How do we get back to the office?

Sara J. Colantonio//June 24, 2021

How do we get back to the office?

Sara J. Colantonio//June 24, 2021

“I’m fully vaccinated. Can I come and see you in person?”

After more than a year of working remotely and seeing clients over Zoom, these requests are starting to come in. Now that COVID is winding down and restrictions are relaxing, organizations and companies have to figure out how to go back. And the really big question is: “How do we go back in the best way possible for our team?” Because while clients may want to see your shining face, employers are getting a different response from some team members: “Can I continue to work remotely?”

There isn’t a short answer to how we go back to the office. But the hybrid work environment is here to stay and highly preferred, overall. In an ADP global survey of 25,000 employees before the pandemic, the most engaged were those working from home three or more days a week.

Erica Dhawan is an expert on teamwork and collaboration and talked about remote work long before the pandemic. Interestingly the key to performance is reducing what is called affinity distance. Affinity distance refers to “the values, trust, and interdependency that a team has with one another when they engage in remote collaboration.” ADP research during the pandemic supports this as well, reporting that the most resilient employees were those who completely trusted their senior and team leaders.

Yes, there will be the logistical challenges of finding a suitable hybrid model for your team. Still, ultimately, it comes down to Authentic Communication, which is the artful practice of building productive, trustworthy and helpful exchanges through concrete practices to foster trust and enhance the performance of teams. The way you connect and communicate will impact how successful “going back” will be for you and your team.

Going back is going to take first and foremost:

  1. Collaboration is a way of managing differences and requires each involved party to be assertive about what they want while also being highly cooperative in helping the other party get what they want. Not everyone is having the same reaction to going back to the office. Circumstances differ. It’s going to take some figuring out. Jeanne Sahadi’s CNN Business article states: “The brilliant thing about empathy is that it generates a neurological need for reciprocity,” said psychologist Leo Flanagan, founder of The Center for Resilience. If you make an effort to understand your employees’ circumstances, needs and preferences — even the times of day when they are least productive — they, in turn, will be more likely to work with you on meeting goals. Making a hybrid model work successfully is about co-creating with your employees, not making unilateral, top-down decisions. That means finding out what schedules work best for everyone and trying to accommodate them to the extent possible without compromising your ability to deliver the results your company expects.
  1. Check-ins, Check-outs. Marcus Buckingham reported the following research, “Employees are more engaged and less likely to quit if their boss checked in with them for 15 min one on one each week. It doesn’t matter if the check-in is in person, phone, or in an app.” With Authentic Communication, we take the psychological temperature of the other person at the beginning of our exchange and the end, as well. Check-ins and Checkouts are work-related, but they help the employee and boss get on the same page. For example, you might ask, “how do you feel about the progress of this project?” And during the checkout, “What didn’t we cover today that you want to talk about more? Or what can I do to help you with your goals this week?
  2. Richness of Mediums. Richness refers to how much of the message can get through in a particular medium. The richest medium is in person. But for hybrid, Dhawan says, “Try switching most remote communication to regular video calls, which are a much better vehicle for establishing rapport and creating empathy than either e-mails or voice calls. And design virtual team-building rituals that give people the opportunity to interact regularly and experience their collaboration skills in action.” Hybrid work forces us to consider the situation and what medium we need to have the best outcome. As one office design company reflected, certain collaboration begs for in-person interaction. Be mindful of how that looks for your team.

These communication practices foster relatedness. Relatedness is directly linked to motivation. In order for our teams to thrive, we must be connected to one another, feel seen, heard and supported. And during a time when anxiety and depression are at an all-time high, relatedness is the salve to that pain. While your hybrid office model might look different from your colleague’s, what is true across the board is we need each other to succeed.

Sarah J. Colantonio is the Founding Partner of Work Wisdom LLC. She hosts The Behaviorist podcast and co-authored Authentic Communication.