Leadership   //   March 8, 2022

‘What’s in it for me?’: The employee question that needs answering in any return-to-office playbook

It’s crunch time for hybrid return-to-office plans, again.

After numerous false starts (thanks Delta and Omicron) it looks like a full-scale return to the office, in whatever shape or form that takes, has arrived. As such, a growing number of major organizations have started to show what hybrid model they’re going for.

Last week, Google told staff in the San Francisco Bay Area and several other U.S. locations that it will end its voluntary work-from-home phase in April, in favor of a plan where most employees will spend three days in the office and two working remotely.

Microsoft has also said it will reopen its Washington state and Bay Area offices, and that employees can configure what days they come to the office with their managers. Likewise, with all coronavirus restrictions officially lifted in England, organizations there are being pressured to articulate and activate their return-to-the-office plans.

Trite as it may be, it’s vital to acknowledge that an incredible amount has changed in the world of work since the pandemic struck almost precisely two years ago. And the most significant transformation has been where most of us work.

Models will naturally vary depending on the company, but there are a few essential guidelines that are worthwhile for all employers to take note of. Here’s a breakdown of five key areas employers need to have in their playbook:

Answer the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question

Rush return-to-the-office plans at your peril, warns Illinois-based Liz Ebert, the CIO advisory partner across consumer-packaged goods, retail and logistics at management consultancy Infosys Consulting. She stressed that employers should take their time and ensure they fully research, and answer, what employees’ questions are about a return.

“Doing the work upfront will save countless hours and headaches after the fact,” she said. A priority should be reassuring staff on areas of concern like how their safety and well-being will be catered for in a return to the office. Another is being clear about what human and technological support is needed to be as successful and productive in the office as they have in a remote setting, she added.

With no legacy hybrid-working blueprint to fall back on, there’s likely to be a messy period where different organizations try on various forms of hybrid before seeing which will actually suit their business and staff needs.

“They felt weak managers were saying no to requests for flexible working. The firm didn't want the experience of flexibility to be undermined by the previously hidden insecurities of their worst managers."
Bruce Daisley, best-selling author of "The Joy of Work" and workplace consultant.

But whatever the direction a company takes, they need to relay the information to staff in a straightforward way, according to John McLachlan, an organizational psychologist and co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy, headquartered in Bristol in the U.K. “A lack of clarity will severely hamper a successful hybrid-working policy,” he said. 

Next, the most important questions employers will need to answer is: what is your rationale about hybrid working? “Set out why it matters and the benefits it’ll bring. Employees will be most interested in how it’s going to be better for them — so make it about them, not the employer,” added McLachlan.

Allison English, deputy CEO at Leesman, which measures and analyzes employee workplace experience for organizations globally, agrees. She cited in-house research that surveyed 800,000 respondents across 5,000 workplaces in over 100 countries, which showed people favor the home environment for individual-focused work, creative thinking and for having confidential business discussions. For that reason alone, employers need to make the return to the office a compelling option.

“Employers need to articulate their workplace ‘why,’ communicate how it fits in with the broader organization’s strategy and objectives, and answer the ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ question employees will have,” she added.

Determine who is in charge

Leadership has evolved because of the pandemic. Good bosses quickly realized that showing their vulnerability, being transparent — for instance, saying: “I don’t know the answer, but we’re working on it” – and displaying more empathy was crucial to engage people. Videoconferencing democratized hierarchies, at least visually, with everyone on the call in the same-sized box. But how should that translate in a hybrid-work environment?

“There needs to be some sense of where the sovereignty lies,” said Bruce Daisley, best-selling author of “The Joy of Work.” For example, he noted that a consumer goods client removed the phrase “with your manager’s permission” from its hybrid working rules. “They felt weak managers were saying no to requests for flexible working. The firm didn’t want the experience of flexibility to be undermined by the previously hidden insecurities of their worst managers,” he said.

Regardless of which days a person is in the office, for those who opt for a more traditional 9 to 5 hour-hour day over a more flexible schedule, employers need to enforce that no one will be expected to respond outside of those hours, according to Dr. Mariann Hardey, associate professor in business and computing at Durham University Business School. Some countries have already gone a step further and made it illegal for bosses to contact their staff outside of specified working hours, like Portugal. That’s why it’s essential to establish “a sustainable work approach that allows individuals to set clear boundaries around their professional space, physically and digitally,” she added.

How meetings will evolve

Bloated meetings schedules are notorious in the corporate world. And after two years of Zoom / Teams overload, flipping to a hybrid working setup could be the chance to reset. Ensuring meetings which have half the attendees in the office and the rest joining virtually, are efficient and effective, will be vital. That means we can expect meetings to evolve, so there are fewer of them, and they are shorter but more intense as they stick closely to a clear agenda.

It follows that meeting rooms, too, will change – and these should be outlined in the playbook. “If employees are only heading to the office once or twice a week, they will want to spend this time connecting with colleagues, not stuck behind a desk,” said Wybo Wijnbergen, CEO of infinitSpace, a European flexible workspace provider. “So, meeting rooms, breakout areas, and networking events are no longer nice to have; they’re essential.”

“Employers need to articulate their workplace ‘why,’ communicate how it fits in with the broader organization’s strategy and objectives, and answer the ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ question employees will have.”
Allison English, deputy CEO at Leesman

Hybrid meeting etiquette should be established in any company’s return-to-the-office playbook, according to Daisley, who said he was shocked when a client operated a “camera-off approach” to all meetings. “Knowing which meetings we’re going to do face-to-face and which ones remotely is helpful, especially if we try to curate these to be convergent or divergent meetings to maximize the use of resource,” he added.

File-hosting service Dropbox for instance, has set “core collaboration hours” – a four-hour window reserved for meetings and collaborative working. “This is a four-hour window reserved for meetings and collaborative working. This way, everyone has their own focus time, as well as time to create and work together,” said Andy Wilson, the company’s U.K. lead.

Be concise, be brief

Like anything, opinions will be divided on just how much information to give employees on hybrid strategy. For instance, some companies have really gone to town – like U.S. shaving-goods company Harry’s, which published an 81-page “How to Hybrid Manuel, in February.”

While that may appeal to some, other workplace experts advise taking a more concise approach. “It’s far too long,” said Daisley, “I get that this is practical, step-by-step guide, but what’s the point of something no one reads? It’s like the instruction manual that comes with your washing machine.”

Daisley also worries that organizations will go big on detail to cover themselves. “‘It was in the handbook’ is the get-out-of-jail card when things get a big aggro with employees,” he said. Instead, he believes it’s important that employers’ hybrid playbooks for staff should be more bitesize, accessible, and even collaborative and ever-evolving. “Let’s not kid ourselves that we’re writing sacred texts here,” he said. “It should be as short as possible.”

Be intentional and encourage discourse

Leesman’s English advises that the return-to-the-office playbook, in whatever form it takes, should reflect the culture, leadership, and communication style of the organization. “If not, employees will immediately know they are being fed inauthentic, hollow words,” she said. 

Daisley concurs that this “lack of intentionality” is the biggest thing employers must consider. Companies will build more agreeable policies by listening and learning from staff’s working desires. “Success is going to come from thinking, planning, and preparing – not winging it,” he added.  

Offering a last word of encouragement to employers creating their hybrid working strategies, English added: “This is a tremendous opportunity for organizations to engage with employees, understand what they need to do their best work, and then craft spaces and strategies around those needs to build businesses that are set up for long-term success.”