A Leader’s Guide to Returning to Work

June 09, 2021
By iQ Staff
Diverse people walking on a city street, engaged with phones

The vaccines are working, the masks are coming off, and the economic engine is revving up. Time to get back to the office!

Or is it? This is the question facing leadership teams in organizations of all sizes. In talking with many of our clients in recent weeks, we’re finding the answer to be a definite “Maybe.”

The last 15 months have been uncharted territory for everyone. Leaders have done their best to understand and accommodate the circumstances facing their teams – tending to sick family and friends, caring for or tutoring children, trying to be productive in cramped quarters, all while grappling with the stresses of a serious public health crisis, political and economic uncertainty and the experience of seeing one’s own face up close on video calls every day.

"The majority of leadership teams are navigating the gray area in between remote and in-person work."

Even in the best-managed organizations, the policies and communication regarding where, when and how to work over the last year have been inconsistent. Exceptions have been made for some workers but not others. Reassurances have been given about flexible schedules and work locations – reassurances that are now being reconsidered. Well-meaning attempts to reinvigorate organizational culture are being seen by some as too much, too soon.

Certainly, there are companies that have no choice but to mandate a full scale return to the workplace despite management’s best intentions to meet employees halfway. The majority of leadership teams, however, are navigating the gray area in between remote and in-person work.

We recommend these three things for managing a return to the workplace and restoring your organization’s culture and productivity:

 

1. Start with values

Your company values have been tested relentlessly over the last year and a half; use the resulting clarity as the basis for your return-to-work decisions. Does your organization value collaboration? Then seek broad input into the process and timing for returning to the workplace. Does it value efficiency? Work to make employees’ route from the front door to their workplace frictionless. Does it value competitive spirit? Place a scoreboard of post-pandemic work achievements in a common location where everyone can see it.

 

2. Model the behavior you wish others to adopt

Like it or not, as a leader your actions are scrutinized and emulated. If you want people to be confident in the safety of the workplace, make sure they see you circulating and interacting frequently – upholding the appropriate health precautions, of course. If you want them to invent new ways to operate in a hybrid environment, tell stories about your own experiments with new approaches – both the successes and some lesson-rich failures.

 

3. Listen, listen, listen

As communicators, we’re often consulted about what to say in tricky situations. Yet more important than messaging is listening – actively seeking to understand what our co-workers, customers, investors and suppliers really care about so that our actions – including, but not limited to our words – have the desired result. Within a team or other small organization, listening can be done through conversations. In larger organizations, surveys and data analytics can yield insight into the concerns and ambitions of large groups of people that, when applied, can make the post-pandemic work experience more comfortable and rewarding.