“When we get back to normal.”
“After things open back up.”
Frequent refrains like this litter social media — and likely your conversations. Employers and some employees crave the opportunity to return to the traditional office and resume “life as usual.” Putting aside the potential lingering effects of COVID19 on our economy, labor market, society, and health, we wanted to take a moment to consider what a return to the office (RTO) actually looks like.
Even if we return to the office, it’s almost certain that some workers will want or need to remain remote — at least temporarily. As that happens, we urge organizations to adopt remote-first principles to ensure remote employees are not second-class citizens. Here are 3 concrete recommendations to build a smooth RTO strategy.
Step One: Commit to giving your team time to plan.
You’ve read countless messages that begin “During these uncertain times…”. Yes, there’s a lot that’s outside our control. But there’s a lot we can control! Make a public commitment to making plans transparent and predictable for your team. Some companies are announcing plans 10–12 months in advance (Facebook announced in August 2020 that it would extend remote work through July 2021) but others are only providing a few weeks of notice.
- Commit to announcing your plan at least four weeks out so team members can make plans accordingly. Some team members may have relocated during the pandemic, perhaps even to a different state in order to be closer to family! Others may have unique childcare arrangements or family obligations. Give your team members time to safely make their way back home and adjust to the plan.
- Even after you implement your plan, consider offering a transition period so your team has time to adjust to “the new normal.” The goal is to provide certainty and clarity for your team so that they can plan their lives. For example, if you’re sending an email every two weeks that pushes your RTO date back two more weeks, that’s probably pretty frustrating for your team. Bite the bullet and make one large change (e.g. push your RTO date back a full quarter) instead of many smaller changes. What’s important is that, if you’re regularly communicating and you’ve committed to providing advance notice, your team has plenty of time to make their own adjustments.
Step Two: Decide on your work philosophy.
Once you decide on reopening the office, you can’t assume that every employee will want to (or be able to!) return to the office immediately. From deeply held personal beliefs to dependents, there are a range of circumstances that may prevent employees from returning right away, if at all. If you want employees to fully return to the office, you may find that some employees may not want to after adjusting to working from home for months.
It’s critical that you provide clarity on what will and will not be tolerated in terms of working arrangements so that employees can make their own decisions. (Note that if you’re overly prescriptive or restrictive, you may find that your employees look elsewhere!) You can choose from a range of expectations, including:
- Completely remote with no geographic restrictions
- Remote, but within specific time zones or with certain core work hours
- Remote, but concentrated geographically so you can gather for in-person meetings as needed
- Primarily in the office 1–5 days per week, but remote-friendly
- Required in the office 1–5 days per week
- Gather feedback from your team. Then, make your plan and let your employees know once you’ve committed to it. This should be announced in tandem with the advance notice you provide to team members about when they are expected to return to the office (if at all). For employers that opt for primarily in the office or required in the office, consider that it doesn’t have to be every day. For example, you could require that employees come into the office on Mondays and Tuesdays for in-person meetings, but are remote for the rest of the week.
- If you have a number of team members commuting from far away, being in the office Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday with hotel accommodations may be easier than being in the office Monday/Wednesday/Friday. As always, gather feedback from your team.
The Office: “Corporate says to me, ‘Gabe, we need you in Scranton.’ Scranton says, ‘Gabe, go back down to Florida, you’re needed there.’ So, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m up there. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’m down here… I can think of no better way to confront my deathly fear of flying.” (Reference.)
Step Three: “If one person is remote, then every person is remote.”
Imagine this: You’re in a physical conference room with three people sitting around a table. There’s an open laptop at the end of the table with five people in a Zoom meeting. Technical issues of volume and muting aside, how effective do you think this meeting will be?
- If you’re in the office, you’re probably more likely to pay attention to your colleagues physically in the room with you. It will be easier for you to respond to someone’s statement or to jump in and ask for clarification.
- If you’re “Zoom-ing” in from home, you will have a tougher time making your point or contributing to the conversation. You’re also at a disadvantage for reading body language or seeing gestures.
The effects here are cumulative: if you join from home, this will likely eventually have an adverse impact on your perceived performance! That’s a natural thought for people to have. For example:
“[Person who is remote] seems more disengaged in their work. Maybe they aren’t ready for a promotion.”
This will almost certainly put certain groups of people, especially parents and other caregivers, at a disadvantage. This is a type of bias that needs to be avoided!
- If one person has to be remote for a meeting, then every person should join the meeting remotely. The struggles of Zoom calls (“Can you hear me? I think you’re muted!”) worsen when some are in-person and others are dialing into the call. This cuts down on communication issues among people in the meeting and also avoids some of the performance-related judgments of people who work from home. This has the added benefit of allowing your team to socially-distance while in the office.
- Should you find yourself having to be seated around a conference table (hopefully with 6 feet between you and the folks nearest you!), consider using a conference phone with an omnidirectional microphone in the middle of the table to ensure that everyone’s voices can be heard and there aren’t issues with the dreaded Zoom echo (when two people in the same room on the same Zoom call unmute).
There’s a lot of uncertainty out there! However, it’s pretty certain that returning to the office is going to be challenging in both expected and unexpected ways. Try to provide your team with as much certainty as possible. By giving your team time to plan, being clear about your work philosophy, and adhering to the “if one person is remote, everybody is remote” idea, then you can make the RTO transition a bit smoother.