Decades of psychology experiments show strong links between our sense of control, well-being, and satisfaction. In a classic study by David Glass and Jerome Singer, people were subjected to loud bursts of random noise while they were given difficult puzzles to solve. One group was told they could press a button to shut off the noise but were asked not to unless they couldn’t stand the racket anymore. No one pressed the button.

The other group was exposed to the same noise while they worked on the puzzles but didn’t have a button to shut it off. The group with the option to shut off the noise — which no one did — were less stressed by the noise and persisted longer in solving the puzzles.

In another often-cited study by Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin, nursing home residents on two different floors were given plants for their rooms. On one floor, residents choose the plants they want and are given the responsibility of caring for them. The residents on this floor were also asked as a group to choose their movie night.

On the other floor, residents were given plants chosen by their caregivers, who also looked after them. Movie night was decided for them.

The first group of residents on the floor with more control were “happier, more active, and more alert (as rated by the nurses, not just by the residents), and these benefits were still visible eighteen months later. Most amazingly, at the eighteen-month follow-up, residents of the floor given control had better health and half as many deaths (15 percent versus 30 percent).”

These are two of many studies showing the power of autonomy and control.

Decisions at Work: Less Puppeteering and More Partnering

Studies such as that by the CATO Institute concluded, Remote Work is Here to Stay, Mostly for the Better. They also cite research showing “a striking 78 percent of American workers say flexibility in their job is ‘one of the most or a very important’ factor in looking for a job. By contrast, just 55 percent say the same about pay. The American workforce is sending a clear message: Flexibility is no longer just a perk; it’s the crown jewel of employment.”

It’s about choice, trust, and respect. In Return-to-Office Plans Don’t Have to Undermine Employee Autonomy, Kimberly Shells and Caitlin Duffy cite a recent Gartner survey showing many organizations are expecting employees to work on-site.

However, trust is becoming a key problem with the Return-to-Work issue. Previous Gartner research showed that giving employees autonomy reduces their fatigue by 1.9 times and makes them 2.3 times less likely to leave the organization.

Gartner reports, “Across all generations, work-life balance currently ranks as the third most important attribute employees are looking for in a job.” The authors conclude, “Introducing return-to-office mandates that seem at odds with a human-centric corporate purpose can lead to tremendous organizational damage, including an erosion of already-frayed employee trust and connection to the organization, as well as an increase in attrition.”

Who’s Pulling the Strings: Bossing versus Leading

Hybrid, Work-From Home, and Return to Work mandates are new variations of a very old issue — bossing versus leading. Bosses push, manipulate, and mandate. Leaders pull, serve, and partner.

In their University of Pittsburgh research report, Return to Office Mandates Don’t Improve Employee or Company Performance, Mark Ma and Yuye Ding write, “Our findings are consistent with employees’ concerns that managers use RTO for power grabbing and blaming employees for poor performance… RTO mandates hurt employee satisfaction but do not improve firm performance.” They found that many managers are using this issue as a scapegoat for their organization’s poor results.

WorldatWork writer, Rebecca McKinsey’s investigative report on ROT mandates discovered they face a backlash over flexibility. She quotes WTW global leader, Rachael McCann Jones, “If employee well-being and diversity, equity and inclusion are important to an organization, a mandate may signal to employees that [the company is] not committed [to them], as flexible, hybrid and remote work is a game-changer for work-life balance, caregivers, and disabled employees.”

In doing similar research HRDive senior reporter, Ryan Golden describes four mistakes to avoid when calling employees back to work:

Mistake #1: Taking an ‘all or nothing’ approach.

Mistake #2: Signaling you’ve lost trust in workers and managers.

Mistake #3: Thinking food or premium office space is enough.

Mistake #4: Mimicking other companies’ RTO plans.

Return-to-Office Approaches: Core Values at Work

Decisions about remote, in-office, or hybrid policies expose underlying values about trust, partnering, and treating team members as adults or children. Effective leaders feel people should be given a choice to do what works best for them. These “large fishtank” leaders believe that most people are self-motivated and self-controlled, want to take pride in their work, be on a winning team, and are trusted adults.

Small fishbowl” managers feel it’s about “the golden rule” — whoever’s paying the gold makes the rules. The boss is in charge of deciding what the home/office/hybrid policies should be. These managers often blab, blab, blab…about the value of people. “Our people are our most important assets,” “We’re a people-first organization,” “Our core values are teamwork/trust/collaboration/respect/____” …yadda, yadda, yadda…

But their actions show their true values. They actually believe most employees will take advantage, need to be “snoopervised,” and should be managed like kids with rules, policies, and punishments. One argument about this issue at a leadership team retreat was that the company needed to use all the costly office space that was sitting empty. Not exactly a people-centered set of core values!

Numerous analyses, such as the 2023 study by Microsoft, find that people working in hybrid or remote arrangements are more productive than people working in the office full-time. And countless studies show the links between employee engagement, trust, being treated as partners, and team or organization performance.

Love it, hate it, or just tolerate it; some form of part- or full-time remote work is here to stay. How leaders deal with the challenges and dilemmas of where people work shouts loudly and clearly what core values anchor the organization’s culture.

Bosses puppeteer, leaders partner.