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Why it’s crucial to involve your employees in the big office return plan

By Vonnie Alexander, Founder of Vonnie Alexander Executive and Leadership Coaching

From mandating a full return to fully flexible, personal preference-led and phased returns, the big office return is looming large. And, behind the scenes to facilitate this, there’s been a lot of action, too – planning initiatives designed to make employees feel safe, to manage capacity, to schedule arrivals and departures in big corporations, to organise cleaning and sanitisation, to ensure those team members coordinate and coincide and to make the return to the office as smooth as possible on every level. 

I re-read Covey’s Principle-Centred Leadership and was reminded of his belief that behaviours and culture only really stick when they have been imagined and created with stakeholder input at their heart. And by stakeholder, he means leaders, customers, suppliers and employees. 

I had the privilege of working with an enlightened and forward-thinking business that wanted to be employee-inclusive in planning their return to bricks and mortar. The big question they posed was this – how do we reconcile all the differences? How do we bring people back together in a way that will allay their fears, be motivating and meet the needs of the business? 

It was universally acknowledged that it took great courage and foresight on the part of this business, this leadership team, to open up the discussion to their employees, that this had been a values-driven decision and it set this company apart from so many of its competitors who were mandating one approach or another. 

Beneath it lay several layers of questions including the role of the office, the practical and logistical marriage between people, travel and space and the emotional and psychological dimensions of returning too. At the outset there were clearly three broad perspectives – those who were very keen to return to the office, people who would prefer to carry on working from home and people somewhere in the middle. So far, so obvious.  But underneath it all lay some important insights that all businesses might benefit from knowing. 

They go beyond the topics currently being explored, they are fundamental principles that matter to us in our relationships with each other and our employers. Naturally, we explored the role of the office – a space to connect, collaborate, to come together, to create culture and to be creative. And we looked at new ways of working through different lenses and from different perspectives. But the real lessons were these:  

Trust, trust, trust

Quite simply, the message was: please continue to trust us to do our jobs well as you have had to for the past 15 months or so. To withdraw that trust would feel like a betrayal and would very likely damage the brilliant employee-employer relationship that has emerged these past 15 months or so. 

Beware of productivity as the be all and end all

Although many businesses have seen productivity go up through the various periods of lockdown, we must remember that one measure is rarely a good indicator of success in any area of life or business. Clearly, an absence of other things to do will have played a not insignificant part in this increase in productivity. More importantly, employees state that whilst they might have been more productive, they feel less creative and less effective. 

Consciously create a level playing field

The relationship between visibility and progress came out as a concern. Would employees who are less present be disadvantaged in some way when it comes to opportunities, promotions, salary reviews and so on? Would visibility or invisibility become a way of differentiating and possibly discriminating in the future? Introverts frequently describe feeling disadvantaged compared with their more gregarious colleagues. Will this be another amplified version of that? 

Social health 

Our social networks have shrunk over the last 15 months or so. According to Harvard Business Review by some 16% but, in reality, and intuitively it feels as though it could be much, much more. This will impact how business is conducted and the way our careers evolve because the social connection is so critical to both of these. A further social dimension to consider in a hybrid working world is that of creating culture. It will pose further though not insurmountable challenges. It will mean that values and behaviours – or as I prefer to put it “the way we do things around here” – will need to be clearer, adhered to and upheld in businesses large and small. 

One thing was clear throughout the process – this is an opportunity, if we choose to see it as such. Rather than a problem to be solved, view as a once in a lifetime chance to re-imagine how we work and allow ourselves to dream a little. And do it as a collective. For me, it was best summed up thus: 

“A truly agile working environment that makes the office a meeting place, not a workplace”

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