The back-to-work debate is missing a critical ingredient: Leadership

The debate around the return to the office this fall is inescapable – it’s grabbing headlines, engrossing dinner table discussions, hijacking work calls, captivating industry events and enticing many employees to consider new job opportunities. But the topic is often framed as a polarizing decision in which you can pick between one of two camps: A complete return to the pre-pandemic 9-to-5; or, an undefined, every-man-for-himself remote/hybrid approach. This debate leaves people exactly where they’ve been throughout the pandemic, in a perpetual state of anxiety and uncertainty around what their life will look like in the weeks and months to come.

What we need and what we’re missing is level-headed, honest leadership. Now is hardly the time to cop out and draw a hard line in the sand against remote work, citing an arbitrary excuse. Business leaders need to be engaged and thoughtful about what actually makes sense for their organization and be transparent about communicating their post-pandemic plans. This will give employees their security and peace-of-mind back, provide the organization an advantage in today’s increasingly competitive labor market and future-proof the business.

Support your employees’ mental health and wellbeing by providing certainty 

The prolonged uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has triggered a whole host of mental health symptoms, with more than 40% of adults in the U.S. reporting feeling anxious or depressed, compared to just 11% before the pandemic. These symptoms can spill into the workplace, particularly as employees prepare to return to the physical office. Nearly half of people surveyed by the American Psychological Association in February, for example, said they felt nervous at resuming in-person interactions. Business executives and managers can play a significant role in easing the transition and even mitigating feelings of anxiety. It is the responsibility of business leaders to lead their employees back to a state of certainty by providing clarity around what the post-pandemic workday will look like, committing to a timeline and ensuring that there won’t be an unexpected or abrupt change in an employee’s work life.

At the onset of the pandemic, fewer than half of employees said their managers were attuned to their well-being and less than 40% said they felt supported by their manager. Many business leaders have stepped up since then, forging stronger relationships with team members and establishing an ongoing dialogue about how people are feeling and coping from month-to-month. Now is not the time to let those skills atrophy. Instead put them to work to provide support and guidance to employees during the post-pandemic transition, while continuing to solicit their insights and concerns to strengthen your plan going forward.

Take an honest look at remote work 

With an engaged, proactive mindset, business leaders need to take an honest look at what role remote work can play within their organization’s operations in the post-pandemic world. Business leaders that fall back on vacuous or superficial excuses and claim all employees must return to the office after operating almost entirely remotely for over a year will come off as disingenuous…at best. These organizations are also likely to be hardest hit by the impending “Great Resignation,” which is expected to see more than one in four people quit their jobs.

The messaging, deliberation and ultimate “back to work” plan must be authentic, considerate and transparent. A realistic post-pandemic plan is unlikely to look like the two options presented in the polarizing post-pandemic debate. Instead, most organizations will probably fall somewhere in the middle, with a hybrid mix of in-person and remote work allocated according to roles and responsibilities.

Assess remote capabilities at a departmental and individual level

A one-size-fits-all policy for your entire organization with respect to remote work is not a realistic hybrid plan for businesses with different departments or operational functions. Business leaders and department heads should work with HR to examine the feasibility of remote work across departments and even individual roles. The assessment should include a breakdown of what resources (remote, in-office or otherwise) are required to perform certain tasks, the impact of the role on the organization, time spent on essential job functions and overall how conducive certain skills and job functions are to remote vs. in-person work. A thorough role-by-role or department-by-department analysis should yield a clearer picture of what hybrid mix is right for your organization.

There are many roles that can operate in a predominantly remote capacity, such as finance or IT, and small businesses can leverage a dispersed workforce and a smaller office footprint as an asset to boost profitability, reduce costs and improve productivity. Sales roles, for example, can perform many of their job functions remotely but need to be able to show up for in-person interactions, such as product demos or sales meetings, to build relationships with clients and prospects. Identify the roles with greater flexibility and sync in-office and remote days by department to ensure that when these hybrid workers come into the office they’re able to maximize in-person collaboration with their team.

There are some functions, however, that cannot reasonably maintain remote status. Consider, for example, a production manager for a jewelry designer; they’re walking the floor, inspecting the process, conducting quality control – all functions that would be difficult, if not impossible, to perform remotely. Product development teams similarly cannot perform all of the responsibilities their jobs entail remotely, but perhaps can maintain productivity working remotely one day of the week.

Elevating the conversation for long-term standardization

We’re in the very early stages of a complete reinvention of the workday and redefinition of job requirements. This will be an iterative process that should include changes and updates as organizations gain new insights into what is and isn’t working along the way. One way to ensure a smooth transition is to elevate the conversation to a larger audience. Businesses should post and share how they’re defining roles in this new hybrid environment – not only with prospective employees and new hires, but with industry groups and trade associations to start the process of standardizing hybrid work functions across the industry and establishing a baseline for the future.

Building the bridge back to work

It’s incumbent on business owners, CEOs and managers to build the bridge to bring employees back to work – whether at home or in the office. Leaders will recognize their employees’ desire for certainty and look for opportunities to integrate transparent hybrid policies into their day-to-day operations and turn this transition into a business asset and positive differentiator.