How to get your teams back into the office in our new post-Covid world, or not – hint, ask them

The end of the pandemic’s work from home (WFH) mantra is going mean a lot more time will be spent on crowded trains and buses or stuck in a line of traffic

Does a return to the office have to mean a return to hours spent in a traffic jam. Photo: iStock/PA

Stock photo

Mind the gap: Crowded commutes may again become the new normal as we head back to work. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

thumbnail: Does a return to the office have to mean a return to hours spent in a traffic jam. Photo: iStock/PA
thumbnail: Stock photo
thumbnail: Mind the gap: Crowded commutes may again become the new normal as we head back to work. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos
Gina London, The Communicator

“It took me an hour to get in on Monday and 45 minutes on Tuesday.”

That’s what my workout buddy told me this past week at the gym. Ah, yes. Now that work from home is being lifted here in Ireland, we’re back to conversations about commuting time. Because we’re all heading back into the office. Unless we’re not.

For me, it still takes about thirty seconds to go up the stairs from the kitchen or living room to my bedroom, where a quarter of it has been serving as virtual consulting office, speaking stage and coaching studio for almost two full years.

I used to spend my professional life running though airports to catch a flight to the next conference or client workshop I’d be facilitating. Now, I’ve grown accustomed to running upstairs, turning on the laptop and working with a team or an executive for an hour or so from the comfort of my home. Afterward, I’ll run back downstairs and chop vegetables for the soup I’ll put on the stove to serve later for dinner.

If you had asked me two years ago whether I thought I would work like this, I would have said: “No way”. But the world changed. Companies that had previously never considered fulltime work from home, were forced to close their entire offices due to the threat of Covid.

Some struggled under the virtual system. Others thrived. But each of us has been changed in some way. And while return-to-the-workplace is rolling out, it’s essential to remember that the impacts of the changes linger. Some of us are eager to return to see our work-place friends and teammates face-to-face. Others remain anxious as virtual is still one of the most effective ways to reduce exposure to Covid by limiting contact with colleagues and clients. Still others, perhaps a bit like me, have settled into a new routine and are just plain reluctant to return to the office – especially if that office is an hour or more away.

So, while the Irish government grapples with refining its proposed law listing the lucky 13 ways an employer can turn down a work from home request, I’ll share a few ideas of my own.

Ask your employees FIRST

Why is “Better Communications” consistently on the top of employees’ wish lists in nearly every organisation? Because managers and directors consistently forget to reach out and genuinely seek the input of their employees.

It strikes me as odd that the seeming premise of the proposed government’s law imagines the situation between current employee (or new hire) as one in which the employee asks for permission from the boss. That’s backwards.

Leaders, don’t wait for your current team members to come to you. Don’t sit on the other side of the desk or virtual interview platform cooling your heels to see whether the prospective new employee has the courage to enquire whether they can work from home. Take an interest in their interests and ask them about their preferences first. Effective and engaging communications requires you to stop being an avoider. Train yourself and your fellow team leaders to seek input and perspectives from your people.

Open and two-way communications is an inherent part of establishing and maintaining a compassionate and caring culture. Put this at the top of your business strategy if it’s not there already.

Guide the conversation

This approach does not mean that everyone’s desire or interest gets actioned, but it absolutely does mean that the senior leadership teams are not depending on HR or Talent Acquisition or whatever you are calling your employee values and experience department, to solely create a free and safe space for employees to express and share ideas. But, whether you survey your teams by email or another digital platform, or ask individuals during one-to-one meetings, don’t simply ask their opinion and leave it. Prepare follow-up questions aimed at driving toward consensus.

For instance, Michael Cabe, Senior Manager of Learning Strategy at The Home Depot, the largest home improvement retailer in the United States, explained to me how they are providing three designations for their employees: Dependent, Independent or Flexible. They came up with these categories only after surveying their teams and collectively reaching agreement on the criteria. Help employees not to feel imposed upon. Help them feel seen and heard and valued.

Pilot and adjust

Remember how I told you I’m resisting going back to in-person? My mindset (and comfort-levels) have adjusted? Well last week, I led my first in-person half-day workshop and I’m here to tell you, it was exhilarating. The energy the participants exuded during their presentations was unlike anything that occurred during the past two years online.

Employees who want to stay at home may eventually decide they would like to come in more often. Job designations may change over time depending on technology or other advancements. Your company’s hybrid model may need adjustment. That’s okay. Being agile and flexible applies here too.

Communicate (there’s that word again) to your teams that the back to work plans will be piloted for only a quarter or two. Then go back and ask for feedback again. Communications is not a one-and-done, folks. It’s rinse and repeat.