Companies that mandate a full return to the office are encouraging their talent to leave.

Organisations and the people they employ are poised at the edge of a new frontier in the world of work. Employers are keen to regain the control they had before the spring of 2020 and return everybody to the office, but employees want to hold on to at least some of their newfound control over their schedules. However, apart from the handful of fully-remote companies that experienced minimal disruption to their work models because of the pandemic, neither employer nor employee really knows where to go from here.

In this article, we discuss the hazards of dismissing employees’ desires to continue working remotely and provide guidance on how to map an ambitious, inclusive way forward that works for both companies and their people.

Why the old ways just won’t work

Companies risk antagonising their staff and encouraging them to leave if they make unilateral decisions to attempt a full return to pre-pandemic work models. For employers, having everybody back in the office would signify a return to normality that just isn’t possible: Employees have had a taste of working from home — and they are prepared to leave any company that won’t allow them to continue doing it indefinitely.

For knowledge workers in particular, arguments for going back to the office are not persuasive. They have happily abandoned their commutes and embraced the flexibility and the increased productivity of working from home. However, leaders who were not entirely comfortable managing their teams remotely are keen to get back to an office setting to restore the visibility they once had. They have legitimate concerns about communication and collaboration and view a return to the old way of doing things as the solution.

But the Pandora’s box of remote working is now wide open, and it will be impossible to close. Organisations need to confront the reality that they can’t go back to the way things were. And that’s a good thing: By embracing this unprecedented opportunity, they can build a new model that works for everyone.

How to find a new way of working

If business leaders accept that they cannot make the world of work look like it did before the spring of 2020, they can choose to create a new model by working with their people rather than imposing it from above. Close cooperation in a spirit of openness, trust and a willingness to learn will reap rewards for the companies that make the leap.

Don’t pretend to have all the answers now

Instead of mandating how things should be from day one, leaders need to make it clear that the new model is a work in progress. After all, it probably took years to create their pre-pandemic work environment, so it’s likely to take just as long to establish a new model. NearForm has been a remote-first company for ten years, and we are still refining our approach. Returning everyone to the office and expecting everything to run smoothly is unrealistic.

Leaders who are prepared to adopt a new approach will need to investigate how the options available to them will affect their specific employer-employee-client dynamic and make deliberate choices based on these decisions. Through a process of failing fast, they can remedy the current disconnect between them and their employees to create a future-proof, customer-focused, employee-driven working model.

Taking the learnings from the forced work-from-home experiment, they can look at what aspects created the most difficulty and work on addressing them. For example, if communication was a struggle, leaders need to figure out whether face-to-face time is critical and in what context and how to optimise remote communication so that teams can maintain quality relationships with each other and clients.

Make it clear that you are listening

Notwithstanding a justifiable desire to reinstate the pre-pandemic status quo, organisations should make genuine efforts to understand their employees’ concerns about returning to the office. Feigning interest in the learnings from a year of working remotely while driving forward with plans to restore the office as company HQ does little to bolster the spirit of openness and transparency required to instil and maintain staff loyalty.

Truly listening to employees is a process that takes time and commitment. It’s not enough to tell people to contact their manager with any concerns: Forums and spaces must be created where individuals can share their fears, suggestions and feedback in a safe place. Virtual workshops using online whiteboarding tools such as Miro are a great way to elicit targeted feedback from staff on their preferred way to work. Anonymised surveys are also helpful. Channels can be created on Slack or an alternative communication platform to provide a space for discussion and questions.

Leaders need to express genuine interest in their employees’ concerns and opinions and demonstrate that the information gathered will be acted upon. This kind of listening helps to establish a firm footing for the work model that ultimately emerges and ease the workforce through the uncertainty that inevitably accompanies major change.

Prioritise flexibility

One of the lessons of the pandemic was that nimble organisations fare best in chaotic times. Being able to adapt to unprecedented circumstances at short notice proved invaluable for those companies that had always prioritised agility. As organisations prepare to move on, they should also embrace a flexible mind-set when considering the new workplace.

This might mean configuring the physical office to accommodate group work. For example, as part of its remote-first working model for employees, Dropbox’s redesigned offices will be tailored for collaboration and teamwork. So-called Dropbox Studios will not contain individual workstations but will emphasise collaborative work, with whiteboards, conference rooms, configurable events spaces and areas where employees can meet for coffee between meetings.

Organisations whose employees want to continue working from home should consider reserving their physical office space for the kind of relationship-building and collaborative work that is best done in person, while they continue to explore the potential of remote work for everything else. It is unreasonable to assume that 18 months of working from home has uncovered every opportunity that virtual work can deliver.

Tools for asynchronous collaboration, digital enablement, security and support are advancing all the time, allowing organisations to design tech ecosystems that will enable their teams to work more efficiently and contentedly wherever they are.

Why remote-first could be your answer

Although nobody is suggesting that every company can embrace virtual work for every context, it has proven to be a remarkably productive model — particularly in sectors such as the knowledge industry. For people who work best where they can control the space, remote work has few drawbacks.

Understandably, companies have baulked at the barriers to communication and collaboration that a lack of face-to-face contact can present — but that does not mean they should dismiss the remote-first model as unworkable. In fact, we argue that the remote-first model trumps hybrid working for both companies and their staff.

With careful consideration, effort and testing, companies can address their reasonable concerns to model a version of remote-first working that suits their specific circumstances. For example, NearForm delivers discovery workshops remotely in a way that gives our clients optimal use of our time because we are not travelling to them and setting up rooms but creating a relaxed virtual environment that feels more collaborative than a formal boardroom.

It is up to each company to grab this opportunity to investigate and experiment with what works for their specific context and their employees. Leaders have been handed a unique chance to reinvent the future of work. There is no going back.

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