The business headlines around the world seem to be flashing in neon and blasting out one panicky notion after another. Return to the Office. Don't Return to the Office. Quiet Quitting. Nobody Wants to Go to the Office. Go to the Office or You're FiredÖ. It's exhausting.
What are organizations, individual leaders, and team members supposed to do now?
It makes sense that there's confusion. Three years of Covid-inspired disruption to the way business is conducted and work is done has left uncertainty in its wake. Waving a magic wand and saying, "we're going back to the way things were," isn't going to work for a number of reasons. That can be disorienting and frustrating. It's also offering us knowledge workers an unparalleled opportunity, if we are willing to take it.
Let's start with why "go back to normal," is so difficult:
Workers (largely) proved that they can work without the boss hovering over them. At the beginning of the pandemic, we spoke to many leaders who felt they had no choice but to let people work from home but were pessimistic that people would be productive and engaged without coming into a central location. While individual results might vary, overall there was little drop in production and people got their work done.
People developed new ways of working that fit their lifestyle. Truthfully, they felt they had no choice in the matter, but made it work. Surprisingly, (to many) the changes they made in their lives allowed them go get work done while spending more time with their families and spending less on commuting and family care, resulting in more spending power for the same wages. The choice might not have been theirs to make, but the resulting changes in lifestyle mean many people aren't eager (or willing) to just go back to how things were.
Three years of change have resulted in changes to how organizations operate, meaning it won't be the same as before the pandemic. Many organizations have let leases lapse or opted for smaller or fewer offices. The company, team and work might be the same, but physical changes to facilities means it won't be the same as it was before people went home.
Return to Office (RTO) hasn't gone as smoothly as people expected. Just among our clients, we had people return to office en masse, only to have a Covid outbreak send everyone home again. Some organizations dictated terms for coming back to work, only to find they were so unpopular or unworkable that they've had to go back to the drawing board.
A case in point is letting people come in three days a week, which means offices bursting at the seams on Wednesday while people are showing up to empty offices another day and having to spend all day on Zoom or Teams meetings, defeating the purpose of coming back in the first place. A client of ours complains that people have forgotten office etiquette or are less willing to abide inconveniences. In her words, "some of our employees have gone feral."
People have recognized that "the before times" weren't so golden. Constant interruptions. Office politics. Commutes that had people arrive grumpy and leave early to beat traffic. It wasn't as if pre-2020 the office was some Edenic place of workplace bliss. Many organizations have learned that after an initial re-entry phase when people are glad to feel like normalcy has returned, and they have a chance to reconnect socially with their colleagues, it doesn't take long for the old resentments to rear their ugly heads. To make things even worse, now people have experienced an alternative to the way things were done before and are less willing to settle for behaviors or circumstances that they know could be improved.
Opportunities exist to make things less chaotic and actually improve the workplace for everyone. The answer might be returning to the office, it might mean letting people work remotely or it might be finding some sort of hybrid solution. There is no single solution, or one-size-fits-all approach, frustrating as that might be.
The chaos swirling around return to work is offering us something that doesn't come around very often. We have reached an obvious inflection point where the need to take action meets the opportunity to be intentional about our next steps.
It's easier to assess your current workplace and how work gets done, the roles of the people doing the work, and the kind of culture you want to work in when there's time to think, plan and redesign how things will be done. Once everyone is back to work and policies have calcified, it will be difficult to change or adjust.
That's the point of our book, The Long-Distance Team - Designing Your Team for Everyone's Success. Kevin Eikenberry and I have talked to hundreds of people around the world about what their return to office experience has been, and what they'd change about their environment and culture if they could.
The book is designed to be a guide, rather than a prescription. There are so many ways of organizing your team, assigning work, and determining where (and when) it takes place that it can be overwhelming. By determining your aspirational culture, assessing the reality of what's working or not in your current team, and planning for future success you can help create a new culture that people will engage with and thrive in.
Are you, your leaders, and your teammates flailing about trying to get "back to normal?" Maybe it's time to re-think what work should look like for everyone's success.