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Three key things most Return to Office mandates miss

Return to Office mandates continue to be one a topic of regular - and spirited - discussion.

There’s the “we can’t innovate without being together” side who is shouting at and over the “I’ll quit before I return” side. We’re watching the corporate version of a playground match between two kids shouting “does not”, “does too”, “does not”....

Telling employees they won’t be promoted, receive bonuses, or even be paid if they don’t come to the office is the wrong move.

Does not...

Telling employers you won’t come to the office under any circumstances is equally wrong.

Does too...

We’re still arguing about the wrong things. We need to talk about 2 things before we ever talk about where people do their work:

  1. What outcomes are most important

  2. What do people need in order to accomplish them

Once we have these answers, we can figure out where the work happens and how to ensure we have a healthy culture that underpins the work.

What outcomes are most important

This is, hands down, one the most foundational strategic mistakes senior leaders make: failing to build a culture in which every role has clearly defined outcomes.

Many years ago, Dr. Paul Elliott wrote a definitive work on Exemplary Performance. In it, he describes the importance of benchmarking team performance expectations based on the team’s highest performers.

Key to raising team output is understanding the leading indicators of success in a role.

  • What are the top 5 (maybe 3, maybe 7) things a person in the role will create or produce that, when they do, will lead to success in the role?

  • Are they worded as actions (verbs) or outputs (nouns)?

  • How measurable are these outcomes?

Doing (verb) things is fundamentally different from producing (noun) things. There are also differences of value in things a person produces.

Outcomes build trust because they provide visibility to an employee and their leaders. They create intentional and regular conversations about employee success in the role. Importantly, they also provide an antidote to spying on employees.

An Example

A common example I often see is for sales teams: “make outbound contacts”.

What’s wrong with that? Some people might even say they’ve made it measurable by including a number or type: “make 600 outbound calls per day”

Both of these are demonstrably better than “make daily calls to customers”, right?

They’re also activity measurements - not results driven outcomes. Instead, we will be more likely to have success by building a system around an outcome like this: ”At least 25 completed ICP (ideal customer profile) forms - with a demo appointment date, time, and personally confirmed decision-maker - daily passed to my designated Account Executive for demos and follow up.”

If I’m an outbound SDR, I know that I’m:

  • being measured on appointments set, not on amount of calls I make - no need to call random phone numbers, that would work against me;

  • responsible for handing something to an account executive - I know where I fit into the system and why the work I’m doing matters; and

  • probably going to be a rock star if I consistently produce 40 ICP forms per day - now how am I going to pull that off (motivation)

If our SDR is turning in calls but demos are falling through, we have the basis for coaching that SDR to improve on the date, time, or confirmed decision-maker (or whatever the attributes of a successful form include).

This isn't just for outbound SDRs. It's for every role in the company. Including ours as the leader at the top.

Job Descriptions

When you look at the job descriptions in your company, what do you see?

There’s certainly a place for skills like “communication” and “teamwork”.

Do they have the level of clarity an outcome-based job description would bring?

If not, let’s spend some time getting that level of clarity before mandating that people return to the office for completion of an ambiguous job description.

What do people need?

Once we’ve established what people are actually going to produce, we can then answer the next most important question: what do they need in order to produce these outcomes?

This is not an easy question.

There are three core areas we have to address if we hope to answer it:

  1. What conditions are required to produce the outcomes?

  2. How are we set up to know people are producing outcomes?

  3. What’s the role of preferences?

Let’s go in the reverse order this time.

If you’re a Founder, CEO, Executive Director, Managing Partner, or other top leader, you owe it to yourself and the people you lead to be honest here and that internal honesty is the basis for everything that follows.

The role of preferences in Return to Office mandates

Ever since Myers-Briggs arrived on the scene, we’ve had readily available shorthand labels for “introvert” and “extrovert”. You’re probably already familiar with the distinction. For the sake of shared understanding, let’s define them this way:

  • Some people prefer to be around others. They get their energy (aka “recharge”) from the “buzz” in the office, the coffee shop, the restaurant.

  • Other people prefer to work in places that don’t buzz. They get their energy from quiet and predictable environments with fewer distractions.

Myers-Briggs created a continuum of preferences with introversion on the left and extroversion on the right.

The most senior executive leaders, as a group, tend toward the extroversion end of the scale. In a study published in 2002, authors cited several earlier works and noted that:

Extraverts tend to be energetic, lively people. Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) commented, “Leaders are more likely than nonleaders to have a high level of energy and stamina and to be generally active, lively, and often restless” (p. 50). Adjectives used to describe individuals who emerged as leaders in leaderless group discussions included active, assertive, energetic, and not silent or withdrawn (Gough, 1988). These are the characteristics of extraverts….Extraversion should be positively related to both leader emergence and leadership effectiveness, although somewhat more strongly to leader emergence.

Here’s the summary:

  • “Extravert” is synonymous with “extrovert”.

  • In groups, people with extroverted characteristics emerge as leaders.

  • Many of those who emerge remain as leaders for longer periods of time.

Anywhere between 60-90% of people are considered ambiverts. That’s because a standard bell curve will result in a majority of people falling somewhere in the middle of the continuum.

Here’s where leadership discernment is so critical.

On our own, we tend to think others see the world the same way we do. It’s the “normal” way the world works. Since so many people are ambiverts, the signals appear to match.

It seems like everyone wants to be together with high levels of frequency.

This aligns deeply with the extrovert leader’s personal preference.

In fact, most people actually do want to work together. It’s a fantastic benefit to any organizational culture. Most people want to belong - just look at sports teams, musicians, college affiliations, churches, social organizations, brand affiliations.

People wanting to work together - and affiliate with one another - is not the same as wanting to be co-located by default.

As a leader, it’s easy to let our personal preferences drive the decision.

It’s also incredibly dangerous.

Assuming everyone wants to be treated the way we want to be treated will almost always drive away all but the small number of people who are perfectly aligned with our preferences. A monolithic team is not a path to divergent thinking which leads to innovation and, ultimately, to growth.

How are we set up to know people are producing outcomes?

This is fundamentally a process question. It's about effective and efficient leadership.

Earlier, we covered the importance of building job descriptions around leading outcomes of success in the role. It’s a critical antidote to self-focus “everyone is like me” leadership thinking.

There’s been a rise in the number of monitoring tools leaders have implemented to check on activity within their teams. A simple search on “workplace activity monitoring tools” will give you several systems. You probably should NOT use any of them.

Why not?

Few leaders understand the Hawthorne effect. In effect, people change their behavior when they know they are being monitored.

Instead, we can build systems that allow our teams to focus on producing outcomes of value to the organization. When those outcomes are aligned with the cultural elements of Purpose, Mission, Core Values, and Shared Practices, big growth goals become possible.

Shared alignment and forward looking support are far more powerful at stoking our staff’s internal motivation than monitoring and mandates. If this foundational assumption is sound, what’s necessary to create the outcomes we need?

What conditions are required to produce the outcomes?

Leaders who start with the question “what” instead of “where” earn a critical performance advantage over their peers who don’t.

What might change if you start with the assumption that people are already intrinsically motivated and it is not the leader’s job to motivate them?

Effective leaders define the goals and create conditions in which their team can thrive.

Within an environment where motivated people can thrive, they choose to remain because they’re aligned with our purpose and mission. Buy-in on the outcomes that matter almost always follows. When it doesn’t, there’s freedom and collaboration that leads to continuous improvement.

Don’t believe me?

Check out some highlights from the publicly traded WD-40 company’s 2Q24 earnings call transcript:

  • …we have been able to maintain an employee engagement score of around 93%

  • …we continue to expand margins from prior year and performed within our target range of 50% to 55%. For the second quarter, gross margin improved 160 basis points over prior year to 52.4%. Gross margin benefited 130 basis points from favorable sales mix and other miscellaneous mix. This quarter, we saw a benefit from sales mix in EIMEA, which had a strong top line growth. Lower costs associated with Specialty Chemicals also positively impacted gross margin by 100 basis points.

Is that an accident?

Former CEO Garry Ridge doesn’t think so. He was the CEO for 25 years and says results come from this formula:

The will of the people * (Strategy + Execution) = Maximum Value

Right about now, you’re probably wondering how WD-40 would be able to manufacture its product without an office. It’s a great question and worth unpacking in our final section.

Return to Office “mandate” is the third question, not the first

The primary question any leader should be asking is “How, specifically, does the building help us ship?”


  • an honest reflection on our own personal preferences,

  • a clear understanding and respect for the needs of the entire team, and

  • a commitment to well defined and collaboratively achieved outcomes,

we can get a far more accurate answer to this question.

Now, we are able to have clear-eyed discussions about how to best connect people as they do the work.

Leadership is not about doing things the way they’ve always been done. That’s maintenance. Do the same things, get the same results (assuming you’re appropriately adjusting for corporate entropy.)

Covid presented businesses all over the world with an unplanned but powerful opportunity to re-evaluate the underlying assumptions about what work looks like.

The tools available for real-time collaboration are fantastically more advanced than they were 20, 30, even 50 years ago. Back then, we did remote work with people and teams we never met using a telephone, letters, fax machines, emails, and eventually video conferencing.

We somehow adapted, adjusted, and built some of the world’s most recognized businesses.

There’s no prescribed solution for a return to the office. We even saw that traditional manufacturing norms were challenged during Covid with ventilator and mask production.

There will always be times and places where being co-located provides maximum value.

Similarly, there will always be times and places where being in a different location will provide maximum value.

Use the outcomes you want (and the results people produce) to determine not just how - but also where - the work gets done.

Get stuck in the old ways at your peril.

One more thing about Return to Office mandates…

It’s a complex, but not necessarily complicated question.

If you’ve invested heavily in real estate, that investment can be a crushing burden.

Let’s say you’ve got a $100M building in a prime location. What might happen if you converted that balance sheet item into cash which you could then invest in creating a more modern workspace culture that enables the most important collaboration around outcomes?

When maximum value producing outcomes are happening, mandates (and their adverse effects) are no longer needed. Employee engagement will rise. Customer satisfaction will rise. And, most importantly, your team will execute with a sense of purpose that is a value multiplier.

What’s stopping you from thinking (and acting) differently?


Paravelle offers executive coaching services to founders and CEOs with big growth goals. It's a crucial support structure that helps leaders avoid the negative results that come from being lonely at the top.

We might be a good fit to work together if you're:

  1. at the create (<1M ARR), build ($1-3M ARR), or grow ($3-5M ARR) stage,

  2. curious and looking for ideas and answers, and

  3. ready to invest in working with a collaborator that brings a co-founder's perspective (without losing half your equity).

Let's chat!

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