July 20, 2021

5 keys to tough conversations about returning to the office, according to HBR

Daily Briefing

    Writing for Harvard Business Review, Liane Davey, a team effectiveness advisor and professional speaker, explains how to navigate tough conversations with your team about returning to the office and adjusting to new working arrangements.

    Tips to make telework work for your team

    1. Be aware of your organization's rules

    To start, Davey recommends checking the official guidelines for your organization before talking to your team. Is there a policy on how many days people need to be in the office, or are flex hours allowed? Familiarizing yourself with your organization's guidelines will help ensure that you don't inadvertently make decisions or offer options to your employees that you must later retract or change under company policy.

    "[D]o your homework so that you can come to the conversation knowing the non-negotiables," Davey writes.

    2. Fairness may mean treating different positions in different ways

    Rather than trying to make everyone follow the same in-office hours, Davey recommends considering each person's position and what approach might fit best with their responsibilities. For example, an administrative assistant might need to be in the office more often than a proposal writer who could do their duties from anywhere.

    At the same time, however, Davey cautions that you should not so prioritize maximizing each individual's experience that you unintentionally undermine the overall team's experience. She suggests thinking about how each person's role interacts with others on the team and the plan that would best support collaboration, camaraderie, and a positive culture.

    3. Create a principled 'trial' plan

    Davey suggests developing a set of guiding principles for your return-to-office plan about what is important to you as a leader. These principles can act as boundaries for a trial period, while still providing enough flexibility for your team to suggest the working arrangements that are best for them.

    According to Davey, some examples of guiding principles include:

    • "The customer comes first," in which any arrangement will be evaluated based on how it affects customers;
    • "Time together matters," in which there is one day a week where everyone will be in the office; and
    • "Find time to focus," in which everyone will block off time for uninterrupted working time in an environment where they are most productive.

    4. Get feedback on your plan, and incorporate what you hear

    After you decide on your guiding principles, you should share them with your team and make time to meet with everyone individually, Davey writes. During each of these one-on-one meetings, Davey recommends specifying what is non-negotiable and what is flexible, and then ask your team members what they consider to be a positive working arrangement.

    Once you understand what is important to you as a manger and to each of your team members individually, you can move toward implementing your trial plan.

    5. Give the trial plan a go—and rework it as needed

    Davey writes that, even as you launch your trial plan, you should plan to revisit it to make sure it's working and alter it if needed. For instance, you could plan a short check-in with your team after a few weeks, followed by a more formal evaluation at six weeks.

    As a leader, demonstrate that you yourself are open to feedback, such as by asking your team, "What did you love about how I managed this arrangement, and what do you wish I had done differently?"

    If an employee is failing to follow through with an agreed-upon working arrangement, treat it as a performance management issue and act accordingly, Davey writes. Clarify expectations, give feedback, and monitor the problem in case it persists.

    "The only thing that's certain about the return to work is that there will be a lot of uncertainty," Davey writes. Engaging in conversations about returning to work will take a lot of preparation, but investing the time will help you be more clear, confident, and compassionate towards your team. (Davey, Harvard Business Review, 7/16)

    Learn more: Manager's guide to leading remotely through Covid-19


    Covid-19 has introduced unprecedented challenges for managers who may now be managing a remote team or a team adapting to ever-changing circumstances amidst the pandemic. This toolkit is for leaders who need new tools to keep their team productive, engaged, and aligned.

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