Establishing your return to office strategy can feel daunting. Here is where to start!

Return to office strategy

Over the last year, business leaders and organizational development experts have been emphasizing the strategic priority of figuring out what the ‘return to work’, or more accurately, ‘return to office’ is going to look like. We heard about ‘hybrid models’, ‘permanently remote models’, and ‘rotating shifts models’. While all of these ideas might be great in theory, the specifics still seem fuzzy to most. With restrictions being eased and more and more people getting vaccinated, the pressure to have ready-to-launch plans that answer all of the diverse workforce needs is on more than ever.

I recently attended an interactive seminar on change leadership with a group of 30 or so organizational development experts and HR leaders to explore how real-life organizations will need to address the challenges of returning to the office (or not). We huddled up and discussed actionable change management plans we would implement to make the transition successful. My colleagues in the virtual room had brilliant ideas to share, and it was evident that while there was agreement around some aspects of the change management plans, people had very different ideas of what needed to be done. And they all seemed like really good ideas.

So the first assumption to keep in mind when putting a change management plan together is that there is no one right way to do this.

The past year has been a breeding ground for experimentation. Some actions were taken on a hunch and while some of them proved to be effective, others completely backfired. To start, you need to figure out what it will take for your organization to thrive. It might be a hybrid model but it also might not be. If the hybrid model is for you, it will look very different than it would at other organizations.

Now is the time to gather the learnings. In order to figure out what will work for your organization, you need to identify what has worked so far.

You need to take stock of everything your organization did to manage the pandemic. Here are some of the big themes to explore:


Leadership & Management
A key if not the key task of leadership is to set vision and direction. It will be important to explore your employees’ perceptions of how responsive and proactive your leadership team was in pivoting and setting the direction and strategy for change. While it is important to assess whether or not people found the outcomes of the strategy to be successful, it is equally important to see if people trusted leadership to take action.

Middle management seemed to be a common clog in the execution of many change management plans this year. There were complaints about middle management’s inability to execute on the vision set by leadership for the changes. Therefore, it will be important to assess how well your management did in rolling out plans and determine how to set them up for success.

Technology is by far one of the most important factors to explore as you assess your organization’s performance. Understand what technology-enabled collaborative teaming, open communication, and efficient work. Ask your employees about what they found to be the most useful, what was detrimental and what was missing. Technology should be a top priority when it comes to budgeting for this change.

Mental Health & Wellbeing
Mental health issues were up by 102% to 305% (Total Brain’s July Mental Health Index) this year, with an overwhelming number of complaints around burnout and fatigue. If your organization offered support services, now is the time to assess how useful your employees found them and what else needs to be done to ensure their wellbeing. Ask employees about their concerns when it comes to returning to the office and gather their suggestions on how to manage them.

Based on our experience with different clients, this year was one that challenged everyone’s ability to draw the line between work and personal life. We heard over and over again that people worked more than usual and were overwhelmed by the work. It is important to identify what balance needs to be struck and boundaries need to be established between achieving organizational objectives and managing workload.

When it comes to a change of any sort, communication can really impact how smooth of a process it can be. Aside from exploring how effective communication tools were, it is important to assess the perceptions employees had of leadership’s communication. Ask your employees about how they felt about the frequency, clarity, consistency, transparency, and methods of communication shared with them.

The shift to remote work pushed people to explore new means of collaboration. While it did pose some challenges, it also made it clear that the team can work together virtually, given the right support. Learning the specifics around effective virtual collaboration will be key in determining your direction for change.

As you assess your organization’s performance, you will notice that a lot of these themes ultimately tell you about your organization’s culture. Think about these and potentially other big themes in relation to your organization and flesh out the specific questions you need answers to. Most importantly, try to get as close as possible to the ‘why’.

Tips from Pivoting Organizations

This past year, our sister company,  gothamCulture conducted its first-ever global State of Culture study to explore how aspects of culture impact organizational performance during the pandemic using their proprietary Culture Mosaic. The Culture Mosaic is a framework that enables leaders to understand and communicate culture in ways that ensure organizations are equipped to manage change successfully.

While it is of utmost importance to understand your own organization’s performance, there are a couple of key learnings we extracted from our research you can use to set your own strategy. Based on our research, here are some of the key practices that impacted the participating organizations’ abilities to thrive and pivot during times of change:

1) Reassessing company values and having company-wide conversations around how values can be lived out across scenarios of change

2) Defining culture by being clear about how things are done at the organization and the behaviors expected of its people while tying it to the values

3) Reassessing the culture strategy or investing in setting one by:

  • Assessing how environmental changes will impact business
  • Aligning the culture strategy with the business strategy
  • Having a common definition and getting leadership involved in setting it
  • Encouraging concepts such as adaptability, collaboration, leadership engagement and openness, vision setting, communication strengthening and encouragement of a growth mindset, trust in employees, and transparency
  • Ensuring it incorporates flexibility and agility in a way that makes sense to them
  • Becoming more customer-centric – whether they are internal or external
  • Defining what collaboration would look like in the organization across scenarios of change and identifying ways and tools to invest in to enable collaboration and achieve success

4) Investing time in setting a capability development needs assessment and strategy

5) Reassessing competency frameworks to ensure they are aligned with changing needs

6) Developing reliable culture assessment and measurement strategies and procedures

7) Contextualizing issues such as social justice to organizations’ different regions of operation

Identifying what has worked for your organization during this past year and incorporating it into these different practices can help set you up for success to return to the office and weather any other change.