Even as the coronavirus pandemic continues, the global economy is improving. And for a basic human reason: People want to get back to normal — and back to work. People are heading back to restaurants, bars, movie theaters, live events — and the office.

The inevitable return to work has caused another debate — one between business leaders and their employees:

  • According to the human resources research firm Best Practice Institute (BPI), 83% of chief executive officers want employees back in the office in 2021.
  • In that same study, BPI reported that only 10% of employees indicate they wish to be back in the office full time.
  • A 2021 survey by Joblist found that over 50% of former hospitality workers refuse to return to the industry.

The root cause of this considerable disconnect is that some leaders are forcing staff — who are now used to certain levels of autonomy and freedom — back into the “old normal” way of doing things based on autocratic, command-and-control leadership philosophy and practices. In fact, despite the abundance of learning opportunities available over the past 18 months, it seems leaders still haven’t grown; they still don’t know how to do anything different.

A Workplace Evolution

In the meantime, the working population has evolved. The pause caused by the pandemic — due to the stressors of a vicious virus, lost jobs, working from home, at-home learning and more — has given many employees time to reflect and reprioritize. Now, they realize that going back to the old normal, including a return to a time when they couldn’t decide when, where and how work got done, isn’t all that attractive. Of course, that is not to say that the rise of remote work single-handedly fixed everything wrong with company cultures; many new challenges like employee burnout, balancing work and life demands, cybersecurity and a lack of transparency arose. But in general, people felt better about their experience at work and, in many cases, about the employer-employee relationship.

A Labor Shortage? Or “The Great Resignation”?

The result for organizations insisting on a return to the old normal?

Driven by employee discontent — and fueled the appeal of the freelance economy, the previously unacknowledged desire to be at home with children, and the valid expectation that leaders and companies respect their people — those companies are experiencing a “great resignation.” True, August 2021, hiring in the U.S. amounted to 6.3 million jobs filled. However, the quit rate in August was 4.2 million,  which results in a job gain of 2.1 million. The quit rates in the U.S. have averaged over 4 million voluntary separations each month since April, the highest totals recorded. Thus, the so-called “labor shortage” is set to continue.

Many industries, in reality, don’t have a labor shortage. Instead, especially for companies that learned nothing about the evolving human condition over the past year-and-a-half, we have a “respect shortage.”

Employees of all generations desire and deserve workplaces where they are respected and validated for their ideas, efforts and contributions, every day.

This means that reluctant leaders must now create work cultures where everyone — and every stakeholder — expects respect while being held accountable for helping drive better results. They must offer workplaces where managers act more like mentors, the mission is something other than making money, and where the work performed matters really matters.

The challenge is that the corporate world has rarely asked business leaders to change their embedded work cultures. As a result, few executives have experienced successful culture change. Leaders like Robert Pasin at Radio Flyer, Kris Malkowski at Newell Brands, and Joel Anderson, previously at WalMart and now at Five Below, have led successful culture change. Each of these leaders has created and sustained work cultures where players are engaged, creative, committed and delighted with their work environment, bosses, and colleagues. They go to work knowing their efforts, ideas and contributions matter.

So, even if asked — or if market conditions demanded — as they do right now, those leaders wouldn’t know how to take their company culture from toxic to respectful. Inevitably, due to missteps and reliance on hope rather than action, their efforts fail. Eventually, employees see change efforts for what they too often are: Well-intended messaging that sounds good until it starts to fall on deaf ears.

Why Most Change Initiatives Fail (and What Must Change)

When leaders attempt change initiatives, we typically see three fatal flaws that doom the change effort:

  • Leaders delegate rather than champion.

Since we’ve never taught leaders how to drive and sustain culture refinement, they delegate the responsibility to a “people department” like human resources, organizational development, or even a cross-functional team. The fatal flaw is that these departments and teams do not have the authority and the responsibility; they can’t be the driver of change. Only senior leaders can change policies, practices, and incentives to embed the desired change. Only senior leaders can serve as Chief Role Models for the change they want to see.

  • Leaders announce rather than align.

When leaders do not have a proven process to implement change, they enthusiastically create well-intended plans and craft new policies. Then, in some grand fashion like a town hall or all-hands meeting, they announce those plans and policies in hopes that their organization will magically embrace them. Sure, everyone leaves the room feeling motivated.  But no one has a clue what comes next. Declaring new expectations without aligning all plans, decisions, and actions to those new expectations means the change will flail–and fail.

  • Leaders hope rather than measure.

Holding people accountable is the only way players will learn that leaders are serious about implementing change. Just as leaders measure traction on results (productivity, profits, etc.) regularly, they must also consistently measure the respectful treatment of everyone. For example, once you define “respect” in observable, tangible, measurable terms, you must conduct regular values surveys to gauge how well employees rate their bosses on the behaviors that demonstrate respect in the workplace. With that data, leaders can praise aligned behaviors and redirect misaligned behaviors promptly and objectively — instead of hoping leaders treat people with the respect they deserve.

Creating Sustainable Change: Define, Align and Refine Your Work Culture

However, there is a proven process the world’s best leaders leverage to co-create a civil, innovative, gratifying, and productive (and even fun!). Along the way, they have nurtured company cultures that do not suck. These leaders:

  • Define a work culture that puts good first, valuing respect as much as results.
  • Align to that culture by monitoring, measuring, and rewarding behaviors that demonstrate carefully defined values and agreed-upon standards.
  • As alignment to the defined company culture gains traction, and people start to see the change as real, refine by holding every contributor accountable for living up to the organization’s values and behaviors.

Don’t make the mistake of plugging people back into a negative company culture.

Instead, attract the best talent, and avoid the employee mass exodus many companies are now experiencing by intentionally building a culture where people expect respect in every interaction — and tangible improvement in results quickly follows. Your goal: Create a culture where good people do good work, in a good place to work.