Back to work? This sounds like the obvious end goal we’ve all been waiting for after roughly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. But wait a minute. Does this make sense? Remote work went from being an awkward crisis workaround to a routine with its own rhythm and plenty of upsides. It turned out that increased flexibility and reduced commuting time weren’t a bad trade-off for the new pain of Zoom fatigue. And now your company wants you back in your office, picking up where you left off in March 2020? Whoa.
So, how do you convince your boss to think twice? The first rule of persuasion is never try to convince anyone by telling them they’re wrong. The better approach is to write your boss a memo that starts by acknowledging their concerns: Yes, going virtual took a toll on corporate culture and may have diminished innovation. Then, suggest a different way to deal with this, one that addresses those problems while retaining and highlighting the best aspects of remote work.
Next, make clear that you’re not basing your pitch on opinion but on data. For example, our project, Go Forward to Work, collected two years of the best practices from more than 2,000 executives around the world. We got a front-row seat to observe how some businesses succeeded in the teeth of the crisis. Sharing data like this with your boss proves that remote work can be reimagined for better outcomes and can be so much more than a temporary substitute for “real work” at the office.
Still not sure if your boss will brand you a whiner instead of a constructive innovator? Ask for the opportunity to run an A/B test. All it takes is these five steps.
Run a fully inclusive brainstorm
When large meetings are taking place, some voices are invariably louder than others, maybe because of introversion or fear of being criticized. Instead, suggest your teams break up into small groups—three or four people—to discuss the issue at hand, and record these ideas on a shared document.
Why? The small size inspires courage and candor; participants are likely to self-diagnose weak arguments and eliminate self-censorship so that the best ideas can get heard. Remind your boss that the loudest voices in the room tend to dominate in-person meetings while conflict-averse attendees (74%, according to our research) keep quiet, meaning they’re not hearing from everyone, or the best ideas, just the loudest. Importantly, these small groups encourage deep team bonding, ensuring all ideas are aired because any member who watered down their criticism in the full meeting would lose face.
Collaboration doesn’t have to start with a physical meeting. When Gil West left Delta Airlines to become COO of the self-driving car company Cruise, he thought that collaborative problem-solving started with a meeting. His new team taught him a different approach, while clarifying that a meeting was “what you do after you’ve failed to crack the code or collaborated asynchronously.”
Instead of packing people into a room for your next meeting, convince your boss of the benefits of asynchronous work. For instance, you can dramatically broaden the number of perspectives you bring to bear on a problem by reaching out to more people with virtual tools. This not only enables you to more thoroughly work through problems and solutions, but also will build greater buy-in once a final decision is reached.
Bond virtually, but meaningfully
Remind your boss of the ways your team has bonded during the pandemic even though they were remote. Most likely, these moments were born from vulnerability and authenticity, states of mind that can be achieved both virtually and in person, and in crisis or on an ordinary Monday.
One way to get there is by requesting check-ins with your teammates and manager to discuss “what is really going on,” both professionally and personally, including successes and struggles. Another method: Open every meeting by asking attendees to share something sweet and something sour in their lives. Neither tactic needs to occur in person. All that matters is that the bonding is meaningful and purposeful, not rote and by default.
“Virtual” doesn’t mean fake or phony. You can prioritize honesty in any type of work environment. Suggest that whoever is running a meeting be ready to call for a “candor break.” If they sense that participants are avoiding an elephant in the virtual room, they can ask, “What’s not being said?” If one person speaks up, chances are, others will too. You’ll break through polite silence to put an end to problems.
Cast yourself as a change agent
Recasting remote work from a substitute to an advancement goes hand in hand with recasting yourself from a rule resistor to a constructive change agent. You might even get a promotion for helping your boss imagine and experiment with alternatives to back-to-the-office, and demonstrating the potential for positive outcomes.
Don’t stop with your boss. Talk to other leaders in your organization. Write an email to your CHRO and ask for a brief 15-minute meeting in which you can share some of the best practices on hybrid collaboration. Get the CFO on your side by making the case that remote work can save the organization money without hampering innovation and profits.
So, before you dust off your cubicle desk, knock on the boss’s door (virtually). Your opportunity awaits for leading your organization forward, not so-called back to work.
Keith Ferrazzi and Kian Gohar are coauthors of Competing in the New World of Work.