Return-to-Office (RTO): Moving From Emergency-Mode to Positive Growth

August 2021 | By Danielle Hochstein, Ph.D.

It’s approaching two years since the pandemic forcefully transformed our lives. For most of us, it was an abrupt transition from customary ways of working to a virtual work environment. There was no alternative – we had to figure it out and make it work.

Ultimately, we realized that working remotely fit many people pretty well, driving higher-than-expected engagement numbers and keeping productivity high after the initial shock.

Return to WorkFast forward to today. We’re still dealing with the pandemic, but businesses are realizing that it’s time to redirect their organizations for positive growth. There is renewed hope that we will overcome this virus – or at least get better at living with it. The show must go on, and we can’t be in “emergency mode” forever.

Achieving a New Balance

Emerging from emergency mode means a new balancing act: we should consider how to balance the personal/individual benefits of virtual work with the need to collaborate, share a culture and community, and innovate together in a physical office space.

Big companies like Apple and Google are leading the way in figuring out what a sustainable strategy for return-to-office (RTO) might look like. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Employees are spread across a continuum of how much work should be done virtually versus in the office. And data aren’t conclusive enough to clearly mandate one versus the other.

Most of all, the pandemic lacks a clear, positive trajectory that we hoped to have by now. Even if you’ve decided when and how to RTO, your plans may get upended. Apple and Google realized this recently when they pushed back their RTO plans several weeks, thanks to the Delta variant impacts.

It’s a real leadership dilemma: decisions must be made with limited information, not fully knowing the challenges and risks of RTO at this stage of the pandemic, and without knowing whether your plans may be disrupted.

Ten Actions for Your RTO Journey

To help, here are ten RTO actions your organization can take to reduce the risks and pitfalls in these ever-changing times. We’re using them in our own consultancy, so they are road-tested.

  1. Engage employees in planning your RTO and hybrid workforce

    The pandemic transition to a virtual work environment was forced and couldn’t be debated. But current RTO discussions are different. In many organizations, employees know that productivity remains high despite virtual work arrangements. Because of that, many employees believe they should have some say in what the RTO/hybrid work environment may look like for them. It’s impractical to include everyone in your RTO planning, but it is crucial to conduct focus groups and find other ways (like surveys) to get input organization-wide, to build your RTO plan from key themes, and to clearly show employees that they are being heard in the process.

  2. Consider your RTO as a continuous improvement journey

    RTO is not a one-and-done decision and action. Your RTO plans should assume disruption and delays, and therefore see initial RTO rollouts as pilots. The goal is not to get it perfect the first time, but to use your learnings along the way to continue shaping what the RTO and a hybrid workforce will look like in the long run.

    Think of RTO as a continuous improvement opportunity. Proactively put in place a fast-cycle feedback process to gauge the impact of the transition and changes on the employees. Ultimately, you can act on the feedback as needed. (If you don’t set up fast-cycle feedback mechanisms up front, you may miss critical feedback, or hear it too late, after the negative impact has already had damaging consequences – like people leaving).

  3. Dedicate a senior leader to sponsor and lead your RTO

    Fact: key initiatives fail if they are not actively owned and driven by a senior executive in the organization. RTO is no different. Ideally, the CEO should own the RTO strategies and be the face of communications to emphasize the importance and complexity of the subject matter and decisions.

  4. Avoid one-size-fits-all, because it doesn’t

    Design your RTO plan with different options, guidance, and rules for different role groups/personas. Focus on what individuals in each role actually need to do and how. This will determine which is more beneficial: working virtually at home, or working in the office environment. Create flexible RTO plans based on that.

  5. Does your organization’s notion of culture actually reflect who you are today?

    Your culture has shifted because of the pandemic. It’s been a combination of things: the impact of working virtually, shifting customer needs, personnel changes, supply chain challenges, digital transformations, ongoing emphasis on safety and emergency response plans, etc.

    So, as you plan your RTO, ask yourself: What kind of culture best supports who we are today? And who we want to be going forward? How is that different from how we have seen our culture? What must change to support the new vision?

  6. Define critical leader behaviors needed to lead through the transition, reinforce positive impact, and support people through uncertainty

    Leaders throughout your organization are the key players in your RTO plans: their team communications, how they manage their own reactions to the change, and how they demonstrate support to team members. Once you have your RTO plan, identify what key leadership practices are needed for leaders at different levels. For example, if you know a group of employees is particularly impacted by RTO plans, ask leaders of this group to repeatedly discuss what will change, why it is changing, how this group’s situation was considered in making this decision, what’s being done to support them now and going forward, and what are some unknowns yet to be figured out. Communicate expectations for what “good looks like” for those practices. Provide proactive support for leaders who may not be comfortable with their role.

  7. Prepare leaders to focus on their teams’ wellbeing

    Today’s RTO plans include an engagement focus on wellbeing. The reason: many things that impact employees on a personal level also feed into their work experience. Leaders need to know when and how to have conversations about employee wellbeing. They need to know what to do when an employee has a hard time with the transition, aligning their actions with company messaging and values. Many leaders will need active skill development support to fulfil their role in this ongoing employee engagement focus.

  8. Build conversations about engagement and wellbeing into standing meetings

    It’s important for your RTO strategy to consider what incorporating wellbeing conversations could look like for standing meetings. Safety moments are a model that might work. Wellbeing conversations are a new part of continuous improvement efforts focused on employee engagement and retention, and thus need more attention than ever before.

  9. Give employees access to RTO skill development opportunities

    Employees may have concerns about interacting face-to-face with colleagues when returning to the office after a year plus. Help them transition with RTO skill development opportunities. For example, let them participate in workshops about navigating coming back into the office physically. What is ok to do, and what isn’t? Can I hug a coworker? How do I respect people’s COVID limitations? While the transition back into the office may seem straightforward, many of us are unsure of what the right way to behave and engage is at this point in the pandemic. Give employees the tools to come back with confidence.

  10. Communicate about the transition often, consistently, clearly, and proactively

    Even the best-laid, most inclusively designed RTO plans are going to ruffle some feathers! Your plan will have an emotional impact as people think about what it will mean to be back. There will be questions, concerns, anxieties, worries.

    So, make sure all your RTO communications are aligned, no matter who provides them. Communicate much more often than you usually would and use all the channels to reach everyone. Be clear and concise. Make sure no one is left out or blindsided. Let everyone know in advance what they are going to hear and see, so they have time to ask questions and adjust to what’s coming.

Don’t leave your RTO to luck. Using the actions above can help organizations prepare for future disruptions that may require an “emergency-like” response.

“Good luck is when opportunity meets preparation, while bad luck is when lack of preparation meets reality.” – Eliyahu Goldratt, management guru


Topics: Return To Office (RTO)