Don’t Call It Return-to-Work—Call It a Needed Conversation

Britney Cole


A misnomer is floating around—the concept of return-to-work. This phrase conjures up images of coming back from a sabbatical, a leave of absence, or maternity/paternity leave. But today, return-to-work is used to describe how employees should return to the location where they did most of their work prior to the pandemic.

We have to be clear: this term is not about returning to work. Employees have been working—hard.

The issue employers are struggling with is the decision to return-to-office—and to what degree they should accommodate employee preference. Just as important is the question of what employees can do when they are not aligned with their employer’s desires—and subsequent policies—about returning to the office full time. How do organizations develop a strategy that both addresses safety and shapes policy? How do leaders flex and have conversations with their employees when preference and policy aren’t aligned?

Balancing Safety and Increased Flexibility

Most organizations today are trying to determine if formal policies should dictate an employee’s work environment. Prior to the pandemic, work-from-home policies existed but weren’t widely adopted.

Now, as requirements begin to relax, organizations find themselves at a crossroads. What policy updates should be made, if any? Should organizations mandate that employees be vaccinated and return to the office? When should organizations encourage working remotely vs. working from the office? How should organizations accommodate employee preference?

For instance, Microsoft has prioritized physical, mental, and emotional well-being to guide decision making. The office is a place where employees and teams can choose to come together to innovate and collaborate. The focus isn’t on return-to-office, but on flexibility in the environments where employees and teams prefer to do their best work.

Enabling People to Do Their Best Work

Leaders have an opportunity to interpret evolved policies and navigate their people’s anxiety, uncertainty, and preferences in a way that is a win-win for both employer and employee. Keeping an open mind and flexing leadership styles based on each employee’s individual needs is leading in a way that allows for a hybrid approach to management.

To lead employees through continued change and evolution, leaders must:

  • Adopt a learning-focused mindset. Employees are going to have concerns about returning to the office. Leaders need to explore the views of each employee and realize the leader’s and the organization’s views may contrast with those of the employee. Even though many employees are ready to return to the office, not all are.
  • Identify blind spots. Organizations and leaders are making assumptions about what employees want right now. Some employees have strong feelings about continuing to work remotely rather than returning to the office five days a week. How might leaders partner with their employees to develop a plan that honors organizational policy as well as individual employee preferences?
  • Be curious. Leaders must ask what employees want—genuinely ask, and listen to the answer. Leaders also need to ask if they see themselves remaining with the organization if there is a mandate either for continuing to work from home or for returning to the office. When leaders are sincere and humbly inquisitive, employees are more apt to share and less likely to minimize their needs and feelings.

This is a time to be transparent and direct about the direction of the organization and the strategy for whether to return-to-office. It’s also a time to listen attentively to employee preferences and desires—consider it a temperature check of your team. Otherwise, all the productivity gains made with remote work will reverse and employees will look for new ways to do their best work—at a different organization.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to learn more about successfully navigating the future of the work environment? Join us for a free webinar. Over the next five weeks, The Ken Blanchard Companies® is hosting weekly webinars focused on the different aspects of work post-COVID. Join us for one, two, or all five events. The series is free, courtesy of The Ken Blanchard Companies. Learn more here.

About the Author

Britney Cole is Associate Vice President, Solutions Architecture and Innovation Strategy at The Ken Blanchard Companies. With more than 15 years’ experience in organization development, performance improvement, and corporate training across all roles, Britney brings a pragmatic and diverse perspective to the way adults desire to learn on the job.


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