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Ex-Google HR chief: Why returning to the office could be a ‘recipe for disaster’

July 11, 2021
Borderless Leadership

As businesses start to reopen their offices, many are planning for a hybrid model that will see more employees working remotely all or part of the time. But this return to a semblance of normal working life could be more disruptive—and potentially more damaging—than the initial pivot to all-remote work in 2020.

The shutdown last year was brutal and chaotic for both individuals and businesses, but it was also a unifying moment. We faced fear and uncertainty together. We all ran out of yeast and toilet paper at the same time. We were forced to rally and lean on each other with a common purpose: Stay healthy, take care of each other, and keep the business going so we’ll have jobs when this is over.

Several factors make the return to work more challenging. For employees, it will be a staggered, disjointed process marked by uncertainty. Different regions will open up at different times, and some may be forced to close again temporarily. Workers will return to unfamiliar surroundings, with masks, plexiglass screens and hand sanitizer, wondering if their coworkers are vaccinated and how they should greet them.

This is anything but a unifying experience, and it comes at a time when many people are mentally and physically drained after more than a year of lockdown. A study by the University of Chicago showed that employees worked 30% more than normal during the shutdown, and Microsoft found that work-related messages sent between 6 p.m. and midnight jumped 52%. No wonder people are burned out.

The result is a fatigued and fragile workforce that in many cases will collide with a senior leadership team that is keen to get back on track and resume a trajectory of rapid growth. This is a recipe for disaster, and it’s critical that senior leaders, managers, and HR teams build a plan to address the vulnerabilities in their teams.

The return to work is an example of what I call an “imprintable moment.” When a bird is born, it bonds with the first creatures it sees and quickly adopts their traits and habits. Employees similarly “imprint” during key events like their first job interview or first day as a manager. The return to work is an imprintable moment that will set the tone for how employees view their workplace for years to come. This moment is even more important now given the high percentage of employees who were hired during the pandemic, and that many others are said to be thinking about quitting.

Here are five steps that senior leaders, managers, and HR teams should carefully consider before returning to the hybrid office.

Many leaders will want to hit the ground running after a year of disruption, but this is a losing strategy. No one coaches an athlete to come back from an injury by immediately trying to set a new personal record. Companies may not want to hear this, but the road to full strength requires you to relax your performance standards in the initial phase. With the exhaustion and uncertainty people are feeling, if you ask your teams to operate at 110% out of the gate, you will be let down and they will feel they have failed. Setting realistic goals can take many forms. It may be reducing sales quotas or production targets, but it should be meaningful and expressed clearly from the outset.

A corollary of realistic targets is leading with compassion. Show your employees that you understand what they have been through. And remember, empathy alone is not enough. People need compassion. Empathy is saying, “I know you’ve had a tough year.” Compassion is saying, “I know you’ve had a tough year—and here’s how we’re going to help.” Give people the space to get their heads back in the game. Pay attention to their needs. Do your employees feel cared for and attended to? Do they know what their focus and mission is? For example, at my company, we have been giving our employees every other Friday off to recharge, with no loss in productivity.

The return to work is about more than physical distance and ensuring that desks are properly spaced apart. It’s about finding ways to close the emotional distance—what scientists call affective distance—between your employees. Some will be fully remote; some will be in the office a few days a week; some will be in the office every day. Managers should organize moments of small-scale, concentrated human connection—virtual water coolers, game nights, kicking off a meeting by asking about a teammate’s weekend. These personal moments help teams stay connected, combat burnout, and work together effectively when they’ve been physically apart for a long period.

Many companies will need to change plans and revise protocols after welcoming employees back to the office. No one will get everything right the first time, and that’s fine—as long as your employees expect it. The mistake many will make is to say, “This is how we’ll operate moving forward,” without providing a timeframe for taking stock and assessing how things are going. When you make unexpected changes, people think the plan’s not working and get anxious. A better strategy is to say, “We will try this system for two months and then see what needs to be changed.” When people expect change, they handle it far better because they can see it coming.

A one-size-fits-all “hybrid plan” is not going to fix the exhaustion or lead to a sustainable work environment. Consider what hybrid work means at the team and the individual levels. The right approach for your sales team may be very different from the right approach for your engineering team. And their needs may change as the weeks pass, so plan to evolve your approach. Encourage teams to embrace experimentation, connection, and feedback. Look for tools and approaches that enable you to offer the kind of personalized support to managers and teams that enable them to figure out the best ways of working together.

Getting back to a predictable pattern of work will be a relief for many employees, but they need your compassion and support to do their best work. The companies that succeed will be those where leaders prioritize their employees’ well-being by addressing the exhaustion of the past 12 months, and who recognize this as an “imprintable moment” in which to reassert their company’s values and the purpose of their work. This will not only make the return to work a smooth one but also strengthen your business in the long run. But you need to be making plans for this now; doing so the week after you return to the office is too late.

by Laszlo Bock


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