5 Ways to Think About Returning to the Office

office worker at a computer showing an online meeting or webinar

Decisions about whether, when, and how to return to the office–or not–might not be as complicated as you think. Here are five strategies for figuring it out.

1. Get good information.

How to get bad information: Call up two or three direct reports and say, “What if we had everyone work from home on Fridays so we can be in person four days a week?”

People who are smart enough to be valuable are smart enough to realize that you’re presenting your preferred option and therefore to say yes.

If you really want to know how staff members feel about being in the office, don’t rely on word of mouth. Field a survey. If possible, contract it out so the survey can be truly anonymous.

It’s better to learn the truth than to suffer the consequences of people telling you what you want to hear.

2. Think equity over equality.

Some organizations have been using people’s personal situations to decide whether they have to return to the office. For example, Ted can work from home every day because he has preschool children, and Robin has to come in every day because she lives alone.

An equitable policy has something for everyone. It doesn’t have to be one size fits all, but it does have to offer Ted and Robin comparable benefits. The case by case nature of these decisions can be daunting, but time spent in keeping valuable employees is well invested.

3. Rethink what productivity means.

CEOs of some major corporations seem to have decided that productivity means butts in seats. But you and I know that seat time doesn’t correlate to any meaningful measure of productivity. 

Remember: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” (attributed to Einstein but actually coined by William Bruce Cameron).

What counts in your organization? Sales in units, dollars, clients? Campaigns designed and adopted? Products launched?

If you haven’t already, figure out what you need to measure. Then figure out to what extent people need to be in the office to hit their targets.

One of my government clients counts “cases managed” as its key productivity metric. By that measure, employees got more productive, not less, as they worked from home.

4. Think about the purpose of sharing space.

A lot of what we used to have to do in person now can be done online. Dozens of tools are available to facilitate collaboration–not just online meeting platforms, but virtual whiteboards, design software, shared files, virtual project management, etc., etc.

Still, some things are just better in person.

Suppose we got together only for those?

During lockdown, my friend who owns a retail carpet and flooring store found tools that enable his staff to have design meetings online with potential buyers. After they narrow down their choices, buyers come into the store for 30 minutes to feel the textures, see the true colors, and make the final decision.

Another client’s creative staff do their brainstorming and project scoping in virtual meetings. When they need to pull together dozens of inputs for a final recommendation to their client, they come together (in a big, well-ventilated room) so they can see one another’s faces and body language as they decide.

5. Focus on goals.

Or, as I sometimes tell people, “Look up from the dashboard and tell me what you see through the windshield.”

What matters isn’t how many employees have small children or how much you’re spending on rent.

What matters is where you’re trying to go from here and how much you depend on your workforce to help you get there.

Gather your leadership team and think together about your goals. Then determine what strategies can help you meet those goals.

One of my clients wants to be the employer of choice in their field in our region. Great! When they told me that, I suggested that they rethink the requirement to have everyone work from home on Fridays only.

Everything that’s changed since March 2020 has been an opportunity to rethink “how we’ve always done things.” The decision of whether, how much, and how to return to the office is yet another chance to be intentional about where you want to go and how you plan to get there.

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