Getting Back to the Office – With Many Ways To Do It

05.13.2021 | Opinion Piece | By Doug Schlegel

Getting Back to the Office



Your people and your business have proven over the last year that working remotely can be done and done successfully. Various studies have indicated that the productivity impact over the last year has ranged from slightly positive to only slightly negative. With the decision and then actual return to the office looming for many companies, the most important thing may be to ‘not get in your own way’ by imposing an approach that just doesn’t fit the reality your business has just experienced.

Five considerations follow for the ‘why, what and how’ to return to the office in a way that keeps your people engaged – and we know that the more engaged a workforce is, the greater the results a business can expect, whether it be in safety, efficiency, quality, margin or other objectives.


Anxiety only grows as silence on the return plan lengthens

Recent surveys have indicated a significantly positive impact on employee well-being (feeling supported and included) and productivity in organizations who are communicating details on their thinking and plans for remote work/ returning to the office. Any communication helps, but providing detailed information on return to work plans is better. Should your business not be ready to communicate details, keeping staff informed with a message of “we don’t yet know” is still helpful – provided that the hard work is being done to land an approach and a reasonable timeline is in place to do it. Many companies have communicated and taken action already, and your employees are likely hearing about them, so the clock is ticking.


Not involving your people in the return decision risks their support on whatever the choice is …. and not listening to them when asked risks even more

A sound reason for delaying a decision is to gather the input from those impacted by that decision and to do it for the purpose of providing rationale for the decision ultimately taken. Asking your people a few focused questions and being ready to replay the results to them and how then their input will be used to shape the approach IS of high value. Questions you might ask:

  • How important to you is having the flexibility to determine your schedule of working at home and at the office?
  • Where do you believe you are more productive – working at home or at the office?
  • When the office is re-opened, what percentage of time would you prefer to work there?
  • What would you require to feel comfortable when returning to work at the office?
  • How confident are you that the Company will manage the return to the office well?

Yes, questions like these do open the door to a wide range of views that could shape the decision in ways that were not initially considered – which is the point.  Remember, most workforces have proven in the last year that remote working can be done successfully.


Leadership’s self-awareness is critical for landing on a balanced outcome

The workforce, the workplace and work itself has changed permanently. It is important for leaders to accept this reality and be aware of your own views on what was and what now is. If your view about how or where work can successfully be done has not changed, it is time to consider other perspectives. The pendulum need not swing completely to the other side however. Connections for new teams or staff, collaboration and “whiteboard” innovation are still likely to be more firmly and frequently possible when people are together. Walking down the hall to talk is typically an advantage, particularly as new teams and work relationships build trust.

The ‘sweet spot’ is finding a balance between business needs in this new reality. Knowing the perspectives of employees is necessary and, as importantly, actions do matter. Advocating one approach and not following through on it or not modeling the behavior sought (e.g., mask use) will be noticed and have an unhelpful impact. The reverse is true if key leaders do model the expected behaviors.


The plans laid may change so stay flexible

While communicating return to work plans (the what and how), as well as the rationale for those plans (the why), is important even if the plans are not yet fully defined, you need to include a version of ‘we will remain flexible’ in the messages. The pandemic and its impact on people continues to evolve and that reality needs to be part of any communication to staff. It may also make sense to assign responsibility for monitoring the various fast-moving internal and external considerations to a small ‘SWAT’ team sponsored by and frequently giving updates to Business Leadership.


When the office is ‘re-opened’, the care shown needs to be tangible and authentic

The types of issues which demonstrate care are many – vaccination guidelines, hygiene protocols, health checks, social distancing and in-person attendance levels for example. Asking your people for input on what is important to them, blending it with expert advice and the needs of the business, and then acting on it is clearly the best approach. Some additional considerations:

  • What a Leader does is more influential than what s/he says. Modeling the desired behavior, protocols and actions is critical to being authentic and lasting. Similarly, Leaders must be consistent in addressing situations where the sought after behaviors are happening.
  • It is easy to think of this issue as being a Corporate concern since, after all, that is the ‘office’ for many. For companies with field staff and locations, however, the approach chosen needs to include those colleagues and may need to adjust to those settings. How the company goes about making the decision and shows care upon return needs to be done consistently and inclusively.
  • On return to the office, it will be easy to slide back into normal meeting behavior. Important however is to establish face-to-face meeting protocols that consider safety, differing comfort levels and personal situations, and flexibility. Recognize that collaboration has been successful when not everyone was squeezed around a conference table.  As said above, it is a balance.

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