Why asking your people about returning after they’ve come back to the office makes the most sense for everyone

Every company that went remote during the pandemic has to grapple with returning to the office. However, asking your people to make a long-term decision about going back before they’ve actually set foot in the office is bound to produce skewed results. Here’s how you can get to know how your people really feel.

June 17, 2021 4 mins read

A lot of CEOs are making the news by talking tough about returning to the office. 

Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman told his New York based employees, “If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office, and we want you in the office.”

In his mind, the office was necessary for junior members of staff that were still in training. “The office is where we teach, where our interns learn. That’s how we develop people. Where you build all the soft cues that go with having a successful career that aren’t just about Zoom presentations.” 

He has a point. There’s a certain productivity and synergy that comes from working in the office with our peers. No matter how hard we try, it’s really difficult to replicate remotely — especially for new employees. But his hardline remains. Eventually, he would take a stance like Goldman Sachs who recently required all their employees to return to the office. Of course, this kind of mandate is not without pushback. Apple came under fire from its people after requiring office attendance three days a week.

Over the last year, we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored.

Apple employees said.

Outlawing working from home is unreasonable — especially if we’ve spent the last year proving that it can work. So, what is the way right way forward? 

The flaw in polling about returning

A current HBR article – Don’t Let Employees Pick their WFH Days – reported 70% of firms plan to move to some form of hybrid working. Yet, when employees are polled, it shows a deeper conflict. 32% of those surveyed say they never want to return to the office, while 21% never want to spend another day working from home.

Almost every business has polled their people in this way to determine what their best path forward looks like. However, this approach of polling is flawed. 

Dominic Monkhouse, one of our partners, wrote

More than half of your staff will say they don’t want to pay the tax that’s the daily commute. And that’s because your office, culture and purpose that you’re leading with aren’t compelling enough. It’s on you. It’s time to show some leadership and get everyone back in the office.

Dominic Monkhouse, CEO & Business Growth Coach, Scaling Up

The pandemic proved that we could all work remotely. But, it also proved that we need to be close together as well. Yet unless their work situation is complete rubbish, then asking them to return is a big ask. Asking them before they’ve actually tried returning to the office is an inherently flawed approach from a statistical perspective. 

When you ask people to project about what they would like to do in the future, they’re often not good at making decisions. We’re all bad at predicting how we actually feel in the future. Whereas when we do something, we gather more information. And, when we have more information, we make better decisions. 

How to ask your people to return to the office

When you ask people to make a long-term decision about returning before they’ve actually returned to the office, you’re asking them to make a guess on the future based on how they imagine things are right now. Given the whole range of anxious states out there, this is unlikely to produce good results. 

Instead, I recommend taking the Friday Pulse approach — after the experience, ask people to rate it. Instead of just polling your people, consider trying this experiment with them:

  • Ask people to come in for a few days (as many as they are comfortable with)
  • Poll them AFTER they went in about how it went
  • Repeat on a regular basis.

The data you can collect after their return to the office is much more robust and reliable than the poll data from before. This is because they’re now making a decision based on an experience they’ve had, rather than imagined. 

Achieving the right balance with your people

“We are pandering to the whims of people and not focusing on the business needs.” 

This common sentiment highlights the balance leaders must walk between being facilitative and directive. If you focus on the business need over your people, you will get a revolt. But you want to be a compassionate and supporting leader, so how do you juggle these two objectives? 

A good leader takes their people on a journey with them and drives consensus through a shared collective experience and a base of good information. In this way, a leader helps reluctant team members to change their views over time — especially as they hear from other team members. 

If you choose to try this experiment, make sure you conduct it weekly so you can track the mood and comfort of your people. You may find some team members are anxious to get back to the office while others only want a few days per week. You may then choose to adopt a flexible schedule and establish ‘core hours’ where everyone is in the office on a certain day of the week. There are loads of options, and one solution will not fit all businesses. 

A word of warning: be cautious of creating ‘subgroups’ between those who work in the office and those at home. Those in the office have unlimited opportunities for serendipitous interactions — ones that can boost their in-office relationships and, ultimately, their careers. 

The reality is that the people that want to work from home the most are not random. Among them are those with young children. Women want to work from home full-time almost 50% more than men. Letting employees set their own WFH days can pose a real risk to gender equity. 

However, if you have your own data about how your people are experiencing the changes and are wary of creating subgroups, then you will be able to make better decisions with your people. 

Remember, opinions will change over time. Keep asking the questions. Keep adjusting to your people’s needs.