Change management is always critical in a business environment but is especially needed during these times of social, economic and workplace disruptions.   

Listening to the news daily, I am struck by the number of changes we are seeing in such a short amount of time. Dramatic policy shifts as we try to deploy return-to-the-office policies, changes to how we work and the general uncertainty about what the future will look like are impacting businesses across all industries. It occurs to me that the two commonly written approaches to “return to the office policies” might overlook essential organizational design principles and change management principles. An approach that balances the work of the organization with the needs of role-holders can mitigate risks and improve employee engagement post-pandemic. 

The first approach can be seen as “overly directive” – these leaders state that it is time to return to the office regardless of individual employee preferences. The implied answer for employees to “what’s in it for me?” is a vague implication that their productivity will be improved and promotions in the future will be based on “face time” in the office. On reflection, it seems that these employers are considering creating a monolithic return to office policy that might be discounting some of the productivity advancements achieved during COVID and they might also be assuming that all employees have similar career progression aspirations. This approach might be considered a backward step to the advancements in talent management and employee engagement domains. 

The second approach could be considered “overly responsive” – leaders in this genre appear to be willing to let employees decide how, when, and if they will return to the office. Many employers are actively seeking or will seek input from employees about their feelings about returning to the workplace. Some of the thinking behind this approach appears to be an attempt to head off concern over a future exodus as some reported workplace surveys indicate that a segment of employees would consider finding alternative employment should their current employer demand a return to the office. Typically, workplace policies are designed to balance the needs of the organization with the needs of the individual and so full flexibility in a return to the office policy may not effectively mitigate the risk of an “exodus” e.g., even flexible benefit plans have parameters that allow the organization to successfully administer the plan while meeting many but not all individual preferences. This approach could be considered a backwards step to successful management systems in which managerial leaders are held to account for the output of their teams and the setting of context for these roles in the workplace. Strong managerial leadership creates a work environment in which direct reports understand the value of their work and that of others, and therefore support workplace policy decisions by management.  

Leaders grappling with how to successfully support employees’ return to work journey may want to consider clarifying the nature of the work of direct reports and creating change communications that reflect what employees are saying and their preferences where possible. Return to the office policies should reflect work requirements and accommodate individual preferences if possible. The reality is that some turnover is inevitable during such turbulent times, but the scale of the exodus can be mitigated by strong leadership and solid change management practices.  

Understand the nature of the work of your direct reports.  

Initiate the dialogue with your team to understand what each direct report role requires to be successful i.e. inputs, outputs, and handoffs of their work. Ask questions about feelings/preferences but also ask questions about the other roles that the employees interact with, the nature of those interactions, and the frequency of the interactions. Managers need to decide which roles need to be in the office, how many days a week, and which roles they interact with to complete their tasks and foster innovation and thought to share. Involving your team in answering the following questions will foster trust in your analysis and eventually support your decision to “return to the office” as the accountable manager of the team. 

 i) Is the work of the team interdependent? Do the decisions of one role immediately impact the work of a second role? If so, then you may require these roles to come back into the office as a unit.  

ii) Is the work of the team sequential in nature? Is the output of one role, the input of a second role? If so, these roles might be able to successfully operate remotely to each other e.g., one in the office and one virtual, or sharing an office on a schedule negotiated to meet role holders’ personal needs and the broader needs of the organization. Taking this opportunity to strengthen or develop a strong feedback mechanism will ensure effective and efficient workflow, improve employee engagement, and contribute to productivity improvements. 

iii) Is the work independent? If the role holder’s work is initiated primarily on a request basis, then these roles might be able to provide the organization with their outputs virtually, assuming appropriate technological support. Planning will be critical to ensure meaningful work, knowledge sharing, and innovations are supported when these roles are required to be in the office. 

Specific change communications.  

Change communications to employees that will be asked to transition back to the workplace (hybrid or not) will be adopted more quickly if the employees can understand that the decisions were made based on the nature of their work and not on the personal preferences of others or a fear of losing people. Leaders have accountability to provide context for decisions for their employees and so targeted communications based on input by the team will help employees understand why the nature of their work demands their role be in the office, virtual, or hybrid. Personal preference can be accommodated fully or partially once the nature of the work and team requirements are understood.   

Initially focusing on the work of roles followed by a consideration of individual employee preferences for virtual, in-the-office, or hybrid arrangements can help leaders manage the return-to-the-office policies more efficiently and effectively. Listening to understand how the work of your team may have changed during COVID will also help better inform effective return-to-work policies and engage your team in this critical transition. 

Sylvia Klarer, Partner with Core International Inc. specializing in creating organization designs structured to deliver strategy and improve performance.  For more information on how we at Core International can help you get the best out of your business, book a call to talk things over click here or email or call 905-512-4472. 

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