The big return of your team to the office

May 21, 2021

In May last year, three months into lockdown in UK, I called a client to see how he was getting on. Pre-Covid, as COO of a large national services company, he was always on the road travelling between regional offices in England.

“Catherine, I would have called you a liar if you’d said I’d enjoy working from home! But I am… I am getting so much done!”, he told me with delight.

Pre-Covid, he was unapologetically part of the group of leaders who considered face time in the office to be a measure of commitment and productivity. In his mind, bums on seats was a KPI. (We had agreed to disagree on this point!)

His personal experience of the last year has resulted in 180 degrees shift in his perspective. He plans to continue to work from home and mix it up with travelling and will support his staff to do the same. He’s not alone in this about-face shift.

The sacred cow that was office-bound work culture has finally been challenged.

75% of workers don't want to go back to the office full-time. *

30% of workers may quit if required to return to the office full time *

62% of workers who didn’t feel adequately consulted are anxious about returning, compared with 42% of people who have been adequately consulted. *

61% of companies will await a successful vaccine rollout in key markets before they ask staff to return to the office. * 


How do we as leaders help our teams to navigate the return to the office?

Trust and empathy are keys to this new journey.

For more than 12 months, we’ve peered into bedrooms, outdoor sheds and kitchens for new glimpses into colleagues personal lives. Embrace this new understanding and connection with each other. Share your own thoughts and worries about the return.

Vulnerability creates connection.

We have all learnt a lot about what’s possible in this massive unplanned work from the home experiment. And we all had different experiences over the last 12 months.

The introverts and deep thinkers have flourished in lockdown. Clients shared their delight with me in what they’ve created and the peace they’ve found. The family-focused leaders have loved having lunch and dinner with their recalcitrant teenagers. A handful has sold their house and moved further away from London – certainly outside of any reasonable commute window.

The young parents were relieved when daycare opened up and they could actually do the work from home. The extroverts are like caged lions pacing their 2 foot home office frustrated and taking it on Teams/Zoom. 

Start by noticing your assumptions.

Don’t assume people want to go back to the ways of work before lockdown.

Don’t assume you know how people want to return.

Don’t assume you know what work is best done in the office.

Don’t assume people’s lives look the same as 12 months ago.

Don’t assume you know people’s risk appetites.


The way to get rid of assumptions is to have conversations.  

There are several conversations to be had to help you and the team ease their way back to the office. 

  • A Covid wash-up. The return to the office may be slow and uneven and will certainly vary by company, city and country. But this is a significant marker of a change given the last 12-14 months of working. Every project needs a wash-up. And a post-pandemic return fits into this category. This is a time to download and offload the experiences so people can let go, learn and move on.
  • Dream of a bright future. Discuss what the ideal day in the team looks like back in the office. What’s the best-case scenario? What’s the worst? What is the work that you want to do together in a physical space? What can be done remotely? What agreements can you make as a team that support the former? How much do you as a team value being together and what do we do when we do get together? One team I work with doesn’t want to be in the office and then still having virtual meetings with those not in the office. They’ve made an agreement to avoid this configuration where possible.  
  • What are the measures of success in a hybrid world? Most organisations did not adjust evaluation criteria to account for the challenges of the pandemic. 

If we accept that we aren’t back to any ‘normal’ for several months, how are you measuring your team, and the direct reports?

Building a hybrid working culture that is equitable and fair is no small task. You  need to get clear on why you want your team back in the office, and what work it is that gets done in the office.

The way to navigate the great return to the office is with intentionality.

Open conversations with your team and your peers will help reveal expectations, hidden fears and hopes, and clear up the assumptions. With that awareness, you and your peers can design, plan and implement a return to the office that meets your own needs as a team as well as an organisation.



Photo: @marvins_memories on