How Executives Should Be Thinking About the Return to the Office

Posted 07.13.2021

If there’s one topic that’s a common denominator in many of the conversations I’ve had with senior executives over the past few months, it’s how to handle the issue of employees returning to the office. Other than the ones who have said that everyone can work remotely, I haven’t talked with or heard of any companies that have really figured it out yet.

What I have heard is a lot of comments like, “Our culture depends on people being in the office so they need to get back here as soon as possible.” I find that interesting on a number of levels. First, prior to the pandemic sending everyone home, pretty much every corporate culture depended on people being in the office. And then, people were compelled to work from home and, as has been widely reported, productivity usually went up. Granted, productivity is not the end all and be all, but isn’t it possible that the pandemic has shown that a lot of corporate cultures are more flexible, adaptable and resilient than previously thought?

I’ve also heard about a lot of plans to require everyone to be in the office on certain days of the week or for a minimum number of days a month regardless of what their role is or what the role requires. In a couple of cases, when an executive has shared the outlines of such a plan with me, I’ve asked if they have some sort of algorithm that has told them what the optimal number of days is or which weekdays people should be showing up. They usually chuckle at that because no one has any such algorithm. The emerging policies on when and how often everyone needs to show up at the office feel, in many cases, arbitrary and ad hoc.

These kinds of approaches to developing return to the office policies strike me as missing the bigger picture and whiffing on a huge opportunity to do things differently and better. In the hope that a few people in charge read this, pause and reflect on how to proceed, here are my unsolicited thoughts on how executives should be thinking about the return to the office:

Check your ego – If you’re firm in your conviction that people absolutely must return to the office, I encourage you to check your motivations. Is it because it’s what’s best for them and the company or is it because it’s what easiest and most comfortable for you? If it’s leaning toward the latter, you may want to check in to determine how much your ego and personal needs are driving your decisions.

Don’t make arbitrary decisions – Don’t deal in arbitrary policies based on your assumptions about what works. Your people will recognize them as arbitrary and disengage because they don’t feel fully valued. Instead, do some homework. Develop a systematic way to find out what people need in their lives to do good and fulfilling work. Lots of companies utilize design thinking to come up with customer centric innovations. Design thinking processes start with developing empathy by researching your customers’ needs. What if you thought of your employees as customers (they are in a sense) and did some research on their life experiences and needs? You’d probably come up with return-to-work policies that are a lot more effective because they make a lot more sense.

Step back and ask yourself, “Why?” – While we’re on the topic of doing some research, why do you think you’re getting so much pushback from your employees who don’t want to go back to the office full-time? Maybe it’s because, in many ways, their lives were better and richer while they were working from home. Yes, it was a nightmare for parents who were trying to juggle work demands while keeping their kids engaged with remote learning but, with schools reopening, that problem will be resolved for the majority of parents. When that’s taken care of, many people have found that working from home enables them to get more sleep, eat better, and have more time for living their lives because they’re not spending hours and hours commuting five days a week.  They’re saving money on gas and child care. They have time for hobbies and other pursuits that make them more creative and happier people. They can stay more connected to their families while building their careers.  They’ve found that working from home has nurtured their souls and improved the quality of their lives. Can you blame them for not wanting to give that up?

Consider the ratio between content and connection – One thing that the pandemic taught us is that we can accomplish a lot of content driven work without people sitting shoulder to shoulder in the same office. We learned you can do most of that on Zoom just fine and maybe even get more done than when people were in the office. What we also learned is that most people need some degree of in-person human connection with their teammates to feel happy, productive and whole. You can’t get that through Zoom. A couple of weeks ago, I got a lump in my throat reading a story a client of mine named Holly shared on LinkedIn in which she wrote about how exciting and meaningful it was to return to her company’s headquarters in Boston for the first time after spending the past 15 months working online from her home in Chicago. It was powerful and moving. Holly will continue to work remotely from home going forward but now she’s able to occasionally get the human connection she can’t experience from her home office. Right now, executives everywhere have the opportunity to ask what the right balance is between content-oriented work that can be done remotely and connection-oriented work that requires being together. One size won’t fit all. It depends on the nature of the work and the people doing the work. Why not ask your people what ratio feels right for them?

Consider the opportunity before you – Maybe it’s just possible that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a more productive, happier, healthier work experience that leads to better outcomes for customers, employees and shareholders. It would be a damn shame to blow that opportunity because senior leaders didn’t question their long-held assumptions about how work gets done (which, again, we have 15 months of evidence to support the case that those assumptions were wrong) and weren’t supportive of doing the research that would point the way to new ways to give people the opportunity to do great work while living a great life. If you’re in a position to influence how your company handles how and when your people return to the office, please consider the opportunity before you and treat it with the care it deserves.

What do you agree with or disagree with? What else would you add? If you’re reading this through LinkedIn, please leave a comment. If you’re reading this directly on the Eblin Group blog, send me a note.

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