Every breakthrough in human history happened because someone saw where the world was going before anyone else did – and found a way to get there first.

The way you do this is by understanding prevailing cultural trends. Sure, this is easier said than done. You have to ask the right questions, which suggests you really need to have the right insights going into your development work. Sometimes, this takes a few tries, too. But if you’re going to understand where people are going, you need to tap into something more profound than, “on a scale from 1-10, how would you rate our customer service?” and get into people’s deeper motivations.

Perhaps the most important reason to conduct trend research – this is the kind of study that doesn’t focus on your speeds and feeds but does its best to tap into broad societal trends – is to understand the culture that underpins not just your customers and partners, but your own people.

I wrote about this last week, but in thinking about the point behind the post, I wanted to re-emphasize something that runs a bit deeper than the more current WFH/RTO conversation afoot today.

When we were conducting the Culture & Technology Intersection study (this study, which we ran from 2016 through 2020, became the foundation for Unfiltered Marketing: 5 Rules to Win Back Trust, Credibility, and Customers in a Digitally Distracted World), we tapped into this underground current of dissatisfaction and distrust, coining the first megatrend we found, “Seeking Control in an Out-of-Control World.”

Seeking Control and the RTO Mandate

This was a big concept and one that went far beyond what Edelman’s excellent Trust Barometer explored. Both studies pointed to the collapse of trust in the institutions around us. But we saw something else going on – namely, the deeply felt desire to get some sense of control back over our lives, digital and otherwise. We discovered that our definitions of personal success had flipped from material things, like cars and money, to control over our time and our professional lives – the first such shift in decades of research. We discovered deep feelings of distrust in technology, discovering that half of us were covering up the webcams on our laptops. We were looking for ways to get an upper hand on a world spinning out of control.

Transpose this idea onto the recent discussions surrounding RTO (mandated “return to office” policies) and you understand where the headwinds are coming from. We are seeking ways to get some sense of control back over our lives. Control equals options, and options equal happiness. And now, we see why people prefer to work at home as often as they can.

We, as a culture, interpret WFH (work from home) as control over our professional lives, even if that control only exerts itself over our physical location, regardless of the video conferencing and the meeting schedule that’s stacked up on our calendars.

Balancing the tension between control and culture

So, when we try to force feed a RTO mandate on our employees, we are essentially running counter to this cultural hunger. I’m not saying this applies to all of your people. I’m not even willing to say that it’s a bad idea because your unique circumstances may dictate something radically off the norm. That’s what a deep discovery process would uncover. But what I am saying is that if you’re the outlier here, understand you’re an outlier – and that you’re more than likely to just be giving your best employees the motivation they need to leave you.

PS: to reiterate something important here – this is why you spend the time, budget, and effort and understanding deeper cultural trend research. Not just because it blows open the doors to your prospects, customers, and partners, but because it gives you a deeper insight into your own people.

If you’re interested, go check out RTO, WFH, and the Genie That’s No Longer in the Bottle | LinkedIn.