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The Return to Office Battle: what’s the right approach?

September 15, 2023
Borderless Leadership

Each week, the number of organizations announcing their return to the office grows. Zoom, the company whose technology helped drive the remote work movement during the pandemic, recently announced its employees would need to work in the office at least twice a week.

It seems corporate America went from strongly embracing remote work to strongly discouraging (or disallowing) time away from the office. Why the dramatic shift, and what’s the right strategy to follow? This question is being discussed in C-suites across the country, and the answer deserves a more nuanced approach than it has received.

Deciding if it’s Time to Return to Office
The reality of most corporate environments today is that work is complex: duties can change from week to week and day to day, from team to team and person to person. Assigning remote and in-person work roles will ― and sometimes should ― be dynamic and flexible, rather than fixed in place. Navigating those complexities remains a central challenge for today’s leaders. The following considerations can help assist the process of deciding which work model is best.

1. Consider Your Personnel and What They’re Doing Right Now.
Empower your leaders to make the right calls for which teams should be spending time in the office versus dictating a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s essential for a middle manager or team leader to be aware of the roles within each team, how teams interact with one another, and the relevant deadlines that will dictate who’s in the office and when. Leaders must be empowered to make the best decisions for their teams.

Support those teams by making it easier for them: consider holding defined “collaboration days” for members of remote teams to gather in person. Schedule lunches, speakers, and social events around it to encourage attendance.

2. Think About How Teams Work Together.
Here, the demographics of the organization might come into play. A senior organization whose members have worked together for a decade probably has the discipline, teamwork, and resilience to overcome the challenges posed by working at a distance from one another. A more junior team that needs mentoring might need to gather in person more.

Consider being more flexible in allowing employees to work from home when projects are already underway. But when preparing for a new product launch, for example, or a project where multiple teams are involved in the early stages of ideation, keeping teams in the office makes sense. These factors are ever-changing and might require revisiting work arrangements over time.

3. See What Your Competition is Doing.
If your organization insists every employee reports to an office, and your direct competitors allow for a hybrid model, you’re at a disadvantage. Enforcing a policy that effectively promotes attrition will harm the business, so be clear on what your talent peers are up to and why, and look at what is driving your company’s decision-making. Would a more flexible work environment help you compete?

Weighing the Costs and Benefits
Avoid sunk-cost mentalities. An organization’s internal budget can and should guide executives’ thinking. But an office space or lease shouldn’t be the driving factor behind a workplace strategy; the driver should be what makes sense for your business. If you discover your strategy should allow for more remote or hybrid work and you need less space, look into opportunities to downside or sublet the office space vs. mandating in-person attendance.

If you have a large number of employees near a main office, a hybrid solution may be practical and help address remote work concerns. For those with a highly distributed workforce spread across multiple cities or countries, requiring frequent flights for meetings will be costly and impractical. If your strategy has evolved and it doesn’t make sense to have as many remote employees, avoid deepening the problem by considering what incentives to put in place and what hiring guidelines make sense moving forward.

Carefully consider international hires moving forward. Globally distributed workforces can present practical concerns, from administrative burden to compliance with local labor laws and legal entity requirements. Payroll services companies can help but still require a heavy lift that may not always pencil out if the company has only one to two people in each country. In that case, select “hubs” or “approved regions” for hiring within, limiting the list to regions aligned with your demographics and desired talent strategy to balance the cost/benefit equation.

Use data to guide and iterate. As you adjust and re-adjust remote-work policies, use actionable data to inform the strategy. Requiring employees to work in the office isn’t the only way to promote and measure productivity. Messaging tools like Slack and Teams allow leaders to monitor when employees are active, inactive, or in meetings. (Ask IT to cull daily or weekly data if you don’t want to monitor your workers’ activity from minute to minute.)

A flexible or remote work policy might not be best for your organization. But for the workers whose jobs can be done remotely, consider a nuanced approach. You may find that through the appropriate flexibility, testing, and experimentation, you arrive at an equilibrium that delivers the best results while maintaining the flexibility required to move the organization forward.

By Jesse Meschuk


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