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It has been a while since I wrote a “buzzword” article but I have been doing a lot of thinking about Return to Office (RTO) policies recently so here we are. As with so many other topics surrounding modern leadership, management, and building effective organizations, I have found no easy, silver bullet answers. But since I have found common elements that I believe every company should bear in mind when crafting an RTO policy, I figured I would do my part to get people started on the right foot.
Want to skip my beautiful prose? Here is the bullet point version with more detail (and examples of disastrous and successful policies) below:
I’ll begin by caveating the entire rest of this article with my firm belief that “always” and “never”, especially when those words spring immediately to mind, are rarely part of an optimized solution. I would be breaking my own rule if I argued that such absolutist policies were never the right answer and I acknowledge that this does happen. However, I would caution decision makers to take extra time in exploring the rationale behind every “always” or “never” to ensure that they reflect actual business needs rather than a desire to just be done with this darn thing already.
Now that your antennae are on alert for absolutist tendencies, we can turn to the elements I suggest you should consider in crafting your policy. To get it out of the way, I will start with productivity because it so often becomes a sticking point in RTO discussions. If you are used to measuring productivity with a clock, you have some pre-work to do before you can expect to create an effective RTO policy. Shifting the focus from “butts in seats” or “time spent in a specific computer program” measurements to productivity metrics that more directly support key business goals is a prerequisite for designing an effective RTO policy. As an added bonus, by focusing on what employees need to achieve their targets to shape the core of an RTO policy, the policy will also be straightforward to message.
Once you have a clear sense of what your business needs are and the employee metrics required to support those needs, you can begin to ask how your office, or colocation more broadly, can be leveraged to support your employees in achieving their targets. Common examples are “collaboration”, “mentoring”, and “flexible work as a perk”. This is where you start to get down into the details and begin shaping a policy that balances multiple factors.
For example, imagine that you believe that your company will benefit from having your creative leads collaborating face to face in the office and observing these interactions is crucial to developing more junior employees. You also want to maintain some flexibility for remote work to keep your talent pool broader.
Simply requiring that people come into the office “2 days per week” might seem like a great solution! But what if your creative team members are in on different days? Or your junior employees end up on a different schedule from the senior employees? A small tweak, requiring T/Th in office, for example might reduce the flexibility of your policy slightly but will preserve the other benefits you are seeking.
Now is also a good time to check if you have explored all of your other options. Any employees reluctant to come in will be highly motivated to seek alternatives so you can save time and stress by thinking through the options ahead of time. Continuing with our previous example, is the type of creative work your team does actually best completed in person or would hosting facilitated sessions leveraging a tool like Miro actually be more productive? Do you truly need multiple brainstorming days per week or would you see a similar benefit from having a handful of “in the office” days each month?
And please remember to check your assumptions. Often, RTO policies are crafted with an underlying assumption that all employees want to be working remotely and must be mandated to come back into the office. What about your team members who want to be in the office every day? Does your policy also support them? Will they have a desk whenever they need it?
Perhaps my favorite example of an RTO policy gone wrong comes from a friend of mine who lives in San Francisco. Her company recently mandated that she work from the office 5 days per week. Because of the office location, she needed about an hour to commute. Unfortunately for her, and for the company, her entire team of direct reports was based in North Carolina. This meant that she was losing an hour of valuable time with her team members every day while she sat on public transportation and then spent all day in the office locked in one of the phone booths. She almost never interacted with other local employees and eventually left the role when she tired of wasting her mornings and feeling more isolated than she had when working from home.
On the other side of the spectrum, I have another friend whose work required her to be on site through much of the pandemic (it is hard to interact with a manufacturing line remotely). There were quite a few members of her extended team who had continued to work remotely as their work was less directly related to the factory but who were missing key insights because they never saw the production line in operation. When their company crafted an RTO policy that required a minimum percent of operationally focused meetings be attended in person, the ability to walk over and debate ideas or talk to the technicians without stopping the production work made a huge, positive impact. Even the employees being asked to commute appreciated that they were only being asked to come on site in a very specific context where they could quickly see the benefits.
As you read this article, you may have been wondering why I, as a consultant who focuses on structures and processes, cares about RTO policies at all. Simply put, an RTO policy is a “structure” that guides how employees work, collaborate, and refresh their creative wells every day. This means that your policy has the power to enable and the power to impede.
Taking the time to think through your RTO policy, how it supports your key objectives and how it will support your team members is absolutely worth the time. Do not be afraid to leave room for flexibility and judgment – as long as your goals and metrics are clear, the business will be supported.