It’s been about two years since companies asked their employees to shift to working from home in response to the pandemic, and many leaders are now grappling with how to return to office. In fact, organizations are facing resistance. Polls from the beginning of this year show that most workers would rather quit than return to the office. The pandemic created a paradigm shift in which workers experienced an increased sense of flexibility that enabled asynchronous work and more autonomy that they aren't looking to lose anytime soon. Rather than rushing to a “return to normal” that may no longer exist, leaders must take the time to respond to this demand for flexibility by embracing inclusive mindsets and fundamental change management principles.
“Inclusion describes the extent to which each person in an organization feels welcomed, respected, supported and valued as a team member. Inclusion is a two-way accountability; each person must grant and accept inclusion from others.” From SHRM
The following questions define and drive forward most change management efforts:
Why the change?
What’s the change?
How’s the change going to happen?
Who will it impact?
Start with a purposeful ‘why’
Vision, and one that is articulated with clarity, provides the means for navigating the ambiguity of change. It supports real-time decision making through hypothesizing a critical path, and resulting priorities, to enable success. It motivates how leaders choose to role model values and principles for the rest of the organization to know how to embrace change. There’s no one size fits all vision for why to return to office, but having a why is foundational to change management.
Unlike our shift to remote, there’s no prescription-like call to action to mobilize workers. Yet, many business and government leaders are looking for employees to return. Some are direct and point directly to the economics of empty offices and downtown districts, while others point to more cultural deficits created by remote work, such as loss of teaming, collaboration, or mentorship. Fortunately, culture is found in how we lead, communicate, and overall behave, so the distinction is less on what your ‘why’ is but how it relates to your employee experiences. Ideally in designing plans for returning to the office, leaders have already engaged employees to welcome their perspectives and ensure they feel heard and part of the consideration. Just as it’s important to meet with line managers and department heads to identify needs for performance, work output, and the general functional operations of teams.
Be explicit about expectations
Between the spectrum of options of working fully remote and returning to the office, there are multiple variations of flexible or hybrid working models for employers to consider. These models can vary by number of days a week or month in the office, or take different designs of allocating desk and spaces from sign ups, assigned, or first come first serve. To avoid creating confusion to an already ambiguous experience, employers must be precise in what they are asking of their employees to change. It is critical to be very clear on what is being mandated as part of the employment and what is left to the discretion of employees and teams. During this transition, an employee should never have to guess what is expected. Yet, research from Microsoft   estimates that only 28% of employers have defined when or why to go back to the office. This lack of transparency disrupts the two-way accountability required for inclusion, and in this situation the onus is on the employer.
On the employee side, there needs to be a recognition that these models are meant to optimize significant business considerations around cost savings, technological infrastructure, logistics and planning, in addition to their own safety and sense of autonomy. Employees deserve honesty around how their employer balances all of these considerations, as this pandemic has forced people to shift their lives and priorities to keep the economic engine running. Employers who recognize the agency of their employees by giving choice, flexibility, or at the very least transparency, will win out in the current shift of determining what work means and how we work.
To facilitate the change, embrace learning
Organizational learning requires changes in the organization as it gains experience. An HBR study  found that inclusive organizations distinctively had a learning-orientation culture more so than those who were not inclusive. In this culture leaders emphasized sharing new ideas, accepting failure as feedback and willingness to take risks. In returning to the office, leaders must recognize that any model chosen today is a launching pad for learning what works and is subject to adaptation in the future to meet employee needs and work demands.
For this learning to happen, employers must be comfortable with placing a stake in the sand based on their best understanding today while remaining open to new insights to inform change in the near future. In addition, teams within the organization should be primed for gathering insights about their internal operations and external environment to develop these insights in real-time, if not ideally anticipating trends that will impact their work. This situational awareness requires not only observation, but also a willingness for employees at all levels of the organization to contribute their ideas and to take action. Inclusive organizations support the psychological safety of individuals on these teams to enable this degree of presence and willingness to contribute. To be clear, psychological safety can mutually exist with conflict, debates, or disagreements, and doing so constructively requires a shared sense of mutual respect where employees feel valued and welcomed to share.
Returning to office doesn't impact us all equally
It is a natural human tendency to be wary of change due to fear of its implications, especially since the implications of change typically impacts us all differentially. While male job loss has mostly recovered since work from home policies were established in 2020, women are still short by more than 1.8 million jobs  lost during that time. This was found in a NWLC report that continues to show that unemployment rates for Black women were 60% higher than national averages and women with disabilities were more than double the national average. In addition, the pandemic impacted those who were caregivers of children and elderly, or early on in their careers from just finishing studies, all differently.
Stakeholder management is foundational to change management work and return to office plans need to take into consideration this disproportionate impact across these different populations. Adopting design principles, such as the curb-cut theory, that seeks to address the needs of the most marginalized populations can be helpful to ensure that policies are mindful of this disproportionate impact. Taking on this lens can surface technological limitations, safety restrictions, or other life circumstances influencing an employee’s ability to return or not.
In our increasingly competitive talent market, there are significant benefits to taking an inclusive approach to return to office plans. Our consultants at Axxum are experts in change management, business planning and operations. We are ready to support you and become your trusted organizational effectiveness partner.