back to the office

Back to the office or work from home?

So many leaders we are talking with these days are consumed by the same issue: What does “back to the office” look like for their organization?

Determining what back to the office looks like (should look like/could look like/needs to look like!) and how to implement it is a big challenge. There’s a lot for leaders to consider when thinking about returning to work.

We’ve heard of organizations who are declaring the office obsolete and embracing work from home.

We’ve heard of other leaders who say it’s time to get back to the office and order all their staff to return.

Of course, we’ve heard of many using some sort of hybrid, including things like:

You must be in the office at least X days per week.
Everyone has to be in on Tuesdays and at least one other day.
All of our offices are now hoteling spaces that you have to book online ahead of time.
Or, or, or…

The possibilities are infinite. The one common thread is that determining what the office will look like is stressful.

We’re not going to say any option is right, though I am going to come out of the shadows on this one. I will say that ordering everyone to work from home is almost certainly wrong and ordering everyone back to the office full-time is almost certainly wrong.

Why? Because the people working for you are all motivated by different things and because they’re all grown-ups. If nothing else, the one thing we have (or should have) absolutely learned by living through the last 18 months is that measuring productivity by the number of hours that people are at their desks in the office wasn’t helpful. It was never particularly helpful, but it’s what we were used to.

Having everyone work from home or everyone at the office are opposite ends of a spectrum, and there’s a lot of uncertainty between the two. So, how do we figure out what is best for the organization and your employees?

I recommend talking casually with employees and getting a sense of what people would like to see – remembering that you may hear complete opposites from two different people – and that’s okay. (Pro tip: Read our strategies to avoid miscommunication with your team before you have these conversations!)

When you speak with folks, you’ll want to know what would be ideal for them, but let them know that while you’re taking their wishes into account, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to accommodate the ideal for everyone. Tough decisions are often tough because there’s no way to make everyone happy. But as a leader, your job is to consider all viewpoints and then make the difficult decision.

It’s very helpful to work through your decision with a pen and paper. So, for starters, let’s divide a sheet of paper into 3 columns ( or click here to download one ).

In the first column, start with your “Goals.”

What do you want to achieve in the end? Make a list down the first column, including not only your deliverables but your cultural objectives, too. What do I mean by that?

Well, the list might start with:

We want to return our sales to 2019 levels.
We want our leaders to make good decisions.
We want to innovate and improve our products.
Some staff want to work from home all the time.
Some staff want to be back in the office full-time.

AND the list might continue with:

We want to nurture cohesive teams in each division and a cohesive team at the leadership table.
We want an organization where people reach out for help when they need it.
We want people to take informed risks.
We want our staff to feel a sense of commitment and ownership.
We want our customers to have options in how they engage with us.

What’s on your list? Make it as long as it needs to be.

Thinking about the “WHY?”

Now, in the second column, I suggest also thinking about the “WHY?” of each statement from the first column. Sometimes the answer(s) might feel obvious, but think about each one and jot down why you would want that goal to be achieved.

Sometimes thinking about the “why” behind our wants leads us to rethink the wants or to rewrite them. For example, if you put “I want people at their desks!” as one of your “Goals” then thinking through the “why” might help you formulate the need further. In that example, you might come up with “why” things like, “I want to know they’re working on the right projects” or, “I want to know they’re not slacking off on company time.”

Of course, thinking through the “why” makes us realize there may be other ways of achieving that goal without requiring that people be at their desks in the office for X hours each day. For example, are there ways to measure productivity other than hours at the computer screen? Are there outcomes we can look for that confirm we’re getting what we’re paying people for?

You may find as you go through the exercise that your first column also includes conflicting goals. This exercise will help you prioritize. For example, you might want “to save on rent by reducing our office footprint” and you might want to, “develop/maintain a culture of cohesion and cross-functional synergy.” At first glance, those goals may feel like they’re in conflict. Perhaps digging deeper into why you want those goals will help you understand which takes priority or ways to achieve both to some degree. Your “why” might be you trying to solve a problem you’ve noticed or trying to double-down so something good comes out of the pandemic. Have some teams shown themselves to be cohesive via Zoom or Teams? Have others started to fracture?

Working through the “HOW.”

Once you’ve thought through, and written down, the “why” behind your goals and made any adjustments needed, you’re ready for column 3. In column 3, write the heading, “How.” Start thinking through options that can help you achieve your goals from Column 1 that also take into consideration the “why” behind them that you detailed in Column 2. This will help you define for yourself what a hybrid workspace might look like.

This list could include things such as:

This team in the office on that day
All leaders in the office on another day
A minimum requirement or maximum requirement of days in the office
Frontline staff in certain hours or certain days or alternating?
Could you have some frontline staff serve clients from elsewhere?
Are there activities front line staff could take on for “home days” rather than direct client interaction?

And finally, once you have filled your “How” column, walk away for a bit and let it percolate in your mind. Muse about it. Think about it. When you’re ready, return to your list, or get a fresh sheet of paper, and start writing out what feels best. What might achieve many of the goals you and your staff have, without ignoring critical corporate goals, and that doesn’t try to satisfy everyone?

Once you’ve got that, you might be ready to start rolling out the plan, or at least rolling out the idea to get a sense of where you’ll need to support people as you roll it out.


Coach’s Questions:

What are your own feelings about returning to work? Have you talked with others on your team about their feelings? What else do you need to consider?