The most important question for returning to the office is not who, how, or when. Here’s why.

Challenge Factory’s Blog

The most important question for returning to the office is not who, how, or when. Here’s why.

Challenge Factory’s Blog

Challenge Factory is back in the office. Not everyone comes in every day—a dynamic that was also true for us before the pandemic. On days when we are in the office, each of us has had to reset our morning rituals. We’ve found there is a period of adjustment that has nothing to do with specific policies, procedures, or team schedules. It’s working well for us, but the transition does take some getting used to. We’re relearning who we are as a team and reshaping our collective future.

Every day, we hear from leaders who express doubt, fear, and concern about their return-to-office plans. Each leader we talk with instinctively feels that right now is the time to clarify what will happen next. Yet very few feel confident they have solid answers to the questions being asked of them. Much of this disconnect stems from the current focus on creating and implementing workspace-related policy, rather than crafting workforce-informed culture.

Culture answers questions related to the ever-important “why.”

As a leader, it’s hard to champion, implement, and thrive through change when the reason why is unclear. Gut instinct that returning to the office makes sense, at least for some activities, is not enough. Without a clear and meaningful connection to why they are going back to physical workspaces, front-line managers and staff will feel that this change is being done to them, rather than with them or, even more importantly, for them.

Why should employees come back to the office—at least some of the time?

The answer is often not simple. Many organizations are talking about the importance of collaboration, productivity, and social interaction. Employees are countering that they’ve been collaborative and productive throughout the pandemic. Many also note that they now turn more to friends and family for daily social interaction and aren’t necessarily looking for it from work as they may have in the past.

It becomes a tug-of-war, where leaders instinctively believe that their teams can’t remain wholly remote forever but also can’t clearly articulate a “why” that can be justified. This tension is internalized for leaders, who also struggle with their own conviction about returning to the office when the appeal of their home office is ever-present.

How to get out of a tug-of-war you don’t want to be in.

The fastest way to end the battle is to drop the rope. You don’t do this by asking what your people want in the hopes that their answers will align with an already set organizational direction. This activity serves to erode trust and perpetuate the struggle. Asking for input and being “employee-driven” or allowing front-line managers to decide policy for their own teams is also problematic. Doing so may end the obvious struggle but leaves your staff holding the rope and having to pick up the leadership slack.

Instead, ease the tension by articulating clear reasons why you are all on common ground, together. COVID-19 has taken a lot from us. Your organization will have meaningful reasons why a common workplace matters in what you do. Returning to the office is not an operational activity. It’s strategic—and one of the most significant opportunities you have at this moment in time to reinforce or reinvent the culture of your organization.

Everyone’s “why” is different. What’s yours?

If you need help identifying your “why,” as well as how to decide what remote/hybrid/office model is best for you, here are four uncommon reasons why the blend of in-person and remote work may be important for your organization.

Why? Because you have a corporate social responsibility.

Our society is emerging from a time of lockdowns and quarantine. Remaining separate from each other was never intended to become our new norm. The point of social distancing and other public health measures is so that one day we can resume collective, social living. In this article, “Stop tiptoeing around setting expectations for in-person meetings,” we highlighted the unique role employers play in facilitating recovery by providing the venues, reasons, and nudges to resume public life. This means helping to reset behavioural patterns and encourage people to get out of the house.

This aligns with the corporate values of community, social responsibility, and leadership.

Why? Because you are committed to employee mental health and wellness.

The impacts of isolation, stress, and uncertainty have drawn more and more attention to employee well-being over the last few years. Workplaces provide regular opportunities for people to check up and check in with each other. Good managers notice when staff are struggling and can help with front-line interventions to ensure proper supports are available. But this is incredibly hard to do from behind a screen.

While many employees report that working from home has been helpful for work-life balance, this is not uniformly the case and often may change as personal circumstances shift and adapt. Consider this Royal Society for Public Health study, which found that 45% of employees felt working from home was better for their health and wellbeing. In more detailed analysis, 67% of employees reported feeling isolated or disconnected and another 56% indicated they have a hard time disconnecting from work. Even infrequent in-person interactions with people who have a long-term vested interest in employee success can ensure supports are provided and isolation is minimized.

This aligns with the corporate values of health and well-being, employee experience, and lasting relationships.

Why? Because you value equity in career development and progression.

Pre-COVID studies and early reports from the past year indicate that, while tasks and work can be done in fully remote environments, it is often at the cost of future career opportunities. Most fully remote staff find it harder to make meaningful connections with new mentors, sponsors, and role models. Likewise, they are often overlooked when new opportunities for advancement are available. Younger employees and people who have changed jobs during the pandemic express the greatest concerns about the long-term career impacts of working remotely, even as they signal in employee surveys that they enjoy the freedom of working from home.

We need to learn from what has been helpful in these “all-remote” times and design our workplace strategy with inclusion at the core. An upside, for example, is how remote work arrangements can benefit persons with disabilities. How can we continue to create equitable workplaces that enable opportunities for everyone to not only work, but also thrive?

This aligns with the corporate values of inclusion, staff advancement, lifelong learning, and organic growth.

Why? Because you need time to learn “how to hybrid.”

Working in and leading hybrid teams is not the same as working within fully remote or fully in-person teams. Facilitating meetings, fostering creativity, soliciting feedback, reviewing performance, and advancing careers are all different when teams are hybrid. People need time to experiment together and collectively build their own version of the hybrid workspace. What values, rituals, standards, and norms will be a part of this new way of working?

Even for companies that operated remotely before the pandemic, now is a great time to reflect on and review how our cultures are fairing under current workplace relationships, and what we want in the future. Managers and employees need to learn how to create, support, and thrive in hybrid workplaces—and this may require a time investment by working together in the office so that our hybrid practices and cultures thrive in the future.

This aligns with the corporate values of continuous improvement, quality, and adaptation.

As the entire world “resets,” this is a remarkable moment that calls for courageous leadership. Everyone is searching for guidance, markers, and cues for what work will be like in coming years. The data we have is incomplete and often conflicting. People are tired and need the pace of demands and the level of uncertainty to abate. At Challenge Factory, we see renewed capacity emerge when leadership teams shift from a zoomed-in focus on operational details to a wide-lens perspective on purpose, values, and culture.

Return-to-office plans should reflect the values of your organization. In times of great uncertainty, your values provide constancy. They make your decisions and actions predictable and give you meaningful ways to communicate about the choices you are making. While strategies and plans may continue to shift and change, your core values won’t. This is why you might have found it informative to learn about how others are approaching the operational nature of returning to the office, but not wholly helpful as you set out your own strategy.

Procedures may be copied. But the “why” is unique to your organization. Let’s shape your Future of Work from there.

Use Challenge Factory’s free decision tree to help you ask better questions. Check out the sneak peek below.

With contributions from Lisa Taylor, Emree Siaroff, and Taryn Blanchard.