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Return to work, but not return to normal

Companies want employees back in the office, but returning to normal isn't that simple. Hard work awaits leaders in the post-pandemic world.

8 min read


Return to work, but not return to normal

Unsplash photo/SmartBrief illustration

We shouldn’t be surprised that companies are speaking up about reopening offices and also reestablishing them as the default.

At some level, I think that’s OK. Vaccination progress is encouraging, if incomplete. Companies spend a lot of money on real estate, and they want a return on it. And while last year’s rapid shift to remote work was remarkably successful, given the circumstances, it has still been traumatic, ill-planned and produced stress and burnout across the board. 

So the post-pandemic world must include offices, if only because some work really is better done on-site and in person. Many roles and functions can’t transition to remote, while other jobs are more difficult to do remotely or with limited interaction. As we’ve learned during the last year, working at home for many people means losing any distinction between work and, well, anything else.

However, pretending the pandemic never happened would also be foolish. People have tasted freedom, and they won’t give that up. Second, many organizations have decided to retain flexibility by going entirely remote or through various hybrid models. Those organizations will happily welcome workers discarded or made uncomfortable by rigid organizational structures.

So what should happen next? I’m going to frustrate some of you, perhaps, by suggesting that the answer is, “It depends.” What does it depend upon? Things like the role, the company size and type, the planning and communication around reopening, support and training you’re giving managers, how teams are structured, and how you develop employees. 

What is the role, and where is it? 

How quickly we forget how many jobs have been remote, or at least disconnected from a core office, for decades. Many professions spend little time in a traditional office, such as salespeople, construction workers, plumbers or events management, even if some of those people have worked through the pandemic. Many people have opened satellite offices for businesses around the globe, communicating by phone, mail, telegram or whatever was available then. Remote work is not just computer work.

Let’s not forget about the roles that might not be office-based, but do require in-person interaction with clients, prospects and other folks. Salespeople, consultants, some freelancers and solopreneurs might be fine with a home office, but they’ll need to come back to (upgraded) conference rooms and restart client meals and meetings.

Look, too, at satellite or regional offices, or WeWork-type sites: Are they facilitating essential work for your organization or team, or do they exist because of a pre-pandemic mindset about “we need a footprint”?

Regardless of role, executives will need to think about whether each job site is safe and necessary, as well as how budgets have changed over the past year. Managers, meanwhile, have the tough task of keeping tabs on people’s comfort levels, ensuring legal compliance and communicating potentially unpopular policies. 

Of course, some roles never left the job site, and many will benefit from partial or full returns to the office. Think about what your company needs, as well as where it can experiment. Don’t simply copy what large companies are announcing. Decide what works for your firm based on role and geography, with a focus on flexibility that comes with accountability. 

And if you want to experiment, either as an organization or within a team, do it! There’s no better time. But be explicit about the process and the terms, and communicate them often. You don’t want anyone feeling lied to — or even worse, moving away only to find out they’re now expected back on-site. 

What did you do before all this?

Companies should be careful not to set policies that are stricter after the pandemic than what your employees enjoyed beforehand, even if it seems easier to set blanket policies. Equitable treatment matters, of course, but that should be pursued as a positive goal, not a punitive measure. 

For example, if you technically had a no-remote-work policy before the pandemic but executives routinely stayed home on Fridays, that needs to change. Either no one gets that perk, or everyone does. But think long and hard before removing departmentwide or companywide benefits and flexibility that existed before the pandemic. If you let people move away from HQ during the pandemic, don’t expect them to move back — and don’t penalize them by, say, basing promotions on on-site availability. Basically, don’t renege, and don’t overreact in an attempt to return to normal. 

Whatever you do, you’ll need to communicate how you came to this decision, why it’s necessary and how each person will be affected. Even the fairest process will force some people to change their situation, so also show how you’ll support the transition and how you’ll hold people accountable.

What groundwork have you done?

All of what I’ve mentioned is under the assumption that there is a plan. Does your company have a plan for reopening, for vaccinations, and so forth? Do teams and departments have insight into those plans and a liaison who can disseminate information from HR? What equipment will you need to support a safe workplace? How will the office change physically to accommodate safety, or to install better communications, or to facilitate meetings rather than rows of cubicles?

Supporting remote work requires equity in technology and benefits, too. Many companies improvised in 2020, but they’ll need to think longer-term in 2021 and 2022. Hardware, software and support must each be strategically designed. Communication workflows should be equally accessible and timely for all employees regardless of location. There must be an organizational commitment to personalized and equitable onboarding, training and learning.

There are plenty of resources out there for planning, including your industry associations. You might also look at noncompetitors — if you’re not an essential business, ask an essential business, like a manufacturer, how they safely operated during the worst days of the pandemic. You don’t need to invent a plan, but you can’t go without one.

How do managers manage? How do employees learn?

Thankfully, many companies and executives have realized in the past year that remote work is not as simple as saying, “Have fun at home!”

I can share from personal experience. I’ve worked about 60% of the time on-site for over a decade for a company with decent percentage of remote employees. My department is probably 75% or more remote. That setup succeeds with the work we do, but it’s always a challenge to ensure that information is delivered to everyone — and can be located by everyone. There are also challenges in ensuring equitable distribution of responsibilities, opportunities, professional development and — especially — visibility and interaction with other departments.

I imagine many of you at hybrid organizations or at companies with offices across geographies have your own versions of this struggle. A distributed workforce can be a great positive, but being successful at it requires structured, deliberate and ongoing effort by the employee, the manager and the organization.

And don’t forget the culture — many companies have gone a year now without traditional office culture, and newer employees have no knowledge of what once was. Managers must be willing to communicate in a variety of ways, starting with an employee’s Day 1, so that they aren’t neglecting people’s development and opportunities.

Return to (a better) work

The problems of remote work during the pandemic won’t be solved by reentering office buildings. Look at burnout, overwork and loneliness. The pandemic exacerbated these conditions, but they are part of the human condition. We need better workplaces, not just ones in better settings.

I’ll leave you with comments from Barry-Wehmiller CEO Bob Chapman, who in February warned of the need to have people back in offices for reasons of equitable treatment, happiness, productivity and innovation. He’s as eager to resume in-person work as anyone.

But he also reminded us that workplaces everywhere have room to improve:

“Prior to Covid, 88 percent of all people worked for a company they felt didn’t care about them, Most of them felt that they had a boss who degraded them. They didn’t dislike their colleagues but, rather, the environment they worked in. So, giving people a year away from that kind of oversight – what does that mean about the future of professional work?”

“Once we get back to the office, we’re going to have lots of listening sessions. Is there a new way to work?”

The problem of fixing work isn’t going anywhere. That is your ultimate challenge, not where you clock in.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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