended questions until they essentially persuade themselves that their thinking isn’t logical and, in fact, is inconsistent with their true values. You can find a summary here that will lay out the steps to take.

See if you can get your CEO to consider all the angles by asking questions and thinking through the issue on his own. There is a chance that he might talk himself out of his dug-in position. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What is so important about having everyone in the office every day?
  • How will having everyone in the office every day change things for the better?
  • What bothers you so much about people working remotely?
  • What impact do you think forcing a change like this will have on our culture?
  • Are you prepared to see the US workforce turn over by (at least) 25%?
  • What is your level of confidence that the benefits of forcing people to come back to the office will outweigh the costs? (If it isn’t 100%, you can ask why not. This opens the door to doubt.)
  • Is there a compromise you might consider, if it meant retaining our best people?

The key is to never argue or challenge your CEO’s claims. Just keep asking questions and keep him talking.

I stumbled over this method accidentally about twenty years ago by simply asking one question. I was shocked at how quickly someone changed a long-held position as a result of one simple, emotionally neutral question. I didn’t really understand the science behind it until I read McRaney’s book.

If using a strong persuasion method like this still doesn’t move the needle, you will have to consider if working in this new dogmatic culture is for you. Do you even want to work for a CEO who is so demanding and willing to sacrifice common sense to be right? I hate to suggest this, because it would cause any number of big life decisions. Of course, it is up to you. Maybe this will be a one-time thing for your CEO, but I doubt it.

You are indeed between a rock and a hard place, my friend, in more ways than you may have admitted to yourself. You have a new persuasion technique to try—and then you will have some choices to make.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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