We are now marking 365 days of conference calls, Zoom meetings, and homemade lunches. For some, it has been a dream come true. No long commutes, no annoying office-mates, and no formal work attire. For others, no in-person feedback, no downtime to chat with coworkers, and no separation between home and office have made the year even more challenging than it was before.
No matter where you fall on this spectrum, the reality is that the office will be coming back in some form this year. Vaccination rates are increasing, COVID cases are (slowly) going down, and most organizations are eagerly planning to return to something that resembles business as usual.
For organizational leaders, it is time to start planning for this reality — this new normal. It doesn’t matter if your goal is to get back to pre-pandemic office capacity or you want to majorly overhaul the way you do things. The important part is that you take the time now to consider the changes ahead. Here are a few ways that leadership can prepare for the return to the office.
Don’t decide anything yet
There are still a lot of unknowns about fully returning to in-person work. What if the vaccine rollout slows down? What if a COVID variant strain spikes cases? As we discussed in a previous piece, now is a time for “bounded optimism” or, optimism that is firmly grounded in reality. If your return to the office plans are based on firm spring, summer, or even fall dates, you are setting yourself and your entire organization up for disappointment.
This is a time for preparation and planning, not for final decision-making. Leaders should take this time to gather information, strategize, map out scenarios, and make best-case and worst-case plans. Making final decisions and especially announcing final decisions to employees should be left for a later date. You will not only be setting your plans up for failure if you finalize them now, but you may also be hurting organizational morale with plans that may never even come to fruition.
Survey individual groups
Leaders shouldn’t be basing their return to work preparation on organization-wide employee surveys. While employee surveys are an important tool to gauge the temperature of the organization, it is only one tool. It only captures how employees feel right now, not how they will feel in the next three months, six months, or a year. Organization-wide surveys will also often be too heavily weighted toward rank and file employees, not management. This is because most team org charts are a pyramid with fewer people at the top.
Breaking your organization down into groups and surveying them individually is a better way to go if possible. This will give you better quality information and may show things such as lower-level employees wanting to remain remote while managers may feel like they need to return to face-to-face interactions to be effective. This may even differ by department in some cases.
When you know this, you can better analyze the ‘why’ behind the data. You can also weigh your decision-making toward groups that have the most influence on long-term success. And, if you need to make a decision that is unpopular right now, you will have a better understanding of which stakeholders you need to focus on getting back on board.
What is the true cost for your organization?
Gauging the true cost of remote versus in-person work for your organization in the long run, is incredibly difficult. To do so, leaders must somehow measure a wide range of both tangible and intangible metrics. Returning to the office means that team building, establishing trust, communication, and fostering a creative environment may be easier. Staying remote (at least to some level) may boost employee morale and save the company real money in overhead.
Unfortunately, there’s not a spreadsheet that leaders can plug these metrics into that will produce a cost/benefit analysis for you. Leaders will have to rely on a mix of employee feedback, past success, observing similar businesses, and sometimes just gut instinct to figure these things out.
There is a right answer
While there is no one right answer about returning to the office that applies to every business, there is one for your business. Your industry, the size of your company, the makeup of your organization, the technology at your disposal, and much more will determine the best path for your situation. What is right for a big financial institution that is returning to a 100 percent in-person workforce (and has a vested interest in commercial real estate ventures) or for a big tech company staying 100 percent remote (and trying to sell you remote work solutions) is probably not right for your CPG company.
That said, there is likely a right answer for your specific organization and it is up to the leaders of each organization to figure this answer out. It will absolutely be difficult and there is a good chance that there will be mistakes along the way. However, leaders who plan now but wait to decide, survey different parts of their organization, weigh all the costs of each option, and come up with a plan that makes the most sense for them will have the best chance for success.