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    Back-to-Office Battles Underscore a Change in Workplace Authority

    A C.E.O. steps out of the corner office, stares into the abyss of a sparsely occupied floor, and only the abyss stares back. Disconcerting questions arise: What kind of a place is this, and what kind of a leader am I if so few people want to show up? What has happened to my authority?

    The hierarchy effect, already weakening before the pandemic, has been undermined even further by the living (and successful) experiment of hybrid work. Mandates don’t seem to be working. And the new way of leading that executives developed during the pandemic, when they were managing a crisis, has to be adapted again: All that openness and vulnerability — the Zoom meetings from home giving glimpses into private life — may have endeared leaders to their workforces, but it isn’t necessarily effective now.

    Leaders are facing more than a back-to-office struggle: They are wrestling with a new, post-pandemic identity.

    Some have responded by looking to reassert a degree of traditional control. JPMorgan Chase, for example, could not have been clearer in a recent staff memo when it instructed managing directors to be in the office five days a week “to lead by example.” Workers were failing to meet their required target of three days a week in the office, the memo said, “and that must change.” The memo said managers could consider “corrective action” if their team’s attendance levels did not improve.

    The bank’s staff responded by lighting up its internal messaging forum with criticism, eventually leading to a lock on comments, according to Reuters.

    “Colleagues have enjoyed a taste of independence, if not of freedom,” says Laura Empson, a professor of the management of professional service firms at Bayes Business School at City, University of London. “We have been effective in isolation. We are not automatically going to accept authority as we may have done before.”

    Eve Poole, a writer and leadership expert, likens this return-to-office moment to the paradigm shift that occurred after World War II.

    Then, too, leaders had to adapt to a world in which deference and obedience could no longer be assumed, given the shattering (and equalizing) experience of the war.

    In the current environment, the nervous leader who demands attendance risks creating greater presenteeism rather than better results. “There’s also a chance that sycophants will haunt offices to leapfrog those who don’t,” Ms. Poole says.

    “Leaders who want to keep authority will need to be good at having their finger on the pulse,” she adds. “They will need to be great at enabling and anticipating — more a coach at the side rather than a player on the pitch — and fabulous storytellers to create culture and loyalty.” This is perhaps what employees deserve, she suggests: “We have proved we can be trusted, even in an extreme situation, so why aren’t you trusting us now?”

    Some leaders remain convinced that turning up physically can work better. Andy Jassy, the chief executive of Amazon, wrote in his 2022 letter to shareholders: “Many of the best Amazon inventions have had their breakthrough moments from people staying behind after a meeting and working through ideas on a whiteboard, or continuing the conversation on the walk back from a meeting, or just popping by a teammate’s office later that day with another thought.”

    To get workers back into the office, leaders will have to get their tone and the message right. “Too much informality could be undermining,” Ms. Empson said. “People might like you more, but will they work for you?”

    But even in a world where employees have more autonomy and flexibility, Kevin Ellis, chair and senior partner at PWC in London, said people still wanted leaders to create “guardrails.” And guardrails “also help leaders to act with consistency and confidence,” he said.

    Roger Steare, an adviser to corporate executives, warns that a desire to establish authority misses the point: The best work happens when there are strong human relationships in the workplace.

    “It’s slightly narcissistic and self-important of C.E.O.s to believe that they should have militaristic authority,” he says. “Great work is a team effort. If someone is looking to have authority they’ve got a problem. You can’t impose it: People choose to follow you — or not. Talented people will vote with their feet and leave.”

    His comments have echoes of Peter Drucker’s management principle that says bosses should manage people not as “conscripts,” but as “volunteers.”

    Stephen Carter, the chief executive of Informa, a multinational events group, said his company mandates “very little” when it comes to returning to the office. “The only guidance I give when I get asked about this in town halls is ‘be in more than you’re not,’ he said. “Not on a weekly basis — but over a period of time. You make a decision for yourself and your team. We’re not a ‘presence’ culture,” he added.

    Ultimately, leadership authority is granted by willing followers. Terri Kelly, who led the textiles and high-tech firm WL Gore for 13 years, until 2018, put it best in a discussion with the management guru Gary Hamel in 2010: “One of my associates said, ‘If you call a meeting, and no one shows up, you’re probably not a leader, because no one is willing to follow you.’”

    Stefan Stern is a journalist and author. His next book, ‘The Lady Macbeth Guide to Ambition,’ will be published next year.

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