Large global events tend to accelerate developing societal norms. In our case, the pandemic accelerated the norm of remote work. It did so in a jarring manner that required rapid adjustment, creativity, and leadership. However, in many cases, the adjustment to a virtual work environment was not meant to be permanent. Organizations are now facing the challenge of navigating the task of returning to an office environment (however that may look).
This return-to-office initiative requires special considerations in the realm of culture, people strategy, and leadership. Safety is obviously a top priority, and combining this with the logistics of returning to an in-person work environment can tend to dominate the planning process. However, leaders should complement this planning with a thoughtful people strategy to manage the cultural impact inherent to such a monumental shift back to the office. There will also be several unique elements to the “new normal” that must be factored into planning and the new people strategy.
Our new approach to work will likely entail a hybrid model that combines both in-person office work with remote work. Some teams may find themselves in the office every day, some may periodically come in, and some may never return to the office. A leadership challenge associated with this varied approach to work is ensuring fairness across the board. For example, two team members in the same role may be viewed differently for opportunities and promotions if one is remote and the other is frequently in the office. We’ve seen how well employees can function in a remote environment, but how do you control for the “in-person bias” when determining how to allocate promotions and opportunities? How can you mitigate the effects of remote workers being naturally excluded from those crucial informal collaborations that team members have in the office? These are just a few questions leaders should be considering when planning for the return to work. Failure to adequately account for these human factors can result in a degraded company culture, siloed work, and ultimately higher turnover.
But it’s not all doom and gloom!
There are certain ways to mitigate the risk these human factors pose to a company’s return to an in-person work environment (however that may look). For example, establishing a generous timeline is important to the process. Studies have shown how humans are notoriously bad at estimating timelines, and it’s important to incorporate a patience factor to reduce the friction and stress teams may feel when returning to the office. Establishing a flexible process is also important for companies that have several locations to consider in their plan. To be successful, this must also be coupled with empowering leadership at the lowest levels. Combining flexible return-to-office policies and procedures with supporting local leadership in building their own implementation plans can reduce turnover, bolster morale, and potentially uncover unique solutions that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.
The transition back to an in-person work environment will look different for every organization. What is not different is how we should treat our people who have been through so much already.