Your Return to Office Strategy is Destined to Fail Without These 4 Steps

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The decision on long-term return to office and hybrid work arrangements is no small matter. It’s like choosing between a thrilling roller coaster ride and a serene Ferris wheel experience — there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. As a leader, making the right choice for your organization is crucial, but haste makes waste. That’s why you need a thorough, transparent and evidence-driven process to avoid potential pitfalls and ensure success.

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The perils of impatience: Why rushing is a recipe for disaster

Imagine throwing a dart at a dartboard, blindfolded, while standing on a skateboard. This is what making a rushed decision on office and hybrid work arrangements looks like. You might hit the bullseye, but chances are, you’ll miss the mark. A hurried decision can lead to a myriad of problems, including undermining retention, recruitment, engagement, productivity, development of junior staff, innovation, collaboration and culture. That’s what I tell the leaders of companies I’m helping determine and implement their return to office and hybrid work arrangements who, in my experience, invariably try to rush the process. An important part of my role is holding them back from making snap judgments and following their gut intuitions, which can lead to a biased decision.

And even if they make the right decision, but skip the process in doing so, they will lack buy-in from their staff. While making the right decision on long-term return to office and hybrid work arrangements is, of course, essential, securing employee buy-in is critically important. In other words, the right decision-making is necessary, but not sufficient: the perfect policy means little if your employees aren’t onboard. Rushing to judgment and ignoring the voices of your workforce can lead to staff resistance, attrition, disengagement and harm to morale. This is why following the process outlined in this article is crucial.

Picture your organization as a symphony orchestra. Each employee is a musician, and their buy-in is the harmony that brings the performance to life. Without that harmony, the music is disjointed, and the audience — your clients and stakeholders —will notice. By involving your employees in the decision-making process, you create a sense of ownership and commitment that paves the way for a successful transition.

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For example, a regional insurance company I worked with once rushed into a decision on hybrid work without consulting its employees. The result? A sharp decline in employee morale, a surge in turnover, and a loss of potential talent to competitors. The company was left scrambling to remedy the situation. Don’t let this be you.

Related: Our Brains Will Never Be The Same Again After Remote Work. Forcing Your Employees To Readapt to The Office Is Not The Answer.

Surveys and focus groups for information gathering and buy-in

To avoid the pitfalls of impatience, your organization must embrace a thorough, transparent and evidence-driven process. Picture it as constructing a sturdy bridge to cross the turbulent waters of change. This process involves four essential components.

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Your first step should be conducting a survey of your employees to gather their perspectives on return to office and hybrid work arrangements. It’s like asking a room full of moviegoers whether they prefer popcorn or candy — everyone’s preferences matter. This invaluable data will provide a solid foundation for informed decision-making. And it will help your employees feel heard and listened to, which is an essential part of the process.

Next, conduct focus groups to dive deeper into the survey findings. This will help you understand the motivations and reasons behind your employees’ responses, and will also build further buy-in.

Sure, focus groups can be quite a bit of work, and are best done with an external facilitator. However, focus groups will provide valuable information you might not have considered or received from the survey. Case in point, one of my clients — a professional services company with about 100 staff — found that their employees were divided over remote and office-based work. Through focus groups, they discovered that employees with young children preferred remote work for flexibility, while junior staff wanted more office-based work to get mentoring. Understanding these motivations helped the company create tailored solutions for different employee groups.

While doing the focus groups, make sure to experiment with getting employee feedback on a variety of options you might be considering. That will lay the groundwork for the eventual option you choose, both from having gotten feedback from the focus groups and through the focus group participants spreading the information about the options through the grapevine.

Yes, of course, the ground rules of the focus groups require employees to keep what happens in the focus group inside the focus group. But let’s be real: In my experience, employees inevitably talk about what happened, especially on matters as important to their daily lives as their long-term hybrid work arrangements. So you might just as well make lemonade out of the lemons of leaked information by getting your staff prepared for whatever option is inevitably chosen.

C-suite decision-making based on the information gathered

Third, I present the survey and focus group findings to C-suite executives, followed by one-on-one discussions to gather their perspectives. This provides an opportunity to address questions, explore the impact of the data on decision-making, and evaluate alignment across the leadership team. It also helps develop an agenda and priorities for the last of the components of the process: the decision-making session.

Fourth and last, arrange an offsite meeting for C-suite executives to review the reports, external benchmarks and data from other companies. Here, they’ll make a well-informed decision on return to office and long-term hybrid work arrangements, and develop a plan to measure success and revise policies as needed.

Think of this offsite as a gourmet kitchen where your leadership team can cook up the perfect recipe for your organization’s future. This collaborative environment will encourage fruitful discussions and enable the team to weigh the pros and cons of different options based on the collected data and insights.

A mid-size IT company, grappling with the challenges of transitioning to a hybrid work model, held an executive offsite to analyze the gathered data and external benchmarks. As a result, the company crafted a tailored hybrid work policy that took into account employee preferences, industry standards and company culture. This policy not only improved employee satisfaction but also boosted productivity and collaboration.

Implementing the plan and overcoming resistance to change

Once you’ve implemented the chosen policy, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Continually monitor its success, evaluate its effectiveness and adjust as needed. After all, just like a fine wine, the perfect hybrid work policy may require some refining over time.

I know of a large law firm in a Midwestern city that initially implemented a flexible hybrid work arrangement but soon found that it led to decreased collaboration and mentorship opportunities for junior staff. By closely monitoring the situation, the firm identified the issue and adapted their policy, introducing a mentoring program to ensure more guidance for junior employees.

Related: Junior Staff Are Struggling to Adjust to Flexible Schedules, But Forced In-Office Mandates Are Not The Answer — This Is.

Change is often met with resistance, and transitioning to new work arrangements is no exception. All of the previous parts of the process helped gain investment and buy-in, and your staff will be much more likely to accept the decision made, even the ones who don’t like some aspects of the chosen policy. However, you’ll still get some opposition.

To minimize pushback and foster a smooth transition, open communication is key. Keep your employees informed throughout the process of implementation and give them a platform to voice their concerns.

For instance, a multinational consumer packaged goods company faced resistance from some employees when transitioning to a flexible hybrid work model. By addressing their concerns through town hall meetings and providing resources to help them adapt, the company was able to win over the large majority of skeptics and ensure a successful transition.

Ultimately, the success of any work arrangement hinges on considering the human factor. Empathize with your employees’ needs and aspirations, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a harmonious work environment that drives engagement, productivity, and innovation.

A late-stage biotech startup chose to implement a hybrid work model that prioritized employee well-being and work-life balance. The company’s management demonstrated empathy and understanding, leading to increased employee loyalty, productivity, and retention.

Conclusion

When making a decision on long-term return to office and hybrid work arrangements, it’s crucial to embrace a thorough, transparent and evidence-driven process. By following the four-pillar approach outlined in this article, you’ll lay the groundwork for a successful transition that benefits both your employees and your organization. Just remember, like a skilled gardener cultivating a beautiful garden, patience, care, and attention to detail are key to achieving the perfect balance between office and hybrid work arrangements.



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