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Optimum Talks Blog

TO RETURN OR NOT TO RETURN – IS THAT REALLY THE ONLY QUESTION? 

by Trina Boivin

Organizations have good reasons to call employees back to the office. Let’s focus on the “what” we are returning to the office for. 

 The return to office is definitely the hot topic of most leadership meetings these days. It’s being discussed at the executive table, permeating online forums, corporate chat rooms and inspiring hundreds of opinion pieces online.  How it’s being described, and the language being used can create almost visceral reactions in people.  It’s not a return to work – some of us never stopped adapting to various work at home/hybrid models, and furthermore, a large number were redeployed, needing to return to either what they were hired for or a newly adapted role. We need to recognize this and be careful with the terms we use and focus on what is really happening, what is needed.   

 

SEE BEYOND THE “WHEN” AND “HOW MANY” 

The focus of all the “return” chatter is when to go back into the office and how many employees at one time. Is it safe, will we be productive, and are employees willing to return? These questions have driven the use of the term “hybrid-model” to describe some combination of workers remaining at home via the ubiquitous Zoom/WebEx/Teams channels and those who are back at their desks in some sort of vaccinated but still socially distanced way.  This is what leadership teams are working through today but there is something much greater missing from the conversation.  

THE CULTURAL IMPACT OF WORKING REMOTELY – WHAT’S MISSING? 

The question that I believe should be the focus of leadership teams is “what” we need employees back in the office for. “What” have we been missing by having employees working from home? Of course, the easiest answer is that without managers and supervisors looking over the shoulder of employees we are potentially missing out on some percentage points of productivity.  The counter argument here is that this is likely recovered by the lack of travel/commute time and deadlines are the same, whether made in person or via Zoom. Leaders need to move beyond focusing on productivity and examine the cultural elements missing due to employees working from home for such an extended period. 

We are already starting to hear about “The War for Talent” and its related challenges of hiring and retaining employees in several sectors of the economy. Given the current environment, leaders need to think beyond ‘recalling’ employees to the office and focus on what we need them back for, what do they need to feel safe, engaged and supported, and what will be accomplished beyond what is possible online.  Yet, we already know the answer. We just have not given ourselves the space to consider it.   

 

RETURNING TO THE OFFICE SHOULD BE FOCUSED ON ENGAGEMENT, INCLUSION & CONNECTION  

Working from home has eroded employees’ ‘connection’ to the company at a time where organizations need loyal and engaged employees to drive out of the pandemic’s economic challenges. Leadership teams should be focused on returning employees to the office to rebuild the sense of cultural comradery, friendship, inclusion, and common purpose that belonging to a company provides as well as the more dynamic teaming, brainstorming, problem solving, and innovation that happens when employees gather. 

Leadership teams should be considering “what” we need employees back for through a social and business implication lens. Many elements of employee work can, in fact, be done remotely but we should be focused on identifying the business opportunities enhanced by gathering in the office and the advantages it provides.   

  

THE ESSENTIALS FOR A SUCCESSFUL RETURN TO THE OFFICE 

So, what’s the takeaway here? When your leadership team gathers to discuss employees’ ‘return to office’ focus on: 

  • What we need them back for 
  • What they can do better in an office environment  
  • What we need to do to engage them 
  • And then add why we are a great company to continue to work for 

 

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY FOR LEADERS   

Lastly, a key part of this is reflecting on what behaviours you want to emulate as a leader. Consider the possibility that it could be fun to reimagine how the team operates. Can you simplify your services? Are they still the right ones? All this points back to agility since we are likely to undergo continued monumental change as mother nature wields her power.      

Hope is not a strategy. So, hoping for the return of what once was is not the task at hand. Free yourself up to spend some time to think. This is both the hard part and yet the simple joys of leadership. Don’t waste the wonderful opportunity afforded us. Mother nature is trying to teach us something, it’s up to us to listen. 

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