How to build a return to office program that will win the race to talent

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  • Return to Office – how to get it right in 2022?

    Last week, the CEO of Better.com, Vishal Gard, made the news again. This time, it was for the executive’s massive blunder of firing 900 people via Zoom. A blunder that would never have happened if Better.com had a return to office plan that defined how and when Leadership should use video communications tools in lieu of in-person conversations. The back-to-office plan should have been part of Better.com’s evolving organizational culture.

    Although the Forbes article title “Better.com CEO—Who Fired 900 Workers On Zoom Call—Taking Leave ‘Effective Immediately’” says it all, the real news comes at the end. “The company was on track to enter the public markets via SPAC at a $7 billion valuation before the end of 2021. However, this week Bloomberg reported that the SPAC listing has now been delayed.”

    In other words, how you return to office impacts your company’s financial health and growth. And a CEO who believes he should not pay “lip service to make 100% of people happy” needs to take leave, effective immediately. To avoid becoming the next Forbes Editor’s Pick for how to miss the mark, keep reading.

    Return to Office is not an Email

    Before we dive into the topic of return to office and what it really means, let’s get one thing out of the way.  A smooth return to office is NOT an internal announcement and a press release. It is much more than that. It is a holistic Organizational Culture Program.

    If 2021 taught us one thing, it is that distributing an email to your workforce with a return to office date does not bring employees back. Even worse, that email may be the tipping point that triggers your employees to join the Great Resignation movement and leave your office forever. 

    Return to Office is a Leadership Program

    I remember the first time we launched a work from home program for salaried crewmembers at JetBlue Airways. At the time, I was working in the People Department. The program did not work. What I see today reminds me of all the mistakes we made back then.

    We never considered whether our leaders were comfortable giving their teams the respect and trust that work from home requires. Without confirming, we simply assumed that trust existed. It did not. The majority of our leaders were “old school.” They equated face time with productivity. So, when the work from home applications from our analysts started coming in, they were rejected by business management.  To avoid false starts, make the first step in your Return to Office Culture Program to assess how ready your leadership team is to support the work style strategy you will embark on in 2022.

    Beyond that, you must plan to support management in building the work ecosystem in 2022. Engage them early enough to co-create processes and tools. Think about what matters within your ecosystem; including mental health support and a confidential email address for employees to safely submit concerns.

    Return to Office is a Culture Program

    Last month Kate Kirkpatrick shared the results of Gensler Institute’s research on the Gensler’s Design Exchange Podcast episode Return-to-Office. The research showed that employees have been asking for more choices and a flexible work ecosystem since 2014. Similarly, we were yearning for flexible work arrangements in JetBlue in 2012. Although what we are seeing today feels new to companies, it is not new for employees. It just took a global pandemic and the threat of losing talent for employers to catch on.

    Kirkpatrick also shared successful reopening efforts directly correlated to the health of organizational cultures. And to the level of trust employees had in leadership. Companies with strong cultures did much better. Further, strong culture companies engaged their employees in the creative, collaborative process of designing their future of work. Simply put, they did not publish a new policy and wait for employees to comply.

    We observed the same pattern with our clients. Professionals kept reaching out to us for advice on how to write a return to work policy. They were not asking how to engage their workforce in creating the future work ecosystem to support both the organizational and employee needs.

    Co-Create the Future Work Ecosystem

    Business processes and procedures are an important part of the work ahead of all of us, and the last step of the overall return to work program. Like everything else in our agile era, the Return to Office program must undergo testing and reiterations before it becomes part of the organizational culture.

    Kirkpatrick calls it MVP – Minimum Viable Policy. This eloquently captures the patient, empathy-driven, and reiterative approach to experimenting and piloting micro solutions for the work of the future. 

    So, how do we shift the return to work conversation from tactical topics like sanitizers and 6 feet apart to behavioral cultural topics like trust and treating employees like responsible adults?

    We do it by elevating the topic of Return to Office to the Executive Suite. Right now, the responsibility of how to reopen is left to HR Leaders. Offices will remain empty if back to the office is managed as an HR administrative task.

    Executives must engage strategically. It is one thing to say “we have fixed real estate costs, so bring everyone back.” It is another thing to gather your executive team, talk about your business goals in the next 3 to 5 years, and plan what your company work ecosystem looks like.

    Most likely, you will end up leveraging your fixed costs in a new way, that also includes higher employee retention. Providing choices is the most empowering thing a brand can do for its employees and customers. It is also good for business. Gensler’s research proved that employee choice leads to greater employee engagement and satisfaction, as well as higher productivity and innovation.

    Expand the Geography of In-Person

    We understand that giving choice without a strategy and plan does not produce the results you need. So, start with what you know. We know working from home is good for focused work. However, it tends not to be as good for collaboration, mentoring, and socializing.

    In the NY1 Crosstown podcast episode What the future workplace means for New York City, Rishad Tobaccowala talks about the power of a distributed workforce. Tobaccowala calls the office a “museum.” He rejects the term hybrid because it assumes the duality of home and office. As he explains, even this is a narrow-minded view of the future of work.

    Rather, Tobaccowala encourages leadership to disrupt the in-the-office or at-home mentality. To do so, you need to first address organizational needs like onboarding, training, and collaboration. Then, allow yourself to host these activities anywhere, not only in the traditional office setting. Collaboration can take place in any WeWork. You can build a local training facility. And Onboarding can be reserved for the office. The point is to expand the geography of in-person.

    Harness the Power of Flexibility

    Many companies are concerned about losing culture and employee trust. Can you solve that while only SOME employees are in the office the same 2-3 days a week? Probably not. Others want to have cross-functional creative meetings of agile teams or transformation teams.  Will that work if half the meeting attendees are remote? Again, the answer is no. These kinds of setups do not work, often because organizations are holding onto the legacy model of the office as anchor of all work processes. The sooner you realize this is no longer the case, the more open you become to creating new, impactful employee experiences.

    As an example, Tobaccowala talked about Automattic’s distributed engagement model. Although they are “100% remote,” each team has a budget to meet in person for a week every quarter to work together. Microsoft has already given employees unlimited access to any WeWork in the country.

    If you want employee engagement, you need some regular in-person events. Where they are and how often they happen are questions you and your executive team have to answer.

    How to Build your Future of Work Ecosystem

    Plan return to office as a stack of processes and activities the enterprise needs. That approach opens design horizons! And frees you to think about modalities that are optimal for each activity. It also enables a customized approach to reopening in the most productive way.

    So, how do you do that? Follow these 7 steps, and evolve your organization:

    1) Create a Reopening Executive Committee

    Do not call it “return to office” because it does not stop with getting employees in the door. Keep the committee alive for the whole of 2022. Or, until you gather enough employee feedback that indicates a positive reception to your employee experience design.

    2) Assess where your Leaders stand and what they need to evolve your culture into the future of work

    Invest in the tools they need to support return to office. Be clear about the new expectations from them as your culture ambassadors. Reopening successfully includes in-person elements and events that leaders must attend (read, more travel).

    3) Design and Deploy Employee Feedback Tools

    Make sure these tools include surveys that gauge how employees feel about their new way of working and their productivity. If you find out that a project that took 6 months before is taking 12+months now, you need to reassess your reopening (even if your employees are happy).

    4) Create a Communications Strategy

    Build a communications strategy that has multiple channels to connect to your employees. Include emails, slack groups, in-person all-hands meetings, and analog gifts to celebrate milestones. While you are at it, be sure to include an events schedule.

    5) Design your Employee Experience lifecycle in the new, omnichannel work ecosystem

    Create an employee experience journey map with the channels you envision using at each touchpoint. What will be the experience of offering an employment letter or announcing a promotion? Think through all touchpoints of the employee lifecycle: hiring, onboarding, orientation, performance management, and separation from the company.

    6) Rethink business processes and decide what will be remote vs in-person

    Engage cross-functional members. These make up the fabric of your organization. Do not ignore them in the new world of work ecosystem.

    7) Choose Appropriate Technology

    Think through the technology you need to support your flexible employee experience ecosystem. Then select and implement the technology that suits your needs.

    Embrace Possibilities

    During your return to office process, the most important thing is not to focus on what you lost. Instead, think about what you have gained. You have gained the ability to work through a global pandemic. In a way, your business continuity has never been stronger. The added value is that you are finally meeting your employees’ needs for choice and real flexibility of work. All you need to do is use the appropriate tools at the appropriate time and keep your organizational culture top of mind.

    We are here to help you get where you need to go. Our door is always open. Get started with the Return to Office and Culture Alignment Toolkit we built for you.

    How a Personal Interaction builds Repeat Customers

    A customer-centric methodology is key to the successful outcome of my interaction with Hello Spud. It is the reason this story appears here, and not among the CX Big Fails! The company did not send an automated response. It did not deliver a message stating “sorry we couldn’t help you, would you like something else.” Instead, the company co-founder reached out to me personally across multiple channels (a handwritten note, followed by personal emails).

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