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Return to office: ‘The employees have the power’ over policy, expert says

Culture Partners Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture Jessica Kriegel joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss return to the office dates, the balance of power between employees and employers, workplace culture, and the 'quiet quitting' phenomenon.

Video Transcript

- For millions of Americans, this is the final week of summer, one last chance to go out and get some sun. For thousands of Apple employees, it's the end of fully remote work. CEO Tim Cook setting return to office deadline of Tuesday September, 5, albeit for just three days a week. Will this work? Jessica Kriegel is the Culture Partners' chief scientist of workplace culture. She joins us now. Nice to see you. So 1,000 Apple employees have signed a letter saying, nope, we're not coming back. Who has the power right now?

JESSICA KRIEGEL: I'm surprised it's not more people, frankly. The employees have the power. The war for talent is over. And the talent has won as far as I'm concerned. And so employers need to listen. If employees don't want to go back to work, they need to be flexible and make arrangements accordingly.

- So for businesses who are trying to quantify how they should be handling this, if they need a hybrid model versus trying to make people return to work, how should they really assess this from a business perspective?

JESSICA KRIEGEL: Well, first of all, you need to elevate the voice of the employee. And so most large organizations are surveying their employees. They're asking directly, what do you want? Will you come back into work? Will three days of work work for you? Will five days of work work for you? And they're gauging the waters. They're trying to understand, are people feeling really frustrated about this? Or are they willing? Are they eager? And the reality is there is not a one size fits all approach. Some employees have a lot of kids at home. They're really excited to get back into the office. And others have enjoyed it too much. And they're just not going to come back.

- So Jessica, you say the power is all with the employees right now. But we've seen certainly some CEOs don't care, right. Apple certainly one of them. Tim Cook saying, you need to come back. Goldman has said it in the past. JPMorgan. Jamie Dimon has recently reiterated the fact that he wants his employees back to the office. So what do you think we're going to see? Are we going to see more of those workers leave those companies? Should we anticipate maybe a mass exodus because of this?

JESSICA KRIEGEL: I think we've already seen the mass exodus begin. And we're going to see it continue. This isn't the first time that people have tried to get their employees to come back into the office. We've tried every few months there's another wave of attempts to get people back into the office. And they've found it's just not working. The great resignation was evidence of that. Quit rates were at an all-time high.

People are walking with their feet when they are not happy at their current employer. And if you force someone to do something that's just not going to work for them, they're going to leave. And so I think Labor Day is going to be a bust. People are going to be expected to come back into the office. And instead, they're going to get a bunch of resignation letters.

- I think Tim Cook is about to call 1,000 bluffs and say, I have one of the best run wonderful companies on the planet. See you later. But your title is chief scientist of workplace culture. I'm curious what you think the impact is on office culture when it comes to remote work. Now, we admit we're different. We love being in person. We think our culture is only added to us being in person. But overall, what are you seeing the impact?

JESSICA KRIEGEL: So a common misconception is that culture is housed in the four walls of your workplace, that we only do culture at the watercooler or when we happen to run into each other at the office in the hallways. The "New York Times" came out with an article that said there is no evidence that running into each other and chance meetings at the office actually boost innovation. And we're seeing the same thing. We do research on culture.

And culture is about, ultimately, the experiences that we have. Those experiences are things that happen on Zoom calls. I have an experience when I join a call. I have an experience when I have an email that a colleague sends me and there's an exclamation point. That's an experience. Or I have experiences when I'm just chatting with people on text or on the phone.

Those lead to beliefs, a belief about my colleague, a belief about my workplace, about the work that I'm doing. And that will lead to action that we take in the workplace which is going to get us results. That's culture. It's not ping-pong tables. It's not Hawaiian shirt Fridays. It's not all the other perks that people think are culture. That's not what gets results. It's about how we act and what we believe about the work we're doing here.

- And Jessica, in terms of the companies that you've researched or done consulting for, including Oracle, Toyota, Lockheed Martin, even the Federal Reserve, and Bank of America, you talk about it leading to the culture equation. Talk about some of the questions that these companies that you advise have and what sort of outcome you're finding right now.

JESSICA KRIEGEL: Yeah. The culture equation is purpose plus your strategy powered by culture equals results. So your purpose is the why. It's your why. Why do I wake up in the morning and care about working here? How am I connected to something meaningful? And then your strategy is your how. How do I actually get things done? That will only get activated by culture if you align your culture and your purpose and your strategy. There has to be alignment.

So there isn't a one size fits all approach to this. There are some companies that have a strategy that's going to require their employees to come into the workplace. That might be right for them and totally wrong for another company that's got a different strategy. And so we power our strategy and our purpose with culture. That's what ultimately gets results.

- Jessica, let's talk about quiet quitting. It has gone viral on TikTok. We've heard so much about quiet quitting over the last couple of weeks. My argument, though, is that you've always had people like this in the workplace. People that put their foot down saying that they're no longer willing to go the extra mile, no longer willing to rise above and do anything outside of what they were specifically hired to do. Why do you think this movement, this quiet quitting phenomenon is really striking a chord right now?

JESSICA KRIEGEL: Probably because of alliteration. Quiet quitting. Two Q's. It's cute, right. It's a buzzword.

- So it is nothing new. It doesn't tell us anything about the workplace culture, anything new, right?

JESSICA KRIEGEL: No. It's nothing new. It's the unengaged worker. We've had unengaged workers since the Model-T. I mean, we've always had people who didn't really want to go above and beyond. They're also called B players. And companies should be happy to have B players because A players take a lot of investment and a lot of time. It's hard to manage A players.

And so you need a balance of diversity in your employee base. And quiet quitting is not really the big problem that everyone's making it out to be. We have to be worried more about quiet firing, which is when an employee has no future at their company, but their manager doesn't have the guts to tell them the truth. That's I think a bigger issue for culture.

- We've got a lot going on in the workplace these days. A big thank you for all your insights. Jessica Kriegel, thank you so much.