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How to start the "back to workplaces" conversation

There’s an elephant in the room: Top leaders want employees back at the office, and employees want the flexibility, freedom and focus they gained working virtually. The "back to workplaces" issue is being talked about extensively in publications and social media, but I wonder if there’s been quality conversations between bosses and employees?  

This conflict is due to change, perspective and shifting values experienced during a global pandemic, and this problem offers an opportunity to co-create a new normal that works for all. Here are some methods to help bridge that gap and begin the conversation.

Stop resisting

My advice for to both bosses and employees is to stop resisting. Every time you avoid talking about your differences you contribute to the stress levels and uncertainty. This avoidance only delays the inevitable.

Here’s some signs you are in a state of resistance:

  • As a boss, you believe they aren’t engaged if they want to work from home, and you’re resentful that they aren’t excited.
  • As an employee, you believe your boss just wants to micromanage you. The key to understanding resistance is to look at your emotional experience and whether you’re moving forward or away from the conversation.

The pandemic showed us what’s possible, and there’s no going back. Instead of avoiding the conflict, facilitate conversations to bring forth the elephant in the room. Trust the process, and give each other the benefit of the doubt. What’s changed is the understanding of what’s possible, the clarity of what we value most and the new skills, resources and training we need to make the adjustments.

Separate facts from feelings

It’s easy to blame employees for not being engaged, and it’s easy to judge your boss as a micromanager, but these are only perceptions. Step back and separate facts from feelings. For example, some team members may be capable to work remotely while others need more structure. If so, how do you determine who gets flexibility and who doesn’t? And how do you design policy to match employee needs?

Perhaps a hybrid workplace means investing in resources such as technology or equipment, or training leaders to be more skilled at project management versus people management.

After listing all the facts, reflect on how you interpret those facts and ultimately how it makes you feel. Separating the facts from the feelings helps you take control of the situation to make decisions based on strategy rather than emotion.

Redefine productivity

One of the biggest conflicts regarding working virtually versus at office is how productivity is defined. Employees  say, “I’m more productive when I have quiet time and I’m not interrupted.”

For those who got a taste of quiet uninterrupted work time, the thought of going back to an open cubicle, being interrupted or listening to small talk while trying to focus is no longer acceptable. Employees who are dependable and entrepreneurial, get their work done. For the new mother it might be at 4 a.m. after feeding the baby, but she’s able to take a nap and work again intermittently. The editor who’s a father is happy to take the kids to their soccer game and work at night without being tied to a clock or an office chair.

Bosses see it differently and say, “Productivity also includes the intangibles and the shared collaborations that happen in the halls and during the workday.” The issue here is how to define productivity.

If in the past productivity was defined by hours worked, the opportunity now is to define productivity by outcomes and results. This definition guides other decisions about pay, collaboration and determining who needs structure and who doesn’t.

Shorten the gap

Many of us are looking way too far in the future when what is needed now is short-term decision making. I call this shortening the gap. Instead of rowing to the island 5,000 miles away, ask your team to row 500 miles, then evaluate and adjust.

Many leaders are exhausted trying to figure it out. Get a plan and try a new process for three to six months and then revisit. Work with your employees and trust them to help you figure it out. Share your concerns and be willing to listen to theirs.

Co-create a hybrid model with your team based on core values, culture, your new definition of productivity and how to best serve your clients. This type of conflict helps you grow and get to the next level.

Conclusion

If you’re in unresolved conflict, you’re in a state of resistance. You don’t need all the answers right now. What you need is open communication, collaboration and a plan. The plan should be an experiment for three to six months. Make course corrections quarterly until you have your workable solution.

 

Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of "Stop Workplace Drama" (Wiley, 2011), "No-Drama Leadership" (Bibliomotion, 2015) and the forthcoming book From Conflict to Courage (Berrett- Koehler, 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform.  Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at her website.

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