Managing Return to the Office & Hybrid Work in the New Normal

SVP of Marketing & Strategic Alliances

Work models have been in limbo since the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted long-held workplace norms. This year, employers have to make long-term decisions for managing their workforces moving forward.

“We’ve been in triage mode because we always thought returning to the office was just a few months away,” says Kate Lister, President at Global Workplace Analytics. “Now we need to go back and work cross-functionally to optimize those practices and processes.”

Adopting long-term work models requires determining what your workforce’s needs are and refining processes to support productivity. That could mean returning to the office long-term or making hybrid work your official work model.

Here’s how to manage long-term work models in the new economy.

Incorporate Flexibility into Long-Term Plans

It’s not possible to find success with a one-size-fits-all approach — even global companies can’t apply the same approach across regions and divisions, Lister says. As you develop long-term plans, build flexibility into your new processes. Consider these factors:

  • What type of work will you perform at the office?
  • What impact does your culture have on your decision?
  • Are your managers ready for hybrid work?

The answers to these questions can help you determine how to proceed now to support long-term success.

To find the right model for your workforce, use surveys and focus groups to find out which model is most effective for employees. On average, 54% of employees prefer long-term hybrid work arrangements. While you must make the final decision, employee preferences may impact their productivity, and business leaders should take them into account.

Communicate Reasons for Returning to the Office

One of the most important factors in managing return to the office is being honest with the workforce. You need to generate buy-in for your decisions, and to do that, you need to employ change management tactics. “Help employees understand why you may be making the decision to return,” says Jennifer Smith, CEO and Strategic Adviser at Growth Potential Consulting. “They want to understand the ‘why’ behind it.” Include the benefits you expect your decision to produce.

An important part of change management is anticipating opposing viewpoints and creating a communication plan to quell doubts. The Bridges Transition Model can be helpful here, Smith says. This model distinguishes between change (the external factor or, in this case, your decision) and transition (the psychological experience of adapting to change). It helps you understand what employees are experiencing so you can help them through the transition.

“Include them in a conversation about what that looks like for them, and what they need to transition,” Smith says. “That's what organizations can do to help employees feel heard, feel valued.”

Maintain Equity Across Workplace Environments

Long-term hybrid work is going to be difficult to manage since there’s a risk that remote employees may be overlooked for promotions and opportunities. This is especially challenging since women, employees with disabilities, and employees from other historically excluded groups are more likely to work from home, which can exaggerate discrepancies.

“Leaders and employees are going to have to be very intentional about being inclusive of those who are not physically in the building,” Lister says. Be intentional about developing policies that account for any discrepancies between remote and in-person workers. Make sure that promotions, for example, are based on performance and results — not how often you see someone in the office.

Whether your workforce returns to the office full-time or pursues long-term hybrid work, the decisions you make for your workforce today provide the groundwork for future growth.