How Leaders Can Actually Have an Effective Return-to-Office Conversation

return-to-office conversation ep 57 Liane Davey

Today we interview Liane Davey, a New York Times bestselling author of two books: You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along and Get Stuff Done, and The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track. Additionally, Liane is a contributor to the Harvard Business Review and her work has been seen on CNN, NPR, and USA today. 

Some of the nicest, most empathetic managers are making the biggest mistakes in planning their return-to-office conversation. They’re trying to be empathetic and nice and wonderful. They’re asking their employees, “what are you thinking about return-to-office?” The only problem is that trying to be nice and fair just isn’t working. How can you be fair to everyone? You can’t. 

In this podcast Liane Davey deals with the top three problems of the return-to-office conversation. Number one is going in with no boundaries or guidelines. Number two is getting all hung up on fairness; and number three is optimizing for individuals rather than optimizing for the team overall. Spoiler alert: you need to have an established baseline of non-negotiables before you just let everyone decide. 

Prepare the Conversation

At the senior leadership level, leadership teams need to discuss and identify boundaries and non-negotiables to guide the conversations. Guidelines prevent pitfalls as leaders plan these conversations with employees. The guidelines provide a win/win–flexibility for employees while also meeting the needs of the organization. 

Without such preparation, a return-to-office conversation can become confusing and too open-ended. 

Identify Organization and Team Boundaries 

If you’re in a senior leadership team, you will likely be creating (or have created) boundaries in your strategy meetings. It is prudent that leadership teams  spend time digging into these boundaries–the reasoning and all implications. Leaders need to check-in and see what guidelines have been previously set by senior leadership and HR. This way leaders can identify what is true versus the story they’ve been telling themselves. It also allows leaders to identify what employees have been assuming. 

This is the time to mindfully identify the guiding principles that will be the core of your conversation.  Once again, identify at least a few non-negotiables that are going to be true for the entire organization. When identifying boundaries and non-negotiables, leaders need to stay customer-focused, and consider the impact on culture.

Stay Customer Focused

The customer should be in the center of tailoring clear boundaries and non-negotiables. Get clear on what your customers need and when your team needs to be physically together to achieve customer success. Ask yourself, “Will the customer experience change depending on different return to work and hybrid scenarios?

Consider the Culture Impact 

How much time your team spends together in person or not will impact your culture. Then, think operationally. In what ways can the organization be flexible in getting the work done whether in person or remotely?  

When it comes to this, companies are going in very different directions. Some companies are saying, “Look, a certain amount of culture, collaboration, and sparks of innovation we believe won’t happen if people aren’t physically together. So, we’re going back to the office most of the time.” 

Other companies are saying, “Roughly 20% of what we do is beneficial to do in person. The rest of our work can be completed more productively with remote work. So, we are only getting together in-person for gatherings and special projects and we will work through a hybrid model.”

These organizational decisions should be based on customer needs and desired culture.

Liane recommends that leaders move more toward the flexibility of remote work in more situations than your organization had before the pandemic. Allowing this will help your company hire and retain more diverse talent, help families create a more convenient work situation, and help people with disabilities design better accommodations. 

Leaders then need to get clear on what will work for their individual team. Leaders know at a deeper level how their own team operates, and they can then tailor certain boundaries and non-negotiables within that context.

Give a Heads Up that Conversations Are Going to Happen

After you’ve done your research, and deliberately thought through what the boundaries and non-negotiables are for both your organization and your team, give your team a heads up that this conversation is going to happen within a certain time frame.

In an email, video message, and in your team meetings state your intentions for having the return-to-office conversations. Share the guiding principles, boundaries, and non-negotiables that have been set with your team. Then, let everyone know that you are giving them time to think about their own needs and the choices they want to make. 

Explain Decisions and Remember Fairness Comes in Different Forms 

Liane believes there is no such thing as fair. Many people believe that fairness is equality. If fairness is equality, leaders have to do the same thing for everyone. If you follow this definition, then you have to mandate that all people will have the exact days and number of days at home and in the office. 

The other version of fairness is equity, meaning that the inputs and the outputs make sense “as a whole” with certain accommodations for unique situations. With this definition, equity can mean that a person who works in the warehouse may have to be in person on a different kind of schedule than the person who does computer work. If logical “flexible” categories of implementation are not considered, then leaders will get all wrapped up in worrying about who is going to think what decisions are fair. 

Liane encourages leaders to remember that fairness has very different forms. Leaders need to figure out which version of fairness makes sense for individuals, teams, and the overall business–and then be able to explain the thinking behind the plan. It’s okay for leaders to say that they struggled to come up with an approach that was fair and equitable while also considering the specific needs of each job. Then they can share the rationale behind the decisions and invite discussion around effective implementation. Giving employees control over the implementation is another form of fairness that they will appreciate. 

Optimize for the Team over the Individual

When you optimize for every single individual, you might fall into the trap of sub-optimizing the team. If you attempt to be a generous, empathetic leader, don’t let individual preferences override the need for your team to be a team. Obviously, you don’t want to create a schedule where no one is in the office! You need your team together at some point, and there will be times when you have to choose the needs of the team over the needs of one or more individuals. This idea must also be a part of the “flexibility” conversation. It might be necessary to adjust the schedules as needed. Every plan will have exceptions to the rule from time to time–just like the work environment before the pandemic. 

About Liane Davey

Liane Davey is a New York Times Bestselling author of three books, including The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Your Organization Back on Track and You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. 

Known as the Water Cooler Psychologist, she is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and frequently called on by media outlets for her experience on leadership, team effectiveness, and productivity. 

As the co-founder of 3COze Inc., she advises on strategy and executive team effectiveness at companies such as Amazon, Walmart, TD Bank, Google, 3M, and SONY. 

Liane has a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology. 

To learn more about preparing your return-to-office conversation, download this episode now.

Online Courses for Leaders Leading a Team From Anywhere:

Check out these online courses for remote leaders from the Team Anywhere Team.

How to Be an Effective Remote Manager | How to Build Virtual Accountability

Return-to-Office Conversation Quotes:

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