When I met my wife, she had a dog. She made it clear he was part of the package. She told me, “Love me, love my dog!”
Which was fine. I liked Toby, he was good to have around, apart from his tendency to run off when being walked. In which case he wasn’t around, he was on the other side of the park saying hello to the only other dog there, who he had spotted from about a mile away.
He was fine at home, though, and had the run of the garden, no problem.
Until the house behind us put up a new fence.
You see, their garden ran along the back of our terrace of houses (that is, it ran at right angles to all of us). The council was renovating it to be a ‘halfway house’ for kids in care and they built a substantial fence all around the garden. But, for reasons best know to themselves, the council workers built it on their side of the boundary, about 6” behind the original fence. (That’s about 15cm for you youngsters).
Which meant there was now a gap between the end of the side fences and the back fence. A big enough gap for a dog to get through into the next garden. Which also had a gap big enough for a dog to get through…
“Where’s the dog gone?”, asked my wife. We looked around the garden, which basically meant standing in the middle and turning around (we’re not talking acreage here!). No sign of dog.
“Toby! Toby!”, we called out.
“Woof, woof!”, came the reply. From four gardens down, where we saw Toby jumping up and down, trying to see us.
He made his way back, going through all the gaps, but that day changed him forever.
He now knew that there was a world outside the house and the garden, and he didn’t need to wait for us to take him there.
He had tasted freedom and he liked it.
After that, if he got half a chance, he would escape and run off, returning hours later, normally when it was time for his dinner.
Yes, of course I blocked the gaps in the fences. But he realised he could get out of the front door if we were not paying attention. When you’ve got two young children to look after, our attention was often distracted and Toby was ready and waiting to take advantage.
If you haven’t twigged the point of this little tale yet, let me bludgeon it home for you.
COVID moved the back fence and created a gap big enough for people to squeeze through and run free for a bit. They experienced freedom and autonomy and they liked it.
You can’t make them unlearn that experience. They want more. They are going to find ways to get it.
You can mend the gaps in the fence, you can drag them back to the office, but they are always going to be looking for ways to run away. To find freedom.
Your organisation is now full of Tobys. You can either send your time building better fences and watching the front door. Or you can give them the freedom they crave and reasons to keep coming back.