Why it’s time for the human touch: Top tips on returning to the office (the right way)

Author – Becci Gould, Director, Kin&Co

In the last five months, most of us have got pretty good at remote working. After endless battles with technology, we seem to have somehow achieved the ultimate juggling act of working and parenting, whilst also riding out our own (and our colleagues’) personal ‘corona-coasters’ of emotions. Something that seemed so difficult and alien and at the start is increasingly becoming something we can’t imagine living without.

But over the last few weeks, as Citi’s Investment Banking boss predicted back in May, something has begun to erode. The vibe has changed. Every business leader we’ve spoken to – no matter their location or sector – has noticed it. Either people have adapted so well to working from home that they are just getting on with it, or there’s an elephant in the room… 

As we explored further and looked at our own culture and behaviours, we realised what it was. As inherently social animals, despite all the benefits of remote working, we were missing the human touch – contact with our colleagues.

Having worked solo for a few months, our work relationships had begun to fray, silos had started to emerge and people were spending more time in their own heads, when before they would have been chatting and problem-solving together. Our sense of belonging and psychological safety was fading, and along with it the drive that keeps us productive and motivated. To put it in business terms – significant social capital had been lost.

Time for a top-up

Those who spotted this trend early quickly put plans in place. Some planned a staggered return to a formal office environment, others started arranging casual in-person coffees with colleagues in their local areas. Others (like us), tried something a little more unusual – finally, our garden office dreams came true!

Many businesses are now planning their ‘return to work’ strategy, but even this comes with challenges. It’s one thing to send out an invite and ask people to come back to the office. It’s quite another to get them comfortable with doing so, excited about it and using it as a chance to repair the broken bonds that lockdown has created. Logistically and psychologically, managing any form of return to the office is a minefield. The commute, the fear, the excitement, the effort, the nerves, the trepidation. Even CEOs who’ve been commuting for 5 days a week for 40+ years are experiencing it.

But for many of us, for the next year at least, we’ll be balancing working between our homes and the offices. Striking this balance won’t be easy and there’s a lot of challenges to overcome and planning that’s needed. But it’s critical that we do – not just to start to rebuild our relationships and ways of working (safely), but because otherwise, we risk irreparable damage to our organisational cultures.

To make the most of the return to the office and to help your teams manage the inevitable storm of emotions it’ll prompt, here are a few things to bear in mind:

1. REASSURE IT’S NOT FOREVER

Many people (although important to remember it’s not everyone!) have liked having some form of balance or more flexible arrangement. As soon as you announce any form of ‘return to work’, many people will react negatively – “It’s too soon”, “how will it work”, “I can’t be bothered” “I preferred working from home” – you name it, you’ll hear it. The key here is to reassure people it’s just ‘an experiment, ‘a pilot’, ‘a trial’ and ‘it’s not forever’. This will ease people’s concerns that once they commit they won’t have given up their flexible working dreams forever.  

2. DON’T OVER-PLAN DAY ONE

If our experience is anything to go by, you won’t get much work done on the first day back (to be honest even the second). The combination of the nerves of the journey, the anticipation of it all and the excitement of seeing people ‘IRL’ means people will likely react like school children on their first day back in September. Whatever you do don’t force people into a day of back to back meetings. Let them ease into it – even better, let them enjoy it… 

3. MAKE IT FUN

There is very little that’s fun about COVID-19 protocol – the endless hand-washing, hand sanitiser stations, washing down every doorknob, not to mention the toilet situation. So whatever you do try and make what goes on around the protocol as fun as possible. Some organisations have put on inspirational talks, yoga classes, line dancing lessons. Even small things like ‘welcome back’ packs with branded face masks, hand-sanitisers, and silly games (or something like ironic prompt cards to remind people how to start ‘IRL’ conversations!) go a long way.

4. BE PATIENT AND LET THE FOMO FOLLOW

Depending on the size of the company, organisations are either choosing to enforce set working days or allow a voluntary return to the office. If possible, phase the return and starting with a pilot group of cultural influencers (and no, we don’t just mean the leadership team!) who then have a remit to share their experiences and encourage everyone to follow. It’s social norming theory in action – it will work.

5. GIVE PEOPLE A PURPOSE

Once you’re through the initial trials and the novelty has worn off a little, give people a real reason and purpose for coming into the office. Is there some big strategic thinking you can get everyone involved in? Are you reviewing your culture in light of the changes and can use this as a chance to co-create? Even better, like one of our clients (a huge international retailer) host ‘Connection to Purpose’ sessions to build pride and emotional connection to the organisation’s purpose.

6. KEEP SUPPORTING THOSE WHO CAN’T MAKE IT

For most employees, it’ll be a matter of changing habits that have been embedded into us over the course of lockdown. But for some, a return to office working may not even be possible yet. Some will have children at home and no childcare, others will have been identified as ‘at risk’ even as lockdown eases. You don’t want to alienate these groups or make them feel guilty for not being able to take part in the return to work, so make sure you’re finding opportunities to keep them involved in the office-based activities and fun wherever possible.

7. INTRODUCE MUTUAL FLEXIBILITY

Finally, as you start to look at flexible working arrangements in the longer-term sense, avoid letting the tail wag the dog (it’s fair to say many of us have now begun to favour our personal preferences over the needs of the business). Consider the principle of mutual flexibility whereby it’s up to the employer to offer flexible working benefits, but that expectation works both ways. Then with those provisions in place, focus on making managing wellbeing the individual’s responsibility through resilience training and self-awareness. Our recent Bounce Back Bootcamp with Ella’s Kitchen resulted in improvements in ownership, personal responsibility and self-awareness (as well as a 33% reduction in anxiety).

For more tips or to book in a free 1:1 with one of our culture specialists, contact info@kinandco.com.