August 9, 2021

How to Navigate the Back-To-Office Conversation

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How to Navigate the Back-To-Office Conversation

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“Why do we have to go back to the office?”

If you’re a CEO, executive or any corporate leader, you’ve likely crossed paths with this question and discovered the answer isn’t as straightforward as you had in mind.

And as if the conversation wasn’t difficult enough, uncertainty continues with contradicting hopes of COVID-19 vaccinations and anxieties of COVID-19 variants. Many offices are finding themselves in a standstill between a full force, delayed or hybrid return to office plan.

For those who love being in the office, this is exciting news, but others may feel anxious or conflicted about returning to in person work. From health issues, caretaking responsibilities or just flat out anxiety, members of your team are likely on edge.

So, as a supervisor, how can you navigate the conversation to manage employees’ hesitations about returning to the office?

How to Navigate the Back-To-Office Conversation 

1. Survey the scene.

This is going to take more than your daily “Hey, how’s it going?”. Really checking in with your employees might require you to circulate anonymous surveys or confidential 1:1s. (Learn to better improve your 1:1s here).

The transition has likely brought out a lot of anxiety in your team members, discouraging them from bringing vulnerability into these conversations. Establishing and maintaining psychological safety, the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation, amidst these conversations is key. Open up the floor by sharing your own struggles first and inviting others to do the same. This will help you directly address and solve these issues before they spiral.

2. Allow ambivalence.

Understand that not all your employees are going to be die-hard advocates of either remote or in-person work. Many will find themselves wading somewhere in the middle ground. It’s important to realize that some of these team members may experience cognitive dissonance if you force them into a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ box.

Don’t feel pressured to reply to these mixed emotions immediately, but do acknowledge them. Leaders who model ambivalence can encourage their team to build resilience and a greater ability to adapt, helping everyone realize that there may not be perfect solution.

3. Make room for flexibility.

Don’t rush into getting things back to ‘normal’. If it works with your organization, allow people the option to choose when and how often they come into the office. A recent survey found that 58% of people say they would “absolutely look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position.” This means failing to be flexible can have major adverse effects on your organization when it comes to turnover and employee performance.

4. Explain the “Why”.

Be transparent and let employees know why it’s important for them to return to the office. Make sure your team knows the decision wasn’t made on whim, but was well thought out with employee best interest in mind. What’s in it for them? Maybe it’s clearer work-life boundaries, better resources or stronger connections between their teammates.

5. Consider experimenting.

Take baby steps, such as running a pilot program or allow your employees to find their own best rhythm by experimenting individually or by team. Doing so allows autonomy greater autonomy and purpose within your team — areas your team might be really struggling with right now.

The Bottom Line

Having the conversation about returning back to the office is just the first step. Find small ways to be present for your team. Keep an eye out for burnout and stress among your employees, especially as their work schedules transition. 

Providing these accommodations for your people to do their best work is necessary for the success of your transition plan for the sake of your team, organization and ultimately yourself, as a leader. Knowing how to navigate the back-to-office conversation can make all the difference.

Looking for more personalized support for you + your team? Considering the benefits of executive coaching by the NU Company.

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