One of the most common challenges leaders are currently facing is how we return to the workplace – or don’t. There are people who have always worked remotely and there are people who have been back in the office for months. Many organizations are still grappling with finding the right blend of flexibility and effectiveness.
Considerations in developing return to work policies.
There are several considerations when determining whether or not it makes sense to return to the office. These include cost, convenience, collaboration, connection and productivity. Our role as executive coaches and People & Culture consultants gives us perspective across multiple organizational contexts. I’ll share some of what we are seeing in this post.
Involvement in planning is critical.
One of the most powerful findings from our research is that engagement increases when an employee is satisfied with their level of involvement in planning. The opposite is also true. If you impose arbitrary return-to-work policies without involving the employees who will be directly impacted, your top talent is likely to leave your organization, quickly. Your role as a leader is not independent of others. As you read the rest of this post, consider who you will ask to help you develop your return-to-work policy.
3 step process to develop your approach.
Before you examine cost, convenience, collaboration, connection and productivity, let’s approach this challenge using a three step process:
1. Define your decision principles.
It is important to determine the factors upon which you will create your approach. You can gain perspective by reading through the list of contexts below and talking to other organizations about their plans. Many clients have also used coaching sessions to develop their decision framework. Other leaders have surveyed employees directly. It is important to surface the key factors or principles behind your new return-to-work policies, for example are you trying to foster fairness or flexibility?
2. Prioritize what you are trying to achieve.
Once you have considered the factors or principles behind your decision framework, it is important to identify the most important things you want to solve. Consider these questions as you identify your top priorities:
- What aspects of collaboration are the most important to improve?
- Are you trying to improve connection across the organization or in specific areas?
- Are you trying to open up the labour market in a way that lets you hire people from anywhere, even if they work remotely?
- What is the primary objective of your return to work program?
3. Involve your team in planning.
Once you define the core things you are trying to achieve, those become goalposts for what is acceptable and what won’t work. The next step is to present your objective as a challenge for the team to help solve. Not only will your employees come up with better ideas than senior leaders – involvement in the decision-making process will increase their engagement. Try this simple SupportingLines planning process (an evolution from the common OKR method of planning) with your team:
- Objectives. What are you trying to achieve?
- Key Results. How would you prove you achieved it?
- Supporting Lines. What commitments of action or support are critical to achieve the goal?
What are other organizations experiencing?
To help provide some context on how other organizations are thinking about returning to work, we have captured some common themes on the core decision principles and planning objectives.
Some companies have decided to get rid of their office entirely to save money. Others are considering reducing space or sharing their office with another company. Companies such as Google, have come up with a formula to adjust people’s compensation based on where they were originally hired and where they now live – said differently, if you move to a town with a lower cost of living than the city you started in your pay will be reduced. Before you decide on a policy, it is important to think about whether cost is a primary motivator for your organization.
A leader we work with made a great point about convenience: “People have grown accustomed to working from home. If we returned to work a year ago it would have been easier, but now people have figured out how to work from home. They have a system and we need to consider whether returning to the office has become less convenient”. For some, perhaps their child’s school is much closer to the office than their home and returning to the office reduces commuting time. Convenience is best assessed by each employee, as they know what is most convenient for their unique situations. They will have the best ideas on how to make their workplace more flexible and convenient.
A common thing our clients want to solve is collaboration. Many organizations find that complex planning or idea generation sessions are best done in person. When this arises in coaching, I ask my clients, “How often do you have planning sessions like this?” If you require collaboration once a month, then you simply need that group of people to be together once a month, not every day or every week. If work requires daily collaboration, perhaps your policy will be different. The other questions I ask are: “What can we do to improve the way remote or hybrid collaboration works?” and “How can we make remote work more inclusive?” Sometimes the issue is less about where people are and more about the approach.
One of the biggest challenges for many employees is the sense of losing touch with each other. This varies by organization. One of our clients has grown so quickly during the past two years that 75% of their employees have never met each other in person. Other companies have long-term employees who truly miss their colleagues. Cultivating human connection and a sense of belonging are well-established human needs. While there are creative ways to connect online, it is often important to provide people opportunities to connect in person where possible. If this is an important objective, your employees will have the best ideas for fostering connection with each other (while following local COVID-19 safety protocols).
Some people have a strong preference on whether or not they want to return to work based on their productivity. For many people, they get more done in a formal office environment where they are free from the distractions they find at home. There are also people who lack a proper home office setup or have a role which requires them to be in the office to be effective. If productivity is a motivator for your organization, ask yourself:
- What aspects of remote work inhibit productivity?
- What options do we have to improve this other than mandating people return to the office?
Involve people in planning.
After you create a decision framework, it is critical to communicate your key objectives and then involve people in planning. Too many leaders are trying to solve this problem on their own, without employee involvement. People feel seen, heard and understood when you involve them in the process – even if you end up choosing something different than what they suggested. At the end of the day, employees have the ultimate choice on where they work and a company’s remote working policy is a critical consideration for many of your current and future employees.