The Dilemma of Returning to the Office, After Covid-19 Changed Our Working Style

As the mask mandates are lifted and vaccines are administered to more of the country’s citizens, there is a sense that the working world is returning to some form of normality.  The question many of us are asking ourselves is: “do we really want to go back to in office on a full-time basis?”  This is not an easy question to answer especially for employers who need to take into consideration the needs of individual team members. 

I was speaking with Kay, a consultant at a professional services firm in New York. She has a young family, and her second child was born during Covid.  Returning to work full-time would be traumatic for her youngest who has never been away from mom, and her eldest who has become accustom to mom always being around. Her own anxiety increases at the thought of her firm implementing a normal 9-5 working day from Monday to Friday. Kay shared that it would be rather stressful for her too as she has created a routine that enables her to manage her work around her family commitments and she doesn’t necessarily want to be away from her children for an entire day. The hesitation for Kay heading back to the office full-time is also one of convenience and efficiency. Working from home has not negatively impacted her work – in fact she is more productive as she can block time and ensures her planned work is completed for the day. A huge benefit to the family is that once Kay is done with work, she can immediately tend to her children, prepare dinner or enjoy quality family time together. The challenge now is there is a 45minute commute into work and another 45min commute home. Before having a family, the commute was not that much of an issue. Now that she in a cycle of life that has more family demands, she finds the commute stressful. 

Kay is grateful that her company has not insisted everyone comes back to the office on a full-time basis. In fact, her employer has requested that at minimum staff report into the office once per week. Kay feels this gives her the flexibility she needs and also builds up her children’s confidence as she is only gone for a short period of time.  As an employee, Kay feels valued because her employer has an understanding of her specific situation and accommodates these personal needs. This makes her more committed to getting the work out that she is assigned to do. 

Meeting colleagues in the office is also advantages to the team. Not all of us are in the situation that Kay is in.  After my conversation with her I started to reflect on my own business and the fact that we implemented a work from home policy some 9 years ago. Our team would commute into a shared workspace once per week and so long as we were meeting client obligations and getting our work done everything was fine. The word fine implies just that – fine – not shooting lights out or aggressively growing. Two of the team members were unable to manage the complexities of working from home and subsequently lost their jobs. One team member on the other hand was much like Kay in the example above. Young family and felt valued because she was able to attend to her family’s needs. This was especially important to her as her one son was diagnosed with asperges.  Liana flourished, was a team player who would grind out her work to meet the ensuing deadlines.  She was also able to do activities with her daughter and two sons.  She was in a position where her special needs child felt just that – special and needed.  The results were clear in her output and in her family life.

Three years into our work-from-home policy we set up an office. Kept the working from home policy in place with the caveat being all printing and binding as well as meetings were to be held at the office.  The team met more regularly and at varying times of the day and alternate days of the week. Birthdays were celebrated at office meetings and employee engagement reached an all-time high.  The noticeable difference was all of the company team members now had a sense of belonging and felt valued.  As the title states, the Dilemma of Returning to the Office is not just about making a decision for those who have special requirements, it is about making a decision that gets all team members engaged in a work environment that they can thrive in. 

One way to do this is to have a GROW conversation with each person.  The question is simple: “Where would you like to GROW from here?”  If you are leading a team and need to get everyone functioning as a unit, align their personal goals to that of the team or organization as a whole. The GROW Model is a simple coaching model and is a is well known method that can be applied as follows:

GROW stands for – Goal, Reality, Options or Opportunities & Will Do
First step for us as leaders is to establish a topic or reason for the conversation.  For example, implementing a 4-day work week, Hybrid Work Options, one day in three days out etcetera.  Now review the organization or team objectives by aligning the leadership conversation and example to the GROW Model.  It could look as follows  – The Goal is to meet our minimum production number and fill pipeline for FYE2022.  In REALITY we are making great inroads with our digital offering and corporate clients are reengaging us as the mask mandate is lifted.  We need to do more invoicing and must find a way to support our 1099 contractors with Sales Force updates.  We have the opportunity to interview existing clients and book revenue.  We must be more intentional with our client experience reviews in order to introduce our digital product offerings and Sales Excellence & Leadership Journeys.  What I WILL DO is have the sales journey fact sheet finalized before month end.

Once we have stated the example, we have the individual align to the team or organization by conversing with them through the same model. 

  • As we reflect on the upcoming quarter, how would you like to grow in the organization?  Please share your GOAL as you feel it align to the teams?   

    The answers here will give us a good idea as to what the person has taken ownership of.
  • In REALITY – what are you doing to ensure that your goals are achieved?  What is your daily or weekly deliberate action to achieving this? 

    We now have an indication of intentionality. We want our team members to be intentional here. Based on the answer we can ask follow up questions to the reason for the conversation or the topic – for example – does doing this from home make you more efficient?  What distractions could hinder your performance in a home environment? Can you complete all these tasks in a 4-day work week without adding more stress on your personal life?
  • Options / Opportunities These could be questions or moments where mentorship and leadership influence could take effect.   We could ask questions like What else could we be doing? What additional capacity do you have? We could make “have you consider this…” statements and delve into more ideas that can be unpacked together.

    This step enables engagement and creates buy-in as more ideas are unpacked. The individual team members are also contributing to the solution here.
  • Based on the conversation up to this point we can confidently ask: What Will You Do to continue growing?  Which options will you add to your currently reality and what must you Start and or Stop doing?

    This final step is really about accountability.  We can then review this together or on our own as a leader in the team and then decide if we go to a 4-day work week or not.  Perhaps pilot the process or make the decision to stay as is. 

The wonderful thing about having these where are you growing to conversations is that they are relatively efficient, unpacks a ton of valuable information and gets us to understand our individual team members a whole lot better.  Now that we understand how they align their daily and weekly work function to the overall organizations or teams’ objectives we can have a meaningful conversation about who they are and how they fit into the organization.  More importantly we can manage the individual within the team structure. Make time to have these individual grow conversations, what you will find is the dilemma of returning to in-office work will be a lot simpler to manage.

Neville De Lucia is a Business Coach, TEDx Speaker Coach and has a heart for developing the Youth.  To  work with Neville or to just have a conversation reach out and connect with him here.

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