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One of the senior software developers instantly quit over my company announcing that it will be office-centric again.

Management dealt with the concerns about that very badly and lectured employees about negativity.

I ideally would like to poll my staff in a nonprejudiced way to figure out who is considering leaving over this new policy. I never figured out how to do so, but I am wondering if there is a way now.

I am not going to fire any of them; I just want to know how aggressive I need to be about contingency planning and for which teams and what kind of roles I might need to start planning to get (if I even can in this market).

Any ideas?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Jun 14 at 22:30

13 Answers 13

131
  1. deserve trust
  2. build trust
  3. listen

So, if you are trustworthy, and you build relationships based on trust, people will use that trust. Let's say I were a senior developer that would quit because of a 100% office policy, I might be interested in sharing that before it becomes (enforced) policy, because it might help to prevent that policy from becoming reality. I will do this when I know that this will be perceived with the notion of good intent.

But what usually happens: Management doesn't take complaints seriously, and lament about employee negativity. Read: Management wants everyone to happily suck it up and dance along with whatever management thinks best. This screams to everyone: Go along, or go away!

Other favourites are: An employee shares something that might make him quit in the hope of change. Instead of getting improvement for himself, he gets fired! This is especially prevalent where employee protection is weak, but even with strong employee rights, there are ways around it, usually called managing people away (what an euphemism).

So the usual advice on this site to employees is: Don't trust your employer, search for new employment and go silently! Which is sound advice in a lot of workplaces.

By your phrasing, I presume that upper management isn't exactly trustworthy.

You can still work for and gain the trust of your direct reports. This will give you the power to work with them cooperatively. E.g. somebody is searching for a new job and doesn't want to ??? about it. You get time to search for a replacement while he trusts you to not suffer negative consequences in the meantime.

Or you can inform upper management: Hey, people will leave if you do this. Be aware of the consequences and think of the benefits!

Beware though, if upper management realizes you know more and are trusted more, they might force you into abusing that! Or they might punish you for not abusing that. Management phrasing would be something like: By not sharing your knowledge of who thinks about quitting you put personal relations over business interest, this is unacceptable, you are fired!

I personally had good relations with various direct managers of mine, which were informed of me wanting another job well before it was official. To one I had to promise to never let the boss know my manager knew in advance, otherwise he would get punished! And if that boss had known I was searching, I would have been in a bad spot...

So I know this can work, but it's not without risk.

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    This is very good advice, but note that you can have reasonable decent in upper management and reasonably decent people in lower management and still get a pretty bad upper management vibe. The transfer of information from top to bottom and back again is inherently extremely lossy.
    – DRF
    Jun 14 at 14:08
  • quit over 100%??!!! what about over 1%??!!
    – JoelFan
    Jun 14 at 22:20
  • I rephrased that part, I hope it's clearer now
    – Benjamin
    Jun 15 at 6:44
  • 2
    Of course, one of the downsides of everyone working at home is that it's much harder to have subtle "feeling the air" conversations with people. There are some things you want to talk about over a pint, not on the phone, let alone by email. Jun 15 at 9:29
  • yes, the watercooler talk is hard to emulate. I think it's a good idea to have regular 1on1 meetings for purposes like this. Preferably with videochat.
    – Benjamin
    Jun 15 at 9:43
45

You could run an anonymous poll. There are plenty of free online tools you can use (eg strawpoll).

However, I'm not sure how this would be received. I'd feel slightly awkward if I was asked to do this. It's not something I have to answer, and probably isn't in my best interest.

My thought would be, I have a contract and a stated amount of notice I agree to give. You have my notice period to prepare, that's what it's for. I'm not answering this on the off chance it's not anonymous, or everyone votes the same and it becomes no longer anonymous.

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    Most people working in companies where they are afraid to share what they feel, also don't trust anonymous polls to actually be anonymous.
    – Erik
    Jun 13 at 13:33
  • 37
    I know of a very big company that ran an "anonymous" poll, and then ended up firing an employee who gave a wrong answer…
    – o0'.
    Jun 13 at 18:43
  • 27
    I get "anonymous" surveys at work. But the the third party knows my name, and what I answered last time. And I have to take on faith that none of this detail leaves the third party. I have zero trust in this.
    – Criggie
    Jun 14 at 0:33
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    @Erik: my company ran an anonymous review of supervisors by their direct reports. The employee names were well stripped off, but I got a comment that could be viewed as negative from one employee. It was easy to figure out who it came from. I saw it as valid criticism and tried to improve, but others might react differently. I never disclosed who it came from, but somebody else might have figured it out. We all know surveys that just ask for ratings from 1-5 never ask the questions you want to answer, so our survey was open ended questions. It then can't be anonymous. Jun 14 at 2:49
  • 31
    First time we had an "anonymous" poll at work I deliberately gave an answer that I knew would draw attention. Sure enough I was called to a meeting by the management to discuss my responses. I asked if they wanted to discuss the poll, pointing out the multiple assurances that the poll was not identifiable and cc'd my Union rep and sure enough they withdrew the invite Jun 14 at 14:36
28

It may be too late already. I worked at one company for almost 30 years. There was a culture that "we are all in this together". I became a supervisor and had a number of people come to me saying they were considering leaving. I took the honest approach of saying that as long as they worked here they owed us their best, but they were free agents and if they saw a better opportunity elsewhere they should take it. Some stayed, some left, but I think it promoted the team feeling of those who stayed. I am surprised by the culture of this stackexchange that management is your enemy. Every boss I had was my friend because s/he recognized that if I succeeded that was one part of them succeeding. I was the same way. If a direct report came asking for help that became my top priority. Of course, if somebody overused that ticket it was a downgrade, but I never had that. Trust is precious and needs to be carefully maintained. If you have it, things are much easier.

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    Management might not be the employee's enemy, but their interests won't always align. If some employee says that they are resigning, management may honestly think that it is in the best interest of the company to recruit his replacement ASAP and, if the employee is still on board (or even if he has changed his mind), fire him.
    – SJuan76
    Jun 13 at 17:03
  • 9
    In this case, it's not "the culture of this stackexchange" but rather seems like the culture of the OP's company, where concerns are apparently responded to with lectures about negativity. That your company wasn't like this is wonderful, but the OP's company doesn't seem to have the same culture of honesty and trust. Jun 14 at 3:31
  • 16
    " I am surprised by the culture of this stackexchange that management is your enemy. Every boss I had was my friend " - if you'd ever had a boss that wasn't your friend, maybe you wouldn't be so surprised...
    – AakashM
    Jun 14 at 9:42
  • 6
    My current manager literally said to me "We are not friends, we are not colleagues, you are my subordinate and nothing more."
    – ionizing
    Jun 14 at 12:09
  • 5
    I had a manager that told me "You're not being paid to think, you're being paid to do what you're told." This was at a fintech startup a few years back.
    – xxbbcc
    Jun 14 at 13:57
24

It is too late to gain enough of the trust of the engineers to do this. By coming out swinging after the first person left, management has ensured that no one rationally should stick their neck out (even allegedly “anonymously”) because of the obvious risk of reprisal.

Over the course of this event, you’ll just have to deal. If you choose to stay you can try and build up personal trust with the team over time, but if upper management habitually cannot be trusted then that will end up burning you from both ends.

5
  • I would agree with this fact as a starting point. But you may be able to begin a process of regaining trust. This would involve aligning with your employees, genuinely acknowledging this was a mistake & apologizing on behalf of your bosses, representing your employee's interests upwards, and coming back to them with the results.
    – Thomas W
    Jun 14 at 1:30
  • 1
    Sure, but that will be on a time scale much longer than this specific issue and exodus will unfold over.
    – mxyzplk
    Jun 14 at 1:41
  • 1
    Perhaps, perhaps not. The OP could -- if he wants -- go to senior management today and tell them he is concerned about the 'office policy' causing loss of staff, bring the response back to his employees, and canvas their opinions. Putting his own neck on the line will gain some degree of respect. Of course, if OP takes longer to represent employees interests it will take longer to gain their regard.
    – Thomas W
    Jun 14 at 1:54
  • @ThomasW I think that's exactly what OP wants to do but odds are, senior management isn't going to take the matter seriously without hard evidence of employee dissatisfaction. If OP was part of the discussions leading to the creation of the policy, then presumably they have already voiced their concerns and was overruled. They would need new evidence to raise the issue again. If they weren't part of the discussions, then senior management doesn't care about their opinion on the matter and speculation about a possible problem is likely going to be ignored.
    – aleppke
    Jun 14 at 17:09
  • Thanks @aleppke, that's a good insight. Clear evidence would likely be necessary for senior management not to dismiss concerns. If there were projects important to them at risk and indicative loss of staff, that also might get their attention.
    – Thomas W
    Jun 15 at 22:16
19

I'm not a manager.

If asked such a question I would find a white lie or a polite way to avoid answering.

What question/poll I would answer:

  • from 1 (very low) to 10 (very high), how would you grade the importance of remote working for you?

Please understand I'm not a native speaker, so the wording may be somewhat 'crude', but the point is: find another path to the information.

Maybe a couple of indirect, almost harmless questions and you can get more reliable information.

What I would expect from my manager (again, I'm not a manager) is that this information is discussed with upper levels advocating for my group and not planning for replacement...

But once again, I'm not a manager, so I may be a little naive with my expectations.

After posting, I realized this may not be a proper answer to the actual question: feel free to vote for removal.

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    For example, what minimum and maximum time you want to work in the office on-site is a good poll.
    – eckes
    Jun 15 at 0:49
  • In a company that's enforcing non-remote, there is a right and a wrong answer if the employee wants to stay with the company. Smart employees will realize that, and also will not trust anonymity. Jun 16 at 17:02
17

Your intention may be genuine. I can't judge whether you are truly interested in the benefit of both parties. However, what you're asking to be able to do is effectively take control over something that personally benefits employees and not the company. That is not something many employees are going to agree with. Specifically the ones willing to leave will be the ones most intent on guarding that information.

To that end, your question is indistinguishable from:

How do I get my employees to give up something that benefits them, instead making it benefit the company?

Very simply put, you can't. Not unless employees willing choose to do so, and the smart ones tend not to want to do so. Your employees are acting in their own benefit, not that of the company.

The ability to look for a job without having to already start burning the bridge on your current job is very much to the employee's benefit. And the company has a similar benefit, which you are literally trying to rely on right now:

I just want to know how aggressive I need to be about contingency planning and for which teams and what kind of roles I might need to start planning to get (if I even can in this market)

Just like your employees want to see what's out there for them, so do you. You both have the ability to shop around without needing to inform the other party that you are shopping around.


Worse still:

One of the senior devs instant quit over my company announcing that it will be office centric again.

Your company made a decision that has a massive impact on employees' personal lives and work/life balance, and did so without consulting with the employees.

I'm hard-pressed to call this anything but blindingly obvious that people are going to leave without your company knowing so in advance.

Management dealt with the concerns about that very badly and lectured employees about negativity.

When your company does receive feedback, albeit in a reason for quitting, what do they do? They turn around and blame the staff for "negativity", which loosely translates as "things the company doesn't like".

This sounds like a company that rather blames others than look inwardly, and it doesn't sound like a company with a healthy relationship with its staff to me.

Imagine if your boy/girlfriend dumps you, specifying they're doing so because of XYZ. Instead of working on XYZ, you tell all your future dates that they better not be "negative" like your ex. Does that sound like a healthy approach?

I just want to know how aggressive I need to be about contingency planning and for which teams and what kind of roles I might need to start planning to get (if I even can in this market).

This is precisely what a notice period is for. It is determined to be a reasonable amount of time (for both parties), where the active party (quitting employee, firing company) allots time to the passive party (fired employee, company) in order to prepare for the end of the employee's employment.

If you're unable to prepare in this timespan, you've got bigger fish to fry than just one person leaving. That's a disaster waiting to happen. As staff availability is then a liability, your company will need to consider upping either retainment or acquisition of staff, preferably both.

As the proverb goes, you catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar. This proverb quintessentially sums up the cause of, and solution to, staffing issues.

One of the great ways to improve staff retainment is by increasing the quality of life of the staff. At the same time, giving your employees a better quality of life also increases the likelihood someone will want to work at your company.

Fortunately, you find yourself at the crossroads of a major quality of life decision for your employees: how to approach remote work post-pandemic. I can't tell you what choice your company needs to make as I don't have all the contextual details, but there is a great opportunity to fix things here.

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    Don’t agree that a home office policy only benefits the employee. It reduces commute time an cots therefore skew employees more flexible, it can reduce absence time for emergency cases, it increases attractiveness of the job, reduces building costs and generally make employees work more flexible hours. Of course it also has downsides and trust issues and might not work in all industries, but it’s far from clear cut.
    – eckes
    Jun 15 at 0:48
  • @eckes: I didn't say it only benefits the employee. The answer was focused on improved employees' quality of work/life and WFH is a great example - but that does not mean that WFH only benefits the employees. However, as far as WFH benefits go, employees get proportionately more direct benefit out of it than companies (also aided by the fact that we're company many employees vs one company), but this in turn is precisely why it upgrades the quality of life of the employee and thus the company's staff retention/acquisition.
    – Flater
    Jun 15 at 7:30
  • The part of this answer after "worse still" is kind of irrelevant. OP presumably already recognizes that the company screwed up, and that's why they mentioned the points that you responded to.
    – The Photon
    Jun 15 at 15:36
  • @ThePhoton: Part 1 explains the issue with the asked question, part 2 answers the underlying question. The question asks how to get employees to give up something in their advantage. The second part of the answer very much highlights the environment and why employees likely would not trust this particular employer with that information, alongside solving this XY problem (Y = how do I know they will leave the company?, X = I worry about replacing staff that leave) by providing a better solution (Z = promote staff retention while at the same time also improving staff acquisition if need be).
    – Flater
    Jun 16 at 8:01
12

Management has made clear that they will berate and possibly fire employees who speak out, and that they intend to impose the policy whatever people say. So, answering you honestly has a high cost, and minimal benefit.

As such, you could realign their incentives. Offer them a thousand dollars for each honest answer about something that is serious enough to make them leave.

If this sounds absurd and expensive and impossible to happen, yeah, that's the point. Trust is expensive to replace with pure diplomacy and motivation. Upper management decided that they don't value trust, and they probably don't care enough to repair that relationship. If you don't have the resources to accomplish a task, you can't do it.

10

Complain about the company first in your conversations.

This has become an us vs them thing for the employees or rank and file against management. Employees have no problems complaining to each other, or "us." We give highly considered and restrained statements to management.

How do employees know when it is safe to complain? When one criticizes the company first.

Many times, some off had remark I make about some manager not seemingly understanding something for X reason and it will turn into lunch and then a fairly regular conversation about what is wrong with the company.

I did this on the innovation team I was on as well. I would start by criticizing some part of the company and the people I was shadowing or working with would tell me all manner of things that the company did in a frustrating way, from procurement to hardware management (neither of which I came close to).

Now, as an employee am far less threatening to other employees than a manager, but this might still work. I am certainly more open with management when they take the initiative to criticize first.

So criticize management first. Say that you think the decision is "frustrating to many" (which is not really a criticism, just an acknowledgement of reality). You will get an outpouring of information.

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    This is suicidal. At best you (as team leader) are telling your team the company isn't worth working for. At worst, some of the team will go over your head to let your boss know you are trash-talking the company down.
    – alephzero
    Jun 13 at 1:26
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    It could be quite hard to make this come across naturally and avoid making them suspicious. It's not as simple as "they said a bad thing, so I can say a bad thing", it's about establishing trust. This is entirely undermined if it comes across as a tactic to establish trust and get them to be honest (as opposed to just having an open and honest conversation). If trust is already there, this might work (but it might not even be necessary). If trust isn't there yet (or it's broken), trying to force that in only one conversation will probably backfire (but you can hope/aim for cautious honesty).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 13 at 1:46
  • 3
    Why would someone open up after you just acknowledge reality? Saying the decision is "frustrating to many" seems pretty close to just a token gesture and I'd be a bit surprised if that leads anywhere. It reminds me of the common customer service response along the lines of "we understand your concern, but here's why we're unfortunately not going to do anything about it". Just admitting that people are frustrated doesn't necessarily imply that the company did anything wrong and it mostly just serves to calm their frustration in the easiest possible way (but easy doesn't mean good).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 13 at 2:00
  • 3
    Yes this could work but is not a great long term strategy. Either people will eventually figure out you’re manipulating them or sooner or later someone will gossip that you’re unhappy at work and it will reach the ears of those above you Jun 13 at 4:11
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    A long time ago, when I was just 16 and working part-time, a co-worker complained about her father's management style; he also happened to be my employer. So I opened up and made some criticisms of my own, nothing rude or harsh but he was a little weird. I got the sack a week later. I have never forgotten that invaluable life lesson.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 13 at 5:19
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Office work is not coming back

One thing that was positive in the whole COVID-19 pandemic was the fact that it showed that classical office work was no longer needed, especially in the IT industry. Moving to a place of work, commuting every day, and working strictly 9-17 .. all of it became obsolete overnight. Of course, some teams could still prefer to meet eye to eye, once a month, once a week or so, but the vast majority of IT workers (especially senior ones) are not willing to switch back to the old routine.

Considering the constant lack of skilled IT experts (in your case senior developers), companies would have to adapt, and the majority of them are doing so. Working remotely is now no longer a privilege; it is normal mode of work, and it is codified in contracts. Companies not willing to adapt would simply lose the workforce and likely go bust.

What can you do? Honestly, there are only two options:

  1. A long and hard, but frank talk with senior management. Try to make them aware of these facts, and tell them honestly that people willing to work 100% from the office are usually not best in their field. Persuade them to either allow remote work, or if totally necessary, give monetary incentives to critical technical employees in order to work from the office.

  2. Keep quiet. When hiring, be sure to mention to all candidates that you work from the office, and ask them if is that OK. You would not get the best people, but what can you do? The company could linger around for some time, but it is best for you to brush your CV and start looking for the next job.

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  • 5
    the premise of this answer seems one-sided and oversimplified: if my current company would ditch office work completely (post-pandemic), I'd quit immediately as well. Because to me for some processes remote work just doesn't cut it (while it works great for some others). Working in a mode for a emergency situation is one thing, but making it the norm long term is another. Sure, the model fits many companies and it becomes more acceptable, but there is also quite a few people who seem to overshoot in their assessment how good it works in general. Btw. office work and 9-17 isn't the same thing. Jun 13 at 22:25
  • 9
    "Office work is not coming back" says who? Many companies have already gone back into the office and others are moving that direction. To state that as a fact, with no backing whatsoever, is nonsense. "...people willing to work 100% from office are usually not best in their field" is another statement that is not backed up with any facts and is nonsense.
    – JeffC
    Jun 13 at 23:11
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    "companies would have to adapt, and the majority of them are doing so" - citation needed as well. "Working remotely is now [...] codified in contracts" - where, by whom, what country, what employer? You are over-simplifying and over-generalizing basically everything. I could say "people willing to only work 100% mobile are lazy and do like the lack of control and oversight to slack off" and would be as right as your claim, because both are nonsense.
    – luk2302
    Jun 14 at 11:37
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    The majority of my colleagues in my IT company (in The Netherlands) were happy to return to the office, while a minority preferred to work from home. People who wanted to return gave loneliness and lack of work/life balance as the main reasons. Our contract says nothing about working from home or office either way. I feel your answer is based primarily on your own preconceptions and doesn't help the OP resolve their problem. Jun 14 at 13:07
  • 1
    I consider myself best in my field and would be willing to work 100% from the office (provided you relocated your office to my neighborhood).
    – emory
    Jun 14 at 23:59
4

Have a frank one on one with each staff member. Ask them whether this is a potential deal breaker for them, telling them you have no power to influence it and you are just trying to get an idea of what the numbers are.

Whether you’ll get useful or honest answers from them, I can’t say, it will depend upon how much they trust you. But it’s really the only way.

1
  • If you're a good manager (I'm not, but I've met some good ones over the years) then a face-to-face (or reasonably next best Zoom video, but not via email, survey, phone call, etc.) can get you a lot more useful information. Don't make it a group meeting - that will get you nowhere. Individual (so people can, if they choose, speak their mind freely) face-to-face (so that you can get a better sense of sincerity/truth via body language, etc.) is the only practical way to figure this out. If they're halfway honest, you'll figure out who is hunting for a non-office next job. Jun 14 at 15:12
3

This requires a two-pronged approach:

First, pay your developers market rate for working remotely. And then add an extra percentage on top of that for those willing to come in the office regularly.

And please, don't just take half my advice. If you don't want your developers to leave, you need to pay them market rate in the first place, whether they decide to come in the office or not.

It's a hot market for software developers right now. And they're being solicited to work somewhere else, whether they're actively searching or not.

2

How can I get honest intent about future plans from employees?

By not unilaterally announcing decisions which severely impact affect work-life balance for your valued employees.

Oh, the aforementioned scenario is already in motion? Well, good luck with the fallout. Any employee worth their salt will not be honest and will give you the answers your bosses want to hear since management has already made it clear that they only wish to hear their employee's thoughts if those thoughts align with management's desires.


In all honesty this seems like an overreaction:

One of the senior software developers instantly quit over my company announcing that it will be office-centric again.

Why didn't this person express their concerns? How would they just up an leave? I find it hard to believe they didn't have something else lined up. If they did have something else lined up then your failure to retain them already happened months ago.

You probably don't have to worry about other employees since office-centric employment will be status quo in the near future. However, if remote opportunities are plentiful and your company is the outlier then you have an uphill battle ahead of you.

1
  • I disagree with your second part. The company's reaction indicates that they're not going to consider work-from-home, and any talk about it is likely to be punished. The senior developer likely had a good idea of how people wanting to stay remote were going to be treated. Also, it's fairly common for senior developers to have a good deal of savings, and they're in demand. The guy's got a good explanation for leaving. I find it very reasonable that the developer quit and figured they could get a more suitable job soon. Jun 16 at 17:13
2

A few others have mentioned this, but I'm going to codify it here and now:

It is too late.

The time and period in which employee feedback should have been accepted was when your respective country was starting to turn the corner on the pandemic, and when discussions about returning back to the office were happening in full swing at higher levels.

The fact that it wasn't indicates to staff who aren't privy to the internal discussion:

  • Their opinions aren't that important, nor are they welcome (given that they focused on the symptom as opposed to the cause when responding to this developer's departure)
  • No matter who they turn to, at some level they'll still have to deal with the management who made the unilateral decision to go back to the office, which can't be a comfortable position to work from.

In trying to come up with the right words to describe this, I found an article which outlines six factors of a good professional relationship:

  • Trust
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Respect
  • Empathy and Compassion

Your company...

  • ...did not show either empathy or compassion for staff coming back to the office. Even in my place of employment, a lot of people fall into different sides of the spectrum, and they may have either found a good rhythm/work-life balance in working from home, or they're chomping at the bit to get out of the house to go somewhere else - anywhere else - than the bedroom/kitchen/den to work. What's more, there's a very, very real mental health component to being told that being near others is dangerous and you should isolate, just to have your employer state bright and bold that even though it's still dangerous, you should come back together anyway. Doesn't feel like anyone in management cared about that.

  • ...did not respect the developers or the team. In addressing the abrupt departure of someone over this matter, management wanted to frame this as a morale matter, which - while not entirely false - provides a very real disservice for anyone else who is either in-context or is curious about what actually took place.

  • ...was neither inclusive nor collaborative in the decision. One of the things that you don't say in your question was whether or not any staff had an opportunity to chime in and give their own personal feedback, or if the company had wanted to consider hybrid work models to better accommodate a diverse set of feedback.

  • ...did not communicate this effectively. If there are deliberations that happen that made the company decide their hard-line stance, those need to be expressed to at least provide some sorely missing perspective.

  • ...did not showcase that they could be trusted. Even your own question isn't all that trustworthy; paraphrased, it's, "How do I talk to my direct reports to know which ones are flight risks so that I can prepare for that?" I would clam up if I could sense this one coming too since I don't know who you're advocating for!

You should prepare for a long hiring season. Longer if the former employees decide to tell potential candidates how they really felt about the place (and this happens more often than not; a lot of tech cities and towns have pretty tight networks, so there's a non-realistic chance that someone's seen something or heard something that they want to share).

1
  • I agree with this. The situation reminds me of my previous company, where none of these things happened, and when we expressed discontent about something we also got berated. I left. I now work somewhere much much bigger, and all these things happen, we have had chance to feedback on our return to office plans, the company has listened, everything is communicated well down the cascade or directly with senior management doing regular briefings. So yes, prepare for a long hiring season as there are places doing it better!
    – R Davies
    Jun 15 at 7:36

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