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11 key leadership questions for planning your return to the office

Taking the time to ask some important questions now will help make for a smoother transition to the office in the weeks ahead.

By Tim McEwan, Managing Director, SH Leadership, and Roderic Yapp, Leadership Consultant

As the business world opens up and companies everywhere begin to return to the office, we can’t assume everything will go back to how it was before. Nor do we know exactly what will change as we and our teams adapt to post-lockdown life.

Business leaders in all sectors and disciplines will face a series of challenges in the months ahead. The first step to set yourself up for a more successful return to the office is to take some time to ask the following questions.

1. How has Covid impacted me?

Every leader needs to reflect on what’s changed for them over the last year – not just from a business standpoint, but also personally. Maybe you’re now committed to spending more time with family. Maybe you’ve achieved more of a work-life balance during lockdown.

Take time to think about how Covid may have altered your priorities and goals.

Maybe you’ve had a terrible and traumatic time, and this has changed your outlook on the world. However you’ve experienced Covid, take time to think about how this may have altered your priorities and goals.

2. How has Covid impacted my people?

Some people will have become closer to family during lockdown. Or they’ve benefited from an extra 10 hours per week from not having to commute. Some will have enjoyed spending time in the garden. Others may have felt trapped in their cramped city flat and yearn to be back in the office.

As leaders, we must recognise that everyone’s had a different lockdown experience. One of the most important steps we can take is give our people the space to reflect on how it was for them – both good and bad.

Many of them won’t have had the opportunity to share their feelings before. Create that space for them and most will appreciate it. This also helps you reconnect with your people and rediscover what motivates them. Understand their experience and you can tailor your motivation delivery to suit.

3. What opportunities do I see?

Having come through such a challenging period, how do we help our people to go from dwelling on problems to thinking about opportunities? There are two aspects to this:

  1. Personal opportunities. Up until the pandemic you were always talking about how busy you were. Now you’ve had more time due to the lack of commute, what have you been doing with it? Have you focused on your physical fitness? On your personal relationships? Working longer hours? What changes have you been inspired to make – and can you make them sustainable?
  2. Business opportunities. Are the business goals you had before lockdown still relevant given the changed circumstances? What new opportunities might have opened up in the meantime that you can take advantage of? How could you change direction in ways that perhaps you weren’t able to before?

4. What might be the unintended consequences of returning to the office?

Many of us saved time on commuting during lockdown. However, many of us also used much of that time to do more work. For many companies, employee output rose during lockdown as a result.

There’s a real danger of burning people out by expecting them to keep up lockdown levels of output in fewer hours.

Should we now anticipate a dip in output because suddenly those hours aren’t being used? Or are we in danger of expecting the same level of output in fewer hours?

On the one hand, output may fall due to people returning to the office and losing those extra work hours. On the other, there’s a real danger of burning people out by expecting them to keep up lockdown levels of output in fewer hours.

We need to be careful how we proceed. As well as thinking carefully about what other lockdown benefits we risk losing by returning to the office, and how to mitigate them.

5. Which remote productivity tools should we continue to use?

Connectivity and productivity tools such as Zoom, Teams, and Office 365 proved invaluable for remote working. Essentially, we’ve become used to using tools that were always available but that we didn’t really use – until we had to.

With returning to the office, it’s important not to lose sight of the many continuing benefits of these tools. How do we continue to get the best out of them going forward so we can continue to be as productive as possible?

6. What clarity can I give my people?

In some businesses, employers are already expressing frustration at the lack of clarity from managers on what the rules of the game are going to be as people return to the office. But these businesses are saying they don’t know what the rules of the game are going to be – because they don’t know what the game’s going to be.

Treat the next few months as an experiment – and communicate that to your people.

So ask yourself, what clarity can I offer? One possible solution to this challenge is to treat the next few months as an experiment. Communicate this to your people. Make clear it’s a work in progress and that you will review the success of the new rules every few months. Then make clear your expectations of your people during that time. Honesty and transparency may be the only way forward at a time when the rules can change unexpectedly from day to day.

It’s also important to work out what initiative you are prepared to take in the absence of clear direction from your superiors. Ask yourself what autonomy you have, to what extent you want to take the initiative, and then how to best communicate that to your superiors and colleagues. You’ll also need to be prepared to assess your results and invite feedback.

7. Have I canvassed my team to discover what their expectations are?

Some of your people never want to come back to the office again. Others live in a city flat share and are desperate to return. It’s a bell curve, and you need to understand what your team’s bell curve looks like before you decide what office attendance rules to put in place.  

Bear in mind that whatever you choose – two days in the office, or three, or four – you’ll get complaints from some team members. So asking them first gives you a better idea of where most people fall on this issue, as well as showing that you’re listening – even if you can’t accommodate everyone.

Just work out what the majority feeling is. Put together some sort of structure. Run that for 10 weeks and then review how well it worked.

8. What do we mean by empowerment?

During Covid, business leaders have had to empower their people to a greater extent than most of us are used to. Workers have experienced this empowerment and by and large decided they like it. When we start filtering back to the office, will this change back to the way it was before? Do you want it to?  

People have experienced freedom in terms of choosing how they get their work done. They’re not going to be happy giving that up.

Empowerment and autonomy go hand in hand. People have experienced freedom in terms of choosing how they get their work done. They’re not going to be happy giving that up. So leaders need to ask themselves how to maintain this level of empowerment and autonomy. Because if they think they’re just going to slip back into their old model then nothing’s going to change.

9. Am I truly tuned in to the change?

Many high-profile companies have been quoted in the press saying they want all their staff back in the office. That’s their choice. But is it the right one for most businesses? It would be short sighted if everyone pretended nothing has changed.  

Change is always necessary. It’s also positive because it gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves whether our old, familiar ways of working were right – or whether they could benefit from a shake-up. There’s nothing to say the way things were before was the optimum.

10. What do I want to use the office for?

If some of your people stay working from home and some return to the office, that’s already a change to deal with. This begets the obvious question of how best to use the office – and should we change how we use it?

What people miss from the office is the social interaction.

When we have something taken away from us, we start to realise what we valued about it in the first place. And what people miss from the office is the social interaction. Which says that the purpose of the office is as a social place. So why not use it as such?

How do we make meetings more productive? What are the things that encourage learning by osmosis or boosting the motivation many people feel by spending time around their colleagues? How can we build new spaces to encourage more interaction and make the office more productive?

11. Would I still want my team to come to the office if my company paid for the commute?

As a final point, try this thought experiment. If you had to pay for your team to commute to the office, would you still insist that they needed to be in the office to do their work? Put another way, if you really believe your people can’t do their work anywhere else apart from the office, would you be prepared to pay for it?

If not, maybe you need to level with yourself and ask whether those people really do need to be in the office after all. Think of it this way: now that people are used to working remotely, they will be hyper-aware of how much time and money they’re giving up to return to the office. The more senior they are, the more likely they are to question the value of doing so.

If you’re going to bring people back to the office, you have to ensure it makes sense not just for your business, but for them too. Be sure to respect their time and money, and ask yourself what you’re really offering them in return. Of all the questions to ask in the weeks ahead, this last one may be the most important of all.

If you’d like any advice about how to re-engage leaders and teams in your organisation as we transition back to the office, please contact Tim McEwan.