Returning to the office (without losing everyone)

People are quick to change in a crisis but tend to settle into habits otherwise. The last eighteen months should have proven that your people are capable of being engaged and productive outside of the direct sight of their managers. The research here is pretty clear, so if they're not engaged and productive it's likely you, not them.

I've had a fair few executives ask me about facilitating a smooth return to a hybrid workplace recently so I thought it would be worth writing down my recommended approach.

For starters 'hybrid' is a word I've been advising people to avoid. Most hybrid workplaces are designed poorly and frankly suck, so the term carries a bit of stigma. I prefer to go with 'location agnostic'. It is a softer term that carries no baggage and is centred around the work itself instead of the place where it is done.

How do leaders manage the return to the office without friction? For starters if you're doing any of the following you're not going to have a good time:

  1. Using a centralised function e.g. HR to design an enterprise return to work program
  2. Defining strict processes or policies for the return to the office
  3. Expecting people to return to the office immediately

You'll get both direct and indirect dissent, followed by a period of low engagement, and high unwanted attrition.

People are quick to change in a crisis but tend to settle into habits otherwise. The last eighteen months should have proven that your people are capable of being engaged and productive outside of the direct sight of their managers. The research here is pretty clear, so if they're not engaged and productive it's likely you, not them.

That said, there are some reasons why your organisation might benefit from getting people back together. The social networks in organisations are critical for spanning structural silos and connection is harder to build online. There are likely people in your teams who really miss human connection. There may be people who feel safer or more productive in an office environment than they do in their homes. In some domains e.g. creative production, news rooms, trading rooms, research suggests that teams are more productive when they are working together.

If you want to bring your people back into the offices some of the time without losing them, we recommend the following:

  1. Push both the decision to work from the office and the design down to your teams, let them design working agreements that suit their needs
  2. Support your team leaders or those who will facilitate the design with principles over policies, heuristics (rules of thumb) over rules, flexibility over rigidity, and transparency over secrecy
  3. Use an approach like story:me or our remote team launch to help your teams to build empathy for the individual circumstances of their peers
  4. Rather than leaders dictating that you want team members back in the office, guide people to make a request for it: e.g. 'I really miss the energy of the team being together in the same space, is there any way we could make that work one or two days a week?". This is a much softer approach to change that involves negotiation.
  5. Don't expect that people can change immediately - we've all rebuilt our lives around new constraints, we need to adjust our schedules which could take a month or two.
  6. If you've got people who really don't want to come back to the office every week, consider whether the team can instead meet somewhere different. A company like IWG can give your teams access to 1000s of office spaces globally, but work doesn't necessarily have to happen in an office. We've had team members who've chosen to work together at each other's houses, and even one team member who did her best creative work from the hairdresser. My winemaking partner has just installed StarLink at his vineyard so we're planning to do a day a week staring out over the vines, broken up by a bit of farming. Be creative.
  7. You can't opt people into social relationships but relationships across silos are really important, so try and create meaningful working opportunities such as cross-silo projects, innovation challenges with career changing prizes, learning opportunities, goodwill opportunities on common causes etc.

In a rapidly tightening talent market, competitors for your best people are watching with interest. Any forced return to work will result in a spike in traffic on your internal networks to job search sites and given the 'great resignation' your employee value proposition is more critical than ever. Be empathetic. Respect circumstance. Ask rather than tell. And build sustainable working agreements that get the best out of your people, wherever they are.

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