First it was fall of 2020, but many schools didn’t reopen, and there wasn’t a vaccine yet. Then it was spring of 2021, but that ended up still being way too early. Then it was fall of 2021, but along came the delta variant, then omicron. Then there were vaccine mandates, and backlash against vaccine mandates. But now, more than two years after COVID-19 made remote work commonplace, things are starting to look different. According to the New York Times, only 10% of office workers were still working fully remotely by the end of March 2022. This spring is the season of the Great Reentry.
Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft all set return-to-office dates for employees in late March or mid-April. And while most companies are opting for a hybrid or part-time in-office structure, this season marks the first time many workers will be setting foot in their offices in over two years. And for employees hired since 2020, this could be the first time they are ever meeting their colleagues in person.
So how should employees prepare for the Great Reentry? And what do managers need to consider?
I talked to Mark C. Crowley on the latest episode of The New Way We Work to find out. Crowley is a leadership consultant and speaker, author of Lead from the Heart: Transformational Leadership for the 21st Century, and a Fast Company contributor.
Listen to the pushback
The first step for leaders planning their return to the office is to listen compassionately to what their employees want and be thoughtful in their approach to creating a new office environment. Crowley says, “People are asking: ‘Why should I come back?’ And I think pretending that everything is the same as it was two years ago might be the biggest mistake. If we don’t reinvent what we do, when we come in, then why are we making people come in?”
Many employees prefer working from home, and so Crowley advises that managers should invite feedback on pain points for returning to the office, and help solve them. “If people are coming back into the office, you really need to know how they’re feeling.” And then, he says, leaders need to be clear in communicating the purpose of returning to the office and exactly what the in-office time is for. “Once that’s established, then you need to help people get over the feelings of loss. And there are ways that you can accommodate people. [For example], if someone has taken their child to school every day, that’s an accommodation that a manager can make, to let them come in a little later,” says Crowley. Those kinds of compromises go a long way toward making employees feel that their bosses really care about them.
“Just saying ‘my way or the highway’ is missing the point, and I think that managers would be really wise to play the long game and to [know that] how they treat their people in this moment will never be forgotten,” he says.
Encourage nonwork socialization
Overall, Crowley advises that building and maintaining trust is one of the most important elements for managers in a hybrid work environment. Since time spent in the office is best used for collaboration and socialization, he advises that managers thoughtfully design in-office days to include meetings in which individuals can’t tune out or multitask (as many people do on Zoom). “Managers can’t be hidden in their office all day long, they need to curate the kinds of meetings that they’re having,” he says.
It’s also important, Crowley notes, to encourage opportunities for nonwork-related socialization and relationship building. “And it’s not just in the first week back, the whole idea is for an immersion, to give people that connection when they’re working together, they reestablish connections. They know what’s going on in each other’s lives. You know, their tanks are full; that is a really important component of this,” he says.
For ideas on how managers can facilitate those important social interactions, design useful in-person meetings, and keep engaged those employees who remain fully remote, listen to the full episode.