The boardroom series: supporting teams back to the office

Over the last month, I have spoken to numerous leaders and HR teams from small start-ups to multinational corporations, and it seems that many are struggling with the same challenge: how can we encourage our teams to come back to the office?

If, like many companies, you have been conscious not to put pressure on people to return to the workplace and hoped that people would naturally come back when that option was available, but are not seeing the results you hoped, this article is here to help. 

Read on for a simple 3 step process to communicate change and support people so that they can transition with open-minded enthusiasm into another new way of working, the hybrid one.

How can we support employees to adopt new hybrid ways of working

While most leaders and decision-makers in organisations see hybrid working practices as a way to offer their teams more freedom, many employees see it as just the opposite. Even when people are only expected to be in the office two days a week, focus group conversations reflect that a large number of employees are viewing this as a “loss”, compared to the autonomy of working from home 5 days a week, rather than as a “gain”, compared to the working norms of 2019. 

In contrast, some team members are desperate to come back to the office. Of these, some fear that reduced office space and hot desking might prevent them from working in the office 5 days a week, and others are disheartened as they imagine half empty offices with, as one person described to me, “no sense of community, energy or creative buzz”.

Whatever people are feeling right now, if we want to maintain morale, commitment and productivity, we need to support them through this. If we want people to willingly return to the workplace, we need to do more than just communicate guidelines of what is expected of people over the months ahead, we need to explain WHY. As Simon Sinek said, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” 

By explaining WHY you are adopting new ways of working, emphasising the benefits of your chosen hybrid working model to both the company and the individual, you can help people to tap into their intrinsic motivation. This inspires them to take action of their own volition, ensuring they feel safe and in control, driving motivation, commitment and resilience.

Communicating change effectively: Focus on the WHY not the WHAT

  1. Clarify how your working model supports business needs and how it enhances your capacity to meet customer expectations. Employee performance, loyalty and wellbeing are very much driven by the feeling of satisfaction that they get from doing good work. A lack of workplace satisfaction or a sense of inhibited potential is very often a reason that people leave an organisation. Essentially, most people want to be doing their best work, as part of a great company who is known for leading the field in their industry. Emphasising how hybrid working models support company goals, values or missions, enhances employee commitment to adopting these changes.
  2. Explore individuals’ needs and what enables them to do their best work. Building on the above, it is important to find out what circumstances empower people to do their best work. That is, what aspects of being in the office have helped them in the past and what aspects of working at home have been beneficial. Thus, how can the new hybrid working model in fact deliver the best of both worlds? This counteracts the view that changes are a “loss”, reframing it as a “win-win” situation. If there is room for flexibility to meet individuals needs, within company guidelines, then all the better. For example, if company policy is 3 days in the office per week, can you offer the option of at least 6 days over a fortnight or offer a monthly approach to match workflow and priorities. Remember, if loyalty and productivity is to gain, a little more flexibility might be a worthwhile investment.
  3. Review, reflect and refine your policy. Let’s face it, unless your company was fully remote before the pandemic, we are all finding our way in the dark right now. We don’t know what lies ahead, we don’t know how individuals or teams will adapt to new ways of working, and we don’t know what market changes might emerge. Like any new initiative, innovation or evolution, we need to try new things, review strengths and untapped opportunities, and then refine our process to continue to improve. This iterative process is the key to the success of any organisation.  As you do so, please note that this should include soliciting feedback from people at all levels of the organisation, from board level to new recruits. As Sue Bingham, author of Creating the High Performance Work Place, warns “the days of top-down control and one-size-fits-all management have not only become dated, but also pose a threat to an organization’s survival in a future that rewards speed and flexibility.” She goes on to explain that “some managers actively disregard employees’ ideas because they identify heavily with the status quo, but it’s important that leaders encourage recurring feedback and embrace policies as adjustable to meet the organization’s needs.”

Final thoughts

I hope the above inspires some reflection on how you navigate the final quarter of 2021 and early 2022. I fully appreciate that gathering feedback from the team may not always be easy, however, it is always worth it so here are a few final thoughts. 

  • Some companies opt for anonymous staff surveys while others fear questionnaire fatigue. From my experience, it is usually not answering the questions that leads to fatigue, it is the lack of action, so if you are taking this approach, you also need to take action. Short pulse surveys, such as that provided by Question and Retain, coupled with their insight and consultancy, offer a simple and effective way to do so.
  • It can be powerful to have in-person focus groups or feedback conversations, led by managers and supervisors. While there is a potential risk that employees will not be as open and honest with their boss as they would be with a third party, there is the potential benefit that this kind of communication can strengthen employee-management relations. (Sue Bingham’s article for Harvard Business Review offers some practical tips if you are planning this route.)
  • Some companies do use external consultants, such as myself, to solicit feedback by facilitating reflective conversations (and it is my learnings from such conversations that have largely informed the above). I am certainly not the only person to offer this kind of support. When choosing a partner for this kind of work, the priority needs to be choosing someone who the team will feel comfortable talking to and ensuring that the team know that all reporting will be confidential. 

Rest assured that every organisation is on the same journey, experimenting right now. With that, it is important to also not just reflect on how things are working inside your company but to talk to your network of people in other organisations. That is not to say that we will immediately adopt what other companies are doing but we can usually learn a lot from each other. With that in mind, I welcome you all to share below anything that has worked for your team, or any lessons learnt that might help another reader today.

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