Why some leaders deny reality with return-to-office strategies amid Delta surge

Contributed by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, an internationally-renowned thought leader in future-proofing and cognitive bias risk management and an EO 360° podcast guest. We asked Dr. Tsipursky to explain how normalcy bias and other cognitive biases impact entrepreneurs in determining return-to-office scenarios. Here’s what he shared:

As the efficiency rate of vaccines against the Delta variant slides to 39%, company leaders who implement a normal office return are denying reality. The threat is now indisputable: Delta variant infections and deaths have reached an alarming rate in just a few months. No wonder the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone—including those who are fully vaccinated—wear masks and has begun to recommend booster shots for at-risk groups.

Still, many companies, from large ones to start-ups, and even the US federal government, are pressing on with the return to the office, despite employee resistance. Of those who worked remotely during the peak of the pandemic, over a third have already returned. Most of the remainder are required to do so by mid-autumn. In addition, as schools resume in-person learning, Delta variant cases and hospitalizations are increasing at alarming levels.

Employees’ stance on work arrangements

Results of in-depth surveys on employee preferences around return-to-office plans clearly showed a reluctance for a normal office return even before the Delta surge. Approximately half say they will quit if their preferred work arrangements are not approved. A quarter to a third of employees favored full-time remote work, while more than half preferred a hybrid schedule of a day or two in the office.

Numerous employees have already quit in response to the compulsive plans of their employers to get them back to the office. The Delta surge will lead to more resignations among employees who don’t wish to risk their health with breakthrough infections.

Denying reality with return-to-office decisions

Why are reputable companies, and even the US federal government, pushing employees to risk their health? What drives them to promote massive turmoil through office return pressure if this will contribute to the Great Resignation of employees?

Many large employers fail to listen to their employees’ concerns due to dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking, these mental blind spots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices. Such blind spots compel leaders to follow their gut and personal preferences instead of relying on best practices for the return to the office.

The normalcy bias prompts people to significantly underestimate the Delta surge . It leads them to greatly underappreciate the likelihood and consequences of disruptive events.

Top employers claim proudly that they make research-based decisions. Well, the data on Delta and other variants are sitting right in front of them, with no excuses about the danger of infection from COVID cases. Still, employers persist in ordering their employees back to the office.

Another mental blind spot, planning fallacy, causes leaders to exaggerate optimistic plans. It makes them refuse to pursue changes even when the situation around them changes due to serious and unexpected problems. Weak leaders frequently deny these threats and rarely acknowledge the need to alter plans. But strong leaders express courage in changing their minds when the reality changes around them.

Ongoing waves of the pandemic

A small number of organizations are brave enough to revise their plans. A case in point: Apple delayed its return to campus–first from September to October, and now until January 2022 at the earliest. 

Large employers must accept the fact that vaccine immunity wanes a few months after vaccination. In addition, new variants, such as Delta Plus and Mu, may further undermine our recovery. For instance, Delta Plus appears to be just as infectious as Delta, but more resistant to vaccines.

Delta is an unpleasant, short-term issue, but one that highlights the need to address multiple similar scenarios in the long term. Our avoidance response to negative reality is what the scholarship calls the ostrich effect. This cognitive bias is named after the mythical notion that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when facing danger. Research suggests that denying negative reality is a principal cause for Boards of Directors to fire their CEOs.

Conclusion

To overcome cognitive biases and cease denying reality, it’s critical to acknowledge faulty thinking strategies and rely on research-based best practices to ensure a successful return to the office. A mainly hybrid model of one to two days in-office offers the best path for most employees, with some working full-time remotely. That creates an organizational culture which facilitates an easy shift to full-time remote work for all employees when the need arises. This best-practice setup maximizes in-office collaboration, retains top talent, and fosters versatile company culture, systems and processes.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities.. A best-selling author, his newest book is Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.

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