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Across the United States, a growing number of companies are delaying their employees' return to the office due to the Delta variant, meaning workers can continue to work from home
Across the United States, a growing number of companies are delaying their employees' return to the office due to the Delta variant, meaning workers can continue to work from home AFP / Chris DELMAS

Now that many organizations attempt to craft back-to-office policies, many managers are simply bungee-cording back to their pre-pandemic practices of toxic leadership. But it doesn't have to be that way. Instead, we can take our learnings about flexible work from the time of the global pandemic and infuse them into newly-crafted agreements about where, when, and how to work.

But first, we have to radically change the role of the manager.

The "tug of work" between home and office has led to nonstop Management of Kabuki Theater, as CEO after CEO, from Goldman Sachs' David Solomon to Apple's Tim Cook, has mandated a return to the office. Starbucks' third-time CEO Howard Schulz is on his knees, begging. And Tesla's Elon Musk has famously told recalcitrant workers to go "pretend to work somewhere else."

There is a long history of this kind of toxic leadership. Robber barons certainly exulted in touring the worker hives of their factories. Output-obsessed factory managers enforced dehumanized work in the relentless pursuit of greater productivity. And the practice of relentless observation became institutionalized in the modern organization when In Search of Excellence labeled it "Management By Walking Around," or MBWA. At its best, it was a vehicle for listening to the needs of frontline workers. But at its worst, MBWA became an excuse for constant monitoring of employee activity.

I prefer to call this MBS — Management By Surveillance. Why did a minuscule number of companies have work-from-home policies before the global pandemic? A widespread lack of trust. This is especially true of organizations that pride themselves on a "performance culture," which can lead to an unhealthy obsession with industrial-era metrics of production and MBS oversight rather than committing to providing the context and resources so that all workers can be effective in their roles.

One recent example: Meta's Mark Zuckerberg has used the excuse of a possible economic downturn to tell his workers to either work harder or choose somewhere else to work. "Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn't be here," he is reported to have said. Rather than admitting this is a failure of the organization — perhaps such as Zuckerberg's pivot from its traditional business toward his vision of "the metaverse" — the toxic manager's response is to blame the worker and dial-up performance goals to wash out those perceived to be weaker contributors. And int: Meta is still hiring thousands more programmers.)

Some pandemic-era toxic managers responded by dialing up the use of surveillance technologies for distributed and remote workers, such as software that tracks keyboard use, visual focus during work, and even location tracking by GPS. But according to a recent Harvard study, that kind of MBS on steroids often encouraged workers to break the rules even more.

There is no question that flexible work strategies require a new mindset, skillset, and toolset. When I spend time with C-suite executives, they cite understandable concerns about the consistent mindset of the organization, which is often called culture. An MBS executive walking around an office and attending endless meetings can become deluded that the organization has a consistent culture. But people who lead in organizations are actually reality distortion machines. When that manager walks into a meeting, others in the room rapidly adapt their behavior to match what they believe is expected of them. And their behavior changes just as rapidly when that manager leaves the room.

A world of flexible work is actually an opportunity for those who lead in organizations to learn a different model of leading and managing. Note that I didn't say "leaders and managers." Let's start by admitting that these labels have lost much of their meaning. When 84% of workers think they don't even need a manager, we need to embrace a mindset that anyone throughout an organization can and should lead, given training and permission.

Here's what needs to change.

Start by redefining the role of the manager, whom I call the "Team Guide." Rather than being the one with all the answers, the Team Guide is the one with the best questions. That approach takes training to unlearn old ways of command-and-control and "next" ways of empowering teams of problem-solvers. Though they're currently undergoing a reorganization, managers at Novartis call this process "unbossing." And bonus points for organizations who shift managers to a player-coach model, encouraging them to participate more in work.

Next, those who lead in organizations must commit to co-create flexible work practices. Jettison the automatic drive to force workers back to the office. View this as an opportunity for a dialog with workers in various roles to build agreements that work for as many as possible. No cookie-cutter approach will work for everyone. But start with practices from companies like Twitter that have pushed decision-making into the hands of teams.

Third, recognize that this is a journey with no certain destination. I can't tell you what your practices might be in a year, and neither can you. Your deliverable at this stage of The Great Reset is a collaborative process that involves all stakeholders, encourages experimentation, and embraces the needs of the whole person. Ignoring the challenges of childcare, transportation, and mental and physical wellbeing might have been acceptable pre-pandemic practices, but they're all critical elements to include in the co-creation process. Companies like Salesforce have done an excellent job of embracing the whole person in their post-pandemic practices.

Finally, treat culture-building as an opportunity. The key word is intentionality. If MBS once gave the manager an important finger-on-the-pulse, the Team Guide must do far more outreach to maintain connections with workers. This is yet another opportunity for co-creation, enlisting workers to suggest and support strategies ranging from "speed check-in" Zoom sessions to distributed team-building exercises.

A year from now, many companies may have eroded the worker's will for flexibility. That would be a waste. Today's flex work isn't some temporary post-pandemic aberration. It's a unique opportunity to leave behind the toxic leadership practices of the past and to embrace the "next" model of managing and leading.

About the Author:

Gary A. Bolles is the author of "The Next Rules of Work: The mindset, skillset, and toolset to lead your organization through uncertainty." He serves as the adjunct Chair for the Future of Work for Singularity University.