Are you dreading the conversations with your team about returning to the office? Or maybe you’re already back and need to tell one of your direct reports that your agreed-upon approach isn’t working. Fostering a safe and constructive dialogue about re-entry can be challenging. Ironically, some of the mistakes you might make will stem from your desire to be a kind and caring manager. Here are some of the pitfalls to watch out for during these conversations along with strategies to help you feel more confident about how to approach them.
Pitfalls to Watch For
First, make sure you’re clear on the organization’s rules. Start by checking in on the decisions being made for your organization overall. Is your company keeping its full real estate footprint or encouraging hoteling arrangements to reduce office space? Is there an official policy on number of days required in the office? Are flex hours allowed? You don’t want to inadvertently run afoul of the company’s official guidelines, so start there before talking to your own team.
I’ve already seen some leaders solicit team members’ preferences for returning to the office before getting clear on what will work from an organizational perspective. I’m glad that so many managers are feeling empathetic and generous at the end of this gruelling experience, but unfortunately, being too accommodating could set the person up to fail or set you up to resent the arrangement. Neither of those situations is good. Instead, do your homework so that you can come to the conversation knowing the non-negotiables.
Second, don’t get too wrapped up in finding a solution that everyone sees as fair. Fairness is tricky business because different jobs require different arrangements. Consider each person’s role and how those responsibilities suit different approaches. An administrative assistant might need to be in the office to accomplish a majority of their tasks, whereas a proposal writer could do the lion’s share of their work from anywhere.
Some team members will think your policy is unfair if it’s not the same for everyone, whereas others will think a policy is unfair if it doesn’t account for differences in roles and responsibilities. There’s no single definition of “fair.” Just be clear on which definition you’re using, and be transparent about why that’s the one you’re using.
Another risk is that you’ll attempt to create an optimal solution for each individual only to suboptimize the situation for the overall team. In addition to what’s right for the organization and what’s best for an individual’s job, it’s also important to consider which working arrangement is in the best interest of the team. How does one person’s role interact with others in the group, and what return-to-work plan would be in the best interests of supporting collaboration, encouraging camaraderie, and fostering the positive culture you’re looking for? As a manager, you’re not just responsible for developing strong individuals — you’re also responsible for the strength of your team.
Working Toward a Trial Plan
Now that you’re aware of the pitfalls, you can work toward a plan. Develop a set of guiding principles that each individual working arrangement must work within. You can use these principles to set the boundaries about what’s important to you as the leader, while leaving room for people to create personalized arrangements that work for them. For example, you might have a guiding principle that states, “The customer comes first,” so that every proposed working arrangement will be evaluated first on its impact on your customer. You could have a principle that says, “Time together matters,” which stipulates that there’s one day a week when everyone on the team will be in the office at the same time. You could use, “Find time to focus,” and have everyone block three half-days a week for uninterrupted working time in the environment that’s most conducive to their productivity. Starting the conversation with these guiding principles will provide helpful boundaries while allowing your team members some latitude in building a plan that works for them.
Once you’re clear on what’s non-negotiable from your perspective, share your principles and schedule a time to speak with each person individually. In preparation, ask everyone to think about what’s important to them and what some options for their personal return-to-the-office might be. This heads-up is important because you want team members to feel prepared to communicate their wishes effectively. If you spring the conversation on them when they’re not expecting it, they might not be clear on what they want or confident about how to frame their request. Don’t catch people off guard on such an important topic.
When you meet to talk about each person’s wishes, start by asking if they have any questions about the guiding principles. Be clear about what’s cast in stone and where there are opportunities for creative solutions. Next, avoid the tendency to jump straight to, “So, when would you like to come into the office?” and instead ask them to share their version of a positive working arrangement. You might frame it as, “I’m interested in how you’re thinking about your return to work. What are the criteria that are important to you?” This is a great technique for any contentious discussion, not just the return to work. If both parties understand the factors that are important to one another before jumping into potential solutions, you’ll avoid suggesting ideas that might be met with instant resistance, and you’ll zero-in on appealing answers much more efficiently. I think of this like doing algebra: Once you’ve identified each other’s equations, you can solve for the unknowns in a way that satisfies both.
With both of your criteria on the table, you can work toward a trial arrangement. Remember to be as flexible as possible within your criteria. For example, if one of the administrative assistants on the team would really like to work from home sometimes, maybe there’s a way to form a team of assistants who cover for each other on office tasks so that each could have one or two days per week at home to work through emails and other tasks that could be done more efficiently without the interruptions of the office. Be creative. Embrace the art of the possible.
Revisiting and Reworking the Trial Plan
At this stage, you might feel relieved to have a plan and keen to move on. But there’s one more important step. Once you’ve found a solution that seems workable, agree on a date when you’ll revisit the plan. For example, you might decide on a quick check-in after the first couple of weeks and a formal evaluation after six weeks. That way, you can both relax knowing that you’ll do everything in your control to make the plan work, but that there’s a chance to alter it if it’s not working.
As the agreed-upon date nears, ask everyone to consider their current working arrangement and to reflect on any issues or concerns with the plan and its implementation. For example, there’s a difference between a problem with the plan (e.g., you thought it would work to have Sam join team meetings remotely, but despite Sam’s best efforts, it’s too clunky) and a problem with the implementation of the plan (e.g., Sam seems to be multitasking while dialed in to remote meetings). Ask the employee to include an evaluation of your commitments and behavior as well. Prepare your own notes for the evaluation in the same way. You could organize it as follows.
As you work through your respective reflections on the experiment so far, start with the issues with the plan itself, rather than the issues with the implementation. Share any criteria or considerations you hadn’t thought of when you formulated it and then work through the concerns until you have a new option to try. Remember to be encouraging. This is new territory, and you shouldn’t be surprised if the first solution doesn’t end up being perfect. Keep iterating until you have the best solution for the organization, the team, and the individual. Again, agree in advance on when you’ll next revisit the arrangements.
If the issue is not with the arrangement, but instead with how one or both of you failed to live up to it, you need to acknowledge that. It’s best for you to go first so you can model openness to the feedback. You could ask, “Were there any areas where I didn’t set this up for success?” Alternatively, one of my favorite ways to ask for difficult feedback is by asking, “What did you love about how I managed this arrangement and what do you wish I had done differently?” For some reason, asking people what they wish was true softens the language enough for them to be candid about what they would like to be different.
Finally, if the employee committed to a return-to-work plan but didn’t stick to it, that’s a performance management issue. Do as you would with any performance issue. Clarify what your expectations were. Give feedback about the behavior you observed. Share the implications of their behavior on the work, the team, or on you. Then ask the person what they will do differently from now on. If the problem persists, you might need to escalate the consequences and gradually reduce the latitude you’re willing to give that person.
The only thing that’s certain about the return to work is that there will be a lot of uncertainty. Not only will your team be working differently, but your customers, suppliers, and partners will be, too. Add to that the profound changes that many individuals have experienced while living through a global pandemic. Some people are more than eager to return to work, some are dreading it, and others are ambivalent. Engaging in these conversations calls for a little more preparation than normal. The investment will be worth it because you’ll be more clear, more confident, and more compassionate when the time comes.
By Liane Davey
This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review and is republished with permission.