Back to the Office – But what Sort of Office?

Many businesses will face a situation that they have never faced before shortly. The return to the office environment of a workforce that has either been furloughed or working from home as a result of the pandemic and its effects.

For some people and their managers, the absence will have been over a year, which in the commercial world is a long, long time. Let’s face it, the marketplace, in most situations will have changed too and business owners and managers may well need to change the shape of their workforce as realities bite.

In addition, a recent survey has shown that most employees don’t want to return to what things looked like pre-pandemic. A recent survey from Harvard Business School showed that 81% of those surveyed either do not want to come back at all or would prefer a hybrid model for their work. Nearly a third would like to work at home full time and almost two thirds would prefer to work from home two or three days a week. In fact, less than a fifth want to return to in person work full time.

Clearly each business’s team will have a different split and ultimately, unless government legislation changes, the decision is down to management. But we sense that the majority of employees across the board will not be cheering when they return to the office environment and that presents a challenge for management and a test of leadership.

The key of course is to ensure that you can keep your team motivated during this transition – but how as a leader should you approach this? As in most things, decisions need to be made and as in most things relating to work, the more involved in the solutions the employees feel (without moving to a form of anarchy!) the better the outcome.

Here are a few tips:

If your plan doesn’t match employee expectations, it is important to genuinely listen to their concerns. Note the genuinely bit – no point in paying lip service in this process – you must be genuinely interested. Concerns and disappointments must be heard with empathy. Be open about the why’s and facts behind your decisions. Take responsibility and justify the decisions without ‘passing the buck’ by saying ‘out of my control’ which will merely antagonise the employee even more and point their frustration at senior management which is very disruptive. Any policy needs to have a justification and if you can’t justify it, we suggest you think again until you can. In an open process like this you will get questions about policy you don’t have the answer to. Be honest, admit that and also promise that you will come back with a response in x days – and follow up on that promise. Being up front, open and keeping people informed is key to good leadership. You don’t want people against actions you need to keep them with you.

If there is some flexibility in your mind over how to implement hybrid policies across your team, you’ll need be clear on how to apply those rules to certain individual circumstances. You must do this and be able to explain this to all without creating a feeling of unfairness. The thing you must have on this return is teamwork and cohesion and this must be brought together quickly, or your market performance can suffer. You don’t want bad feelings and some thinking that they have been treated unfairly.

Where possible, engage your employees in working out how best to use the discretion you’re allotted. Get each employee to express their thoughts and preferences, and within the bounds of what’s allowed, charge the team with working out how to balance them. As an example, single parents may have different needs for flexibility than those caring for ageing parents. People will be inclined to be more flexible, even sacrificial, for the sake of the team when it’s their choice to do so and they understand why.

One thing that must be assured is productivity and this is one of the potential risks where people are remote. Rules for remote work do need to be clear as work needs to be completed and completed with excellence. Again, involving people in creating new work practices everyone adheres to for both where work happens as well as when work happens will be beneficial. As an example, ensuring that all meetings include video links so those working from home can participate equally with those in the office to avoid the ‘outsider’ feeling. Set defined worktime hours, like 11:00 am – 2:00 pm when everyone must be available online, while also setting weekend boundaries when everyone is expected to be offline. For bigger meetings, have everyone join from their computer, regardless of whether they’re at home or in the office, so that nobody feels left out. We repeat, people will feel far more committed to solutions they help create and by encouraging their creativity you create energy and excitement relating to the ‘new world’ and nerves and concern are dampened.

As we all know some people lost loved ones to Covid-19 but never had the chance to say goodbye because of restrictions. Others rekindled their connection to life partners and bonded even more closely with their children. New personal routines that they came to enjoy will now be disrupted.

No matter how positive the next phase will be you must give people space to grieve the loss of whatever this period has meant for them as individuals. Grief comes in many forms. People can be quiet, or terse, or teary when their family is mentioned. If you create a little space for people to let go of what this last 18 months has meant for them, you’ll help them to more enthusiastically accept the next phase of business you want them to participate in.

Leaders will also have to adapt again and getting back to the office may be a struggle for them – you should be honest with yourself about this. Leaders too will have to adapt, and many will probably have mixed feelings about what they are giving up.

This doesn’t give leaders the opportunity to unburden their personal concerns on their people. Sharing your personal concerns can soon become overdone and the feeling of ‘we are all victims here’ could prevail as a result – not good. As a leader, appreciate the difference between saying, “I fully understand what coming back means for you as a parent. I’m going to miss the time I had to spend with my little girl,” and saying, “Believe me, I know how much coming back annoys you. I wouldn’t either if I didn’t have to!” Never unburden like this with your people – you have to set an example that they will follow – they look to the leader and their attitudes and actions will, to a large degree, mirror the leader.

Fun is a great mood builder and there is no reason why good business cannot be created and exercised in a fun environment. The other great thing about fun is that it eases concerns and fear. Light-hearted ‘banter’ in an office environment is great – it lifts people’s moods, it makes a bad start to a day better and could be one of the great plus points about coming back to the office because being remote, with far less social interaction will reduce the fun factor possibilities immensely.

There are unquestionably things that people miss about being in the office – rituals your team enjoyed, celebrations (Birthdays etc.) that were never celebrated as a team with opportunities to feel less isolated. A PWC survey from June 2020 revealed that 50% of employees felt that collaboration and relationship building were far better in person.

Leaders should help people see the ways you’ll be able to re-establish these enjoyable things once everyone returns. Humour, when it is used with thought, can be especially helpful for creating great experiences. As the team’s leader, this is an especially good time to show your concern and interest in your team — doing what you can to personally ease the transition for team members for whom it might be difficult. If you, as leader, provide genuine support now, you will build the team’s loyalty and dedication to each other and to your business performance commitments for the year ahead.

The first move to work from home was tough and the ‘back to the office’ call might be tougher’. People will be looking for routines on “return” that simply might not be there. When that happens, we need to use extra energy to adjust as we take on the process of return.

What we need is to bring the very best version of who we are back to the office and demonstrate how the experience of the pandemic has made us even stronger. The leader’s role is so, so important in helping employees make this comeback with belief, understanding and patience to make sure those are the versions of people that do turn up.

If you need some expert help in transitioning your team get in touch with us for a free, no obligation chat at or call us on 01162325231

The Tinderbox Team