Returning To The Office: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

HOK’s Kay Sargent explores why companies are struggling with finding the right balance with their return to the office strategy.

return to the office strategies
Photo by Cherrydeck on Unsplash

As we see a post-pandemic future on the horizon, companies have been contemplating what their return to the office strategy (RTO) should be. For many, the announcement of their go-forward approach is met with pushback from their workforce.

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s RTO strategy was met with a letter from 80 employees unhappy about being asked to be in the office a minimum of three set days a week. Morgan Stanley’s CEO James Gorman warned employees to return to the office by Labor Day or face a pay cut noting that “if you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office.”

These examples, among countless others, have led to a series of recent articles talking about the gap between what the workforce wants, and the C-suite is asking. While many are suggesting that the C-suite is out of touch, I don’t think it’s that simple or the failing is one-sided.

The C-suite is concerned not only about the health, safety and wellbeing of the workforce but also ensuring that the business survives. That last point is often overlooked in strong economies, but the prosperity of companies can’t be forsaken. Our livelihoods depend on it.

Executives have had to make some hard decisions and know they are dealing with a heightened sensitivity and shifting desires among the workforce. Company after company has asked their workers what they want in an attempt to gauge sentiment, show empathy, and develop their RTO approach. But there is such a thing as a bad question, and I’d argue that asking people what they want is one.

This article is a follow up from Kay’s recent WD Flex event – watch & read recap here!

Asking the Right Questions

It’s not that we shouldn’t care about how people feel, but asking people to respond to a RTO environment they’ve yet to experience is unrealistic and invalid. Most people are responding based on what they have been experiencing while working remotely. They aren’t necessarily thinking about what is right for the collective or the business. Mainly because we didn’t ask them that.

The question I think we should be asking is, “Given that we need to ensure the business and our most valued asset, our workforce, both continue to thrive, what type of hybrid solutions should we consider to accommodate individual work styles and enable meaningful interaction to build social capital and knowledge exchange that will foster our culture and help us all advance successfully?”

It’s messy, I know. But so is the situation we’re currently in. We can’t just be thinking from a self-centric viewpoint and guesstimate how we think we’ll respond in this new situation.

For the past year, most of us have had a shared remote working experience. That is about to change as a large percentage of us return to the office. Fortunately, some guidance exists for what will happen next. Many companies, specifically those in the professional service industry, have been working in hybrid solutions for years and we have gleamed many lessons from it that apply now. One thing we’ve learned is just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. As we noted in May 2020 COVID-19 Chronicles Entry #8 entitled Remote Work Programs, “Distributed work is not right for everyone. The degree that people work remotely should be based on their job function, personality and ability to effectively do so while supporting their organization’s business needs.” But most companies are even asking those questions.

We know from these past remote work experiences that disparity can flourish when some people are in the office and others are working remotely disparity. So too can FOMO, fear of missing out. If companies aren’t well prepared to address this and don’t have the policies and procedures in place to prevent issues, there will be challenges. For many, how you think you might respond won’t meet the reality of how you will feel once the new reality sets in.

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Communicate with Empathy

The C-suite and the workforce need to meet in the middle. We need to have the individual’s AND the business’ best interests at heart. The message I wish more CEOs would be sharing is one of empathy and perhaps a bit more reality. Such messaging could sound something like this:

“We are in unchartered territory and will continue to be so for the coming months if not the coming year. We are all in this together, so we all need to have patience and empathy, and we need to follow the science and evolve as it does. We need to think about what is best not just for ourselves, but for others and the company as well. Because if we can’t all thrive, including those who are more vulnerable, and if the business can’t succeed, we will all suffer the results. Therefore, we’re going to an active solution based on what we know now, but we will continue to reassess and adjust as needed. And as we come out of this COVID era, we need to acknowledge that we will not all do so equally or on the same timeframe. So, we need to be flexible. But we can’t just think about ourselves, and it’s not about what “I want”. It’s about what is right for the individuals AND the collective community AND the business, so we all emerge as healthy, safe and well as possible and we all have jobs to come back to and our economy thrives.”

The hesitation the workforce is feeling is nature. As humans, we are more accepting of change then we give ourselves credit. It’s transitions we hate. We love the new house but hate the move. We love vacation but dread the return. We love weekends but Sunday night is often a letdown as Monday looms near. We don’t like transitions, especially when what we are moving into is still shifting or unknown. But transitions are temporary, and we move on. So we will with a return to the office strategy.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy reentry. But if we lead with empathy and the greater good in mind, we will all be better off for it.

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