Kevin J. Delaney is CEO and editor-in-chief of Charter, a media and services company focused on the future of work. He was a co-founder of Quartz, managing editor at The Wall Street Journal, and senior editor at The New York Times.

The late Kurt Lewin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology once observed that companies’ practices and cultures are usually frozen, making deep change harder. But sometimes external factors can bring about a thaw, making transformation possible—before the organization freezes again.

The pandemic has, without a doubt, brought on a massive thawing and extended period of slush, as Lynda Gratton of London Business School has noted. Now, as we head into 2022, we need to expect practices and norms to naturally freeze in place once again. And that creates a unique window before they do for leaders to reshape their organizations and deepen the trust of their employees.

Yet there are reasons to be concerned that many will squander this unique opportunity to redefine the culture and practices of their organizations to better equip them for how work and our world have changed.

Numerous surveys have found a wide gap between executives’ expectations for workers to return to offices and their employees’ own desires. More than three-quarters of C-suite executives polled by McKinsey in May said they expected typical white collar employees to come back to the office three or more days per week, while over half of the workers they surveyed wanted three or more days of remote work. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup survey found that the majority of production and front-line workers (many of whom have been required to work on-site throughout the pandemic) are “struggling” or “suffering,” even as many of their employers are reporting record profits.

This broad disconnect is a recipe for disengagement and employee departures. It’s possible that we’re seeing some of that in the record voluntary resignation numbers posted in recent months — some 3% of the U.S. workforce quit their jobs in September alone, and another 2.8% voluntarily resigned in October. Whether you think this is truly a “Great Resignation” or not, a lot of workers are feeling empowered to voluntarily leave their jobs.

Now, the Omicron variant, the broader return to the workplace planned for 2022 will almost certainly test corporate leadership further. Some 60% of workers say that employees today have more power and leverage when it comes to creating change in organizations, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. And they’re increasingly skeptical about companies’ actions. Just 48% say their employer is acting on its values, down seven percentage points from January 2019. There has also been a sense of backsliding even in high-profile areas such as diversity. Some 65% of US workers said employees at all levels of their company reflect the diversity of their customers and community, down five percentage points from January 2019.

Build or botch?

Laszlo Bock, the CEO of Humu, a company focused on workplace behavioral change, and former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, believes that many companies will botch the return to the workplace. He predicts that 80% of large companies adopting new hybrid and remote approaches will abandon them in two years.

Bock also believes that many leaders will make the mistake of pushing workers for performance at a moment when many remain exhausted and burned out. He advises formally relaxing performance standards to give employees breathing room to reset their energy and recommit to their roles, which will pay off in increased productivity over the long run. “Keep burning people out and they’re all going to quit and your attrition is going to double and you’re going to be further behind,” Bock warns.

The good news for bosses is that workers today trust their own employers, more than just about any societal institution. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: The Belief-Driven Employee, some 78% of employees said they trusted their co-workers, followed by their direct manager (77%), chief executive (71%), and head of human resources (70%).

According to the same report, the other piece of good news for bosses, or at least those driven by a clear and positive purpose, is that belief-driven employees — a category that apparently has grown fast in recent years — are loyal, more likely to say they want to work for their employer for many years, and more likely to do more than what’s expected to help the organization succeed.

So, what should leaders do to capitalize on this transitional moment and build trust?

  • First, earn and cement that trust. Susan Ashford, professor at the University of Michigan and author of “The Power of Flexing,” says workers are looking for confidence, competence, and compassion from leaders right now. “They want to know that someone is confident that we’re going to get through this,” Ashford says. “They want competence so that they can believe the first claim.” And, she adds, “they want people that, whether they can accommodate it fully or not, are compassionate about what people are going through.”
  • Second, communicate clearly with employees. This requires sharing what you don’t know, in addition to what you do know. It preferably includes engaging in a dialogue, such as a monthly “ask me anything” session between the leadership team and staff. And, above all, it involves communicating the reasoning behind decisions related to returning to the office and the future of work. Surveys throughout 2021 indicated that employees felt that too often executives weren’t communicating adequately about what was ahead — and that failure was adding to their anxiety and disengagement.
  • Third, focus on outcomes over hours. Our societies shifted in the 19th century from assessing work by output to primarily measuring hours worked. It’s time now to shift back to focusing on the work people do and the impact that work has rather than the number of hours per day that workers are sitting in a sea of desks outside their manager’s office.

The good news for bosses is that workers today trust their own employers, more than just about any societal institution.

The research is clear that people are more productive when they are trusted with autonomy about how they use their time — including where and when they work. It’s also clear that working longer hours isn’t necessarily working better, or more productively. In fact, studies suggest that beyond 50 hours per week, there are dramatically diminishing returns to hours worked.

How do you provide flexibility, get the work done, and preserve a company’s culture and creativity? Research shows that hybrid work models — where viable — may be the answer, with workers coming together two or three days a week to meet in person, while doing focused individual work remotely.

  • Fourth, ensure leadership actions and words line up. Especially when it comes to areas like diversity and inclusion, and corporate mission, workers are looking for leaders’ words to be followed by action (which in many cases has yet to be delivered). In 2022, things are likely to come to a head. Workers will have high expectations of their workplace preferences being taken into account, especially if leaders claim that the planning process will do so.

The workers who will return to workplaces in 2022 aren’t the same as those who abruptly left their offices in early 2020. Data from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: The Belief-Driven Employee shows clearly that they’re now looking more than before for their employers to connect their work to societal values and purpose, they are demanding flexibility in terms of when and where they work, and they are expecting that organizations prioritize their wellbeing.

In many industries and for many positions, the ability to recruit and retain talent will depend upon employers’ willingness to match their practices to employees’ expectations, for roles ranging from front-line retail, restaurant and delivery workers to senior executives. The baseline assumption of workers now more than ever includes fair wages and greater autonomy.

Meeting the challenge of building trustworthy work will require leaders with more advanced emotional intelligence than is often found in the C-Suite, the kind who innately understands that the key to satisfying customers and shareholders and to lasting corporate success is your people. And that ensuring they are inspired, healthy, and happy isn’t a soft get, but a mission-critical goal.