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  • Writer's pictureAlan Shoebridge

Say this, not that. What leaders SHOULD have said about remote work

What’s the state of discourse on remote work? Jokes. Mocking. Mandates. PR disasters. The situation is grim, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

While the debate over remote work continues as we start 2024, return to the office (RTO) mandates are popping up all over. I’m not going to wade into all the aspects of the RTO debate - just the communications.

Why? Because RTO communications – formal and informal – are just terrible. Too often, the “conversation” has been juvenile and disrespectful. At best.

I want to focus two messages that were in the news this year (for all the wrong reasons) and suggest what would have been a better approach. Free of charge.

Sometimes jokes aren't funny!

👇⛔ Example 1: What not to do

"People who stay home sitting on their couch with their nasty cat blanket, diddling on their laptop, if they do that for a few months, you become a loser."

Yes, that’s a real quote from Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. He was at a lunch where he was addressing the impact remote work was having on the city’s downtown.

He claimed to be joking.

Oh boy.

Sometimes people use "jokes" to reveal how they really feel. OK, let’s give Frey the benefit of the doubt that this was a joke. What a weird way to encourage people to return downtown to work!

Here is what he SHOULD have said.

“I understand that working from home is great. People enjoy the flexibility. But so many people working from home is hurting the health of our downtown. I really want to encourage companies to make it easy for people to come back – at least part of the time. Being back in the office would benefit everyone and make our downtown a better place.”

It makes the point and avoids the usual insulting tropes about remote work. There would have been no PR disaster and no need for an apology.

Thinking about filming a "fun" video. Think twice!

👇⛔ Example 2: What not to do

And now we come to the infamous Internet Brands video. Buckle up. From an article in Vice:

The California-based parent company of WebMD has published a cringe-inducing video mocking remote workers and threatening employees who continue to refuse to return to the office. In a video meant for internal employees but which was also published on the company’s public Vimeo page, Internet Brands CEO Bob Brisco tells employees that “unfortunately, too big of a group” is still only working remotely and that he is getting “more serious” about making sure that changes in the near future. In the two-minute video, which has since been updated to address the criticism the company received, Brisco reprimands employees who have refused to come in while the classic New Orleans song “Iko Iko" plays in the background. The video crosses into the bizarre from there. At various points, a stock image crosses the screen of a white-collar remote worker taking a video call from his kitchen while still in his boxers.

Oh boy.

At one point the terms “We aren’t asking or negotiating at this point. We’re informing.”

Here’s what he SHOULD have done.

“I want to thank everyone for all the work you’ve done in recent years. Remote work really filled a need at the time for us, but things have changed. I believe it’s better for our culture to have people return to the office more frequently. More importantly, I believe it’s better for you. It’s better for your career development. Mentorship, communication and problem-solving need in-person collaboration. I know that what I’m asking isn’t easy for many of you. We’ll do everything possible to make this transition as painless as possible. Your manager will talk over the details with you.”

No funny video. No music. No threats.

Would everyone like that statement? No.

Would it be better received than the video was? Absolutely.

Insulting people - jokingly or not - is typically a bad strategy for encouraging them to do something they don't want to do.

👇💡 A simple strategy for doing this better

I continue to be amazed that leaders who want to bring people back to work in the office don't do two important things:

  1. Acknowledge what people enjoy and would be giving up by returning. IT'S NOT ABOUT BEING LAZY! It's about less time commuting, more time to spend with family, flexibility for errands/chores, etc.

  2. Offer some real, tangible reasons why it would be good for THEM to do this. Instead, nearly everything I see is top-down messaging that doesn't have any employees telling the story of why THEY value being in-person sometimes.

That's what the should do, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Because I see leaders repeatedly failing to do it.

Instead it's insults, mandates and "jokes."

What’s the root cause of all this? Well, it’s clear that some leaders just simply don’t trust that people will work hard in remote environments. They want to see people to ensure that they are working. Putting effort in. Old-school style.

They need to move past that feeling and focus on solid, tangible reasons to consider bringing people back to the office.

If you can’t come up with good reasons for an RTO mandate, maybe it’s better to step back and take a different approach.

A comedy routine won’t cut it.


👇🎥 Bonus: Breaking down the Internet Brands video

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