Will FOMO bring people back into an office?

I first read about leveraging ‘fear of missing out (FOMO)’ to pull employees back into the office in a Fast Company article. And once I read it, I couldn’t get it out of my head; for two major reasons–(1) I am often a victim of FOMO and (2) marketing has a long-standing success of leveraging FOMO to increase sales and when it comes to behavioral economics, no one knows how to better exploit it than our friends over at sales and marketing. For many years we’ve been reading and writing articles on how to not let FOMO run your career or life, and now suddenly comes a time to reconsider what we’ve been preaching.

One look at the trends and it doesn’t take a genius to figure that organizations want employees to return to work. Yes, there is more flexibility than ever before and hybrid is in vogue, yet no one, except maybe Twitter, is happy when you decide to reside in Timbuctoo. The general advice is to continue living within commuting distance of your office or any office that the organization has (if they are feeling generous). Yet, in the never-ending war for talent, instructing employees they need to return is hardly the smartest idea. Thus, everyone is doing what they always do in times of crisis, i.e. tiptoe around tough messages and create the illusion of choice.

Everyone knows that when some employees elect to return to the office, the ones who are sitting interacting from behind the screen will begin playing a losing game. While organizations will do everything they can to build an inclusive environment (and we know how that works!), there is bound to be an imbalance. What happens after the conference call ends? Does everyone in the room shut down their laptops and leave without another word? Of course not! There’ll be the coffee and cigar breaks. There’ll be someone chasing down the manager hoping to get a few extra words in. There’ll be some snickering in corners. There’ll be an entire world that those sitting within their own four walls will miss out on. For some employees, the pros of choosing to stay home will weigh greater than having to walk into an office. Yet, with smart tricks down the sleeve, it is possible to tip that balance to get employees racing through the door.

How do we do that? Well, this is when we turn to our friends in marketing and take a leaf out of their book. Now, before I share tricks, there are some things I want to clarify. So here goes the disclaimer list:

  • I am in no way saying that we must use these tricks. I am a firm believer in free-will but also aware that it’s only a word (or maybe two).
  • We are exposed to mind tricks all the time. This post helps the reader identify the mind tricks and consequently fight it if they so choose.
  • Organizations need to make their stance clear. Say that you prefer employees in the office and will do everything to make life at work comfortable. Do not say you are a fan of remote work and then play these tricks. Learn not only the tricks from marketing, but also the fact that they are transparent about intentions. It’s not veiled.
  • There is no guarantee that these will work. Not many have experimented with these, and human behavior is unpredictable to a degree.
  • There are a few other disclaimers but this isn’t a post on disclaimers so assume I’ve made them all and read on.

Now to some tricks in the book and examples of how we may use them in our context:

  1. Show social proof: Trick #1 in the book is also the most popular, effective and easy to implement. In marketing parlance, this would involve communicating how many others have purchased this, flooding social media and leveraging influencer marketing. In our world, it is communicating how many employees are returning to work, encouraging them to share photographs of the new safe workplace, ping-pong tables and the natty Nespresso machine. It involves amplifying the message on the conversations people may miss while their colleagues are at the office. This works best when you have already have 20-25% employees in through the door.
  2. Highlight missed opportunities in your messaging: With the offices open, there are bound to be events and not all events can be virtual and if they are virtual, can’t be as much fun. Bring a bouncing castle, photo booth, some swag and other onsite perks for an event. Let the virtual attendees witness in full force all that they are missing. Don’t stop there. Throw in new adjustable height desks, Herman Miller chairs, and free food. Host events with limited seating that are ‘at this point in person but the team is trying hard to push online’.
  3. Show stock levels: With social distancing, it is likely that it’ll be awhile before offices can accommodate 100% capacity. Make the office a luxury product with limited availability. Not everyone who wants to return can. In marketing there is often a flashing sign that says last 2 left. Do the same with the desks at work. Earlier in the month, I had a heated debate with a friend earlier on if we should issue notices to teams saying they could only step into an office on Monday, Wednesday & Friday. They then decide if they want to come in on one, two or all of those days. If they wanted to walk in on Tuesday, they wouldn’t be allowed to except for exceptional reasons. While an interesting idea, I had doubts if anyone could pull it off without multiple fallouts. Yet–an interesting idea.
  4. Let the offer expire: Even better than showing stock levels is to allow the offer to expire. E.g. you need to book a desk between the 1-5th of every month, else you need to wait an entire month before you can walk into the office. Once you do that, sit back and enjoy the graph of requests rocket from one month to another. Do not spoil the exclusivity by allowing employees to walk in for a meeting or two. Once the offer expires, your badge will no longer let you into the premises. You could also top it off with a loyalty program. Those who have booked regularly and turned up, get preference on office space. Now who wouldn’t love that?

Now a lot of the suggestions sound outlandish, but organizations are being outlandish at this point of time. Also, with every trick, comes the layering of good intentions. Of course, you want employees to walk in whenever they want. However, at this moment employee safety, space planning and social distancing comes first. Hence all the rules. When the world returns to normal in 2025, we can offer employees everything they want. Come 2025, we’d have forgotten we had Timbuctoo on the list.

On the flip side:

Ha! You thought I had finished, didn’t you? But there’s more. There are conditions under which FOMO works and doesn’t. First, there’s the question of the tipping point. As long as there are only 10% of the total employee base in the office and none from my team, no amount of engineered FOMO will bring me back, especially if balanced against wearing a mask for the entire duration. In addition, FOMO works when there exists a choice. While organizations may want to create an illusion of choice, when it comes to returning to an office, maybe it’ll be better to just instruct employees instead. Sure, we may lose some, but everyone is coming back to an office anyway. And what about buyer’s remorse? What happens when you want to return the product i.e. emerge absolutely convinced that the office isn’t the place for you but now the illusion of choice too is ripped out. What are you left with? One very, very unhappy employee.

Is there a conclusion? Well, a group of people I know definitely think engineered FOMO is out the door. I, on the other hand, am parking myself on the fence. I want to watch the debate play out just a little longer and really want someone to experiment with these. Sure, instruct them all to come back to work, but then also maybe use those marketing tricks to help reduce the remorse and convince them it was all their choice. I bet there are smart ways to merge the two. What do you think?

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