Let me be clear right off the bat; this blog is not making any value judgments about whether working from the office is better than working from home, or vice versa. For most organizations, that’s a highly nuanced and contextual issue. Hybrid working happens to work for me and my colleagues, though I know of highly successful organizations of all sizes that have taken positions at either end of the spectrum, as well as in the middle.

If you are a senior leader who wants to encourage your people back into the office, and you don’t currently have the rates or frequency of attendance that you would like, please read on.

Take a position

What do you want to happen? Do you want 100% office attendance, 50%, or something else? Much of the confusion and frustration that I’m observing right now, especially in larger organizations, comes from leaders who either don’t really know what they want, or do know but are tentative in how they are communicating it. Often, leaders have a clear expectation, but are communicating that expectation as a suggestion, a hope or a hint. As a consequence, nothing much changes, other than increasing levels of anxiety for all concerned. If you have any expectation at all, then you need to own it and communicate it clearly.

Clarify your ‘why’

If you want people back in the office, chances are that you have strong reasoning for it. Perhaps you are experiencing insufficient levels of engagement, collaboration, innovation, productivity or customer satisfaction. Maybe staff turnover is increasing or your culture is suffering. Maybe performance has been steady during remote working, but you have ambitious growth goals that you believe require a different level of team energy and commitment.

Talk about why it’s important for personal development and career growth, if you believe that’s the case. Share why it’s important to you personally; what you miss about office interaction and what you’re looking forward to when people are back together. In short, clarify your motive and share it wholeheartedly.

One caveat; if people feel that the real reason you want them back in the office is because you don’t trust them, then that’s not going to end well. Even if you’re successful in getting them back, they will be on the hunt for something better.

Accept the downside

Some people are very happy working remotely and have experienced significant personal benefits from doing so. These people may no longer want to work in an organization that mandates office-based work. That’s why it’s so important that you are very clear and convicted about what you want and why. The benefits you’re after must be big enough for you to accept any downside, such as an increase in staff attrition. Assuming you can do that, then console yourself in the understanding that those who choose to leave do not align with your intentions for the future of your organization.

Look at the data under the data

Let’s imagine that you currently have 30% average office attendance across your organization each week, but you want at least 50%. When you look at the data underneath this data, you will likely find that some parts of your organization already have attendance well over your 50% target, while some parts are well below your average of 30%. It sounds rather obvious, but looking at the data underneath the data will allow you to learn what’s working already, where you have significant issues, what obstacles you must overcome, and enable you to target your approach accordingly.

Support your people managers

You may have taken a clear position, clarified your ‘why’, analyzed the data and accepted the downside, but your people managers are the key to your success and it’s very likely they’re struggling in several ways. They will likely need to have difficult conversations with team members who are resistant to your office attendance target, for all sorts of reasons. Ensuring that your people managers feel supported and equipped to have these conversations is critical.

Even if they do feel confident and equipped, it’s possible that any office mandate may have implications for your people managers’ other targets, such as team attrition rates, staff engagement levels, business continuity and risk management, among others. You’ll need to convince them that you’ve absolutely accepted any potential downside, that you’ll forgive any negative impacts on related targets, and support them to address any significant issues that arise as a consequence of them executing on your goal.

Support new joiners

If someone joined your organization in the last two years, then there’s a good chance that they have never actually worked from your office, or met their colleagues face to face. You may remember how productive and fun it was to have everyone in the office, but they don’t have these memories or your network. Moreover, they may feel a little intimidated coming in – a bit like the first day of school. On the flipside, some new joiners have reported feeling lonely and disconnected with remote working; they may actually welcome the shift to office-based or hybrid working. The key is to make it easy and compelling.

Early data from some of my clients shows that the more people come into the office, the more they value coming in, so the trick is to overcome the initial hurdle and create a habit. A simple way to do this, is to anchor team attendance to specific days of the week by holding in person meetings, supplying morning tea, and the like. That way, new hires will be in the office at the same time as their colleagues, experience the full team dynamic, build their network, and you’ll all get the benefit of having your team all together.

Focus forward

On sensitive issues like this one, there can be a tendency to spend too much time and energy circling around the same conversations with those who ultimately need to own it, and execute on it. There can also be a tendency to overplay the potential downsides and minimize the benefits for all concerned.

If you have done everything above, then at some point, your best strategy will be to focus 100% of your attention forward. It might sound like; “I appreciate this is difficult and uncomfortable, which is why we’re leaning into it so intently. So, what do you need from me to achieve our objective? In your view, how do we get to where we want to be in weeks not months?

There is perhaps no issue more sensitive right now than encouraging your people back into the office. If this is something you aim to do, then I hope this blog will help you in that endeavor.

If you’re looking for some bite-sized leadership insights, inspiration and tactics in between these long-form blogs, I’m now posting daily to Instagram. You can get access by following me here.

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about PETER

For two decades, Dr. Peter Fuda has been a Sherpa to leaders, teams and organizations across the globe. He’s coached more than 250 CEOs to measurably higher levels of performance. His consulting company has delivered dozens of cases of business transformation and thousands of individual cases of leadership transformation, at a success rate of greater than 90%.

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