As pandemic restrictions have largely lifted in most of the world, the question about “return to office/in-person work” for knowledge workers generates a broad range of opinions along with some strong feelings. While the idea of a hybrid work environment is viewed by the vast majority as the way forward, there are wildly different views on the best way to bring that to life. On one hand, you’ll hear, “We’ve been very productive for two years in a fully remote setting; why change anything?”
On the other extreme, some will say, “We made it work, but missed opportunities for innovation and lost some of our cultural glue; we need to collectively spend most of our time in person now that we can.” Based on personal preferences and histories, you’ll find leaders, managers and employees in each of these camps and at various positions in between.
Our experience suggests neither end of the spectrum is ideal. So, how can you find the right balance for your organization? It’s important to start with data and answer some key questions. Which work activities can be done alone and which require interaction? How do a sense of community and team connections influence engagement, retention and performance? To what extent can virtual environments deliver positive outcomes and promote innovation? What is the preferred working style of people on your teams? How do commuting time and cost impact employees’ productivity and engagement?
With the right data at hand, you can categorize activities that can be done anywhere and activities that require in-person presence. That alone won’t answer the question. It also helps to overlay the broader company-building influence of in-person interactions; the power of three dimensions in building networks and reinforcing company culture; and the value that employees place on both flexibility and teamwork.
The most effective managers and leaders plan ahead and are thoughtful about scheduling in-person connections for their teams. Workers are then more likely to believe the reason to come back in person is rooted in them, not just in the preferences of those who oversee them. That means helping people envision (and then actually experience) the benefits of live connection and shared experience. Effective leaders plan and deliver the social connections they know result in a positive uplift for their teams and structure opportunities to do work such as on-boarding, strategic planning and innovation that is advanced by being conducted in in-person settings. The space needs to fit the situation and the day/time/location should be accommodating for the maximum number of participants.
After two disruptive years, employers have an opportunity to regain trust with workers who, in turn, also need confidence in their organizations. Guardrails such as “gather when necessary/valuable, and otherwise work wherever you think makes sense” lay the groundwork and leave plenty of choices for teams to tailor. A useful analogy is that of a well-designed employee benefit suite: lots of choice inside a carefully curated framework. The goal is to make workers not only feel heard by their employers but also avoid isolation, burn-out and potentially destructive behaviors. Providing choice with guidelines gets at the balance and allows everyone to thrive.
Yet even if you nail the worker-centered “why” and set clear expectations for the future, there will still exist skepticism and resistance among some employees, as is natural with any major change adoption. Overcoming that friction is aided by a little behavioral science “grease.” Consider proactive rewards designed to get people in the door—whether a raffle or fun “swag” or perks for those who come onsite.
Leaders also can connect the work styles of those who work together. There is a long list of emerging platforms that make it seamless and easy for individuals and teams to know when others are going to be in person and what work (and social) experiences are available on a given day. This type of well-designed experience can turn “okay, I remember the benefits of more frequent in person connection” to “this is great!” when they are with long-missed colleagues and get reinvigorated from the social interaction that many people need. Workers are a major part of the social construct and periodic live interaction, if done right, provides the opportunity to go beyond the often-transactional nature of virtual meetings.
In the end, the return to office is about balance. Leaders and their workers want the same thing: a highly productive, successful company fueled by a motivated and satisfied workforce. For the 40+ years leading into 2020, the in-person work experience was expected and accepted—and then it wasn’t. Like any new adventure (or change), all participants need to be willing, able and motivated to take the first step. When we make this future of work about teams, build in flexibility and use data and behavioral science, it’s possible for everyone to get what they want—the hallmark of any healthy, long-term relationship.