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The 3 key dangers for organisations’ return-to-office strategies in the months ahead

The most successful return-to-office strategies will be those that evolve over the next six to nine months. Here are the major pitfalls to avoid.

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

As organisations spend the next six to nine months evolving their return-to-office environment, it will be important to recognise everyone’s differing priorities and challenges, and to keep checking in with them. Navigating the following three dangers will be key to building sustainable and flexible strategies.

Danger #1: Making too many assumptions

Picture four executives discussing plans for their organisations’ return to the office. Jeff is on the C-suite. He is in his late 50s, has a house in the country and a flat in the city. His two children have left home and are starting their careers. Most of his social life revolves around clients and colleagues, and he likes meeting for drinks after work.

Jill is the HR Director. She is in her early fifties, with two grown up children. She has to commute almost two hours to get to the office from her home, and she has a home office where she’s been working during lockdown. She likes to keep her work and social life separate.

Jane is an ambitious junior executive with a young daughter she has been home schooling during lockdown. She has struggled in the past to get reliable childcare. 

Jim is another junior executive who lives in a flat share in the city and likes to meet up for beers with colleagues after work.

Jeff pushes for a team-wide return to the office. It will be good for team morale to get back to face-to-face working, he says. Jill points out that productivity during lockdown has been high, so suggests that employees be given the choice whether or not to work from home. Jim advocates for a mix: two days working from home and three days in the office. Jane feels that she has to come to the office, but really wants to stay mainly working from home so she can pick up her daughter from school.

This scenario illustrates the struggle many companies face at the moment in deciding how to reconnect teams and manage their return to work. Different employees have different priorities, have had different experiences of lockdown, and view work differently.

The danger is that those with high power and authority whose social needs are met by work could be the ones who make the final decision without considering that others in their organisation think very differently. In helping to mitigate this danger, we put together the following matrix:

  • Those with HIGH power and authority whose social needs ARE met by work. More likely to want everyone to return to the office. Also more likely to issue a directive to this effect. To them, there is no such thing as full-time remote working.
  • Those with HIGH power and authority whose social needs are NOT met by work. More likely to devolve the decision and consult with employees over their preferences.
  • Those with LOW power and authority whose social needs ARE met by work. More likely to want to return to the office at least a couple of days per week, and those days are more likely to be towards the end of the week when post-work socialising is most likely to happen.
  • Those with LOW power and authority whose social needs are NOT met by work. More likely to want to stay working from home indefinitely.

This matrix can help leaders to understand why certain personalities within the organisation are likely to behave in different ways. If they can understand this, they can adjust their approach accordingly.

Of course, real life rarely fits into such neat categories. Therefore we also recommend that leaders consider the following complicating factors that influence how likely it is that someone will prefer to return to the office or stay working remotely:

This list again shows the difficulty of making assumptions. Parents with young children may be keen to return to the office so that they’re able to work without being disturbed by young children, for example. Those with older children who have left the nest may enjoy having more time to themselves and want to stay working from home.

Danger #2: Mandating a wholesale return to the office to make things easier to manage

This brings us to the second danger for organisation in the months ahead. Hybrid working is complicated and brings up a number of challenges leaders have not faced before. They may therefore be tempted to mandate that everyone returns to the office as way of simplifying the management challenge.

As we have discussed in previous articles, remote working during lockdown has changed people’s attitudes to work. A blanket mandate may well lead to dissatisfaction, demotivation, and lower productivity, while also failing to capitalise on the potential to leverage change for significant business benefit going forward.

Danger #3: Trying to set the rules too early

Managers and employees prefer clear rules and are typically uncomfortable with ambiguity. However, it is clear that organisations cannot afford to set rules and expect them not to change. Rising infection numbers could lead to a return to government restrictions, for example. An organisation’s initial approach to hybrid working may have a negative impact on productivity and need to be revised.

This is still an evolving environment. Hard and fast rules do not work optimally in an environment like this, which requires flexibility from senior leaders and employees.

With this in mind, we recommend adopting a principles-based approach. Leaders should set out the broad principles they expect managers and employees to abide by and set clear boundaries, and then leave it to their managers to accept the responsibility of interpreting those principles. If communicated well to foster buy-in across the organisation, this would lead to the kind of flexibility that the next six months require.

Conclusion: flexibility will be key

In the end, whatever hybrid working strategy they adopt must work for them, their clients, and their people. Very few organisations are likely to get this right first time. Even accepting that simple fact will be a key first step in the path to a successful, sustainable strategy. 

The real mark of a successful return-to-office strategy is not what organisations do now. It’s how they will look in January 2022. The willingness to experiment and evolve will be key, and the more successful organisations are likely to be those that can encourage this flexible mindset in their people at every level.

For more a more in-depth conversation about how to manage your firm’s return to the office, please contact Tim McEwan or Roderic Yapp.