Return to office policy - what's the best approach?

It’s a complex question without an easy answer, adding to the challenge are major contextual drivers:

  • A tight talent market, give employees what they want or risk losing them
  • What’s good for the team might be at odds with the individual
  • How do we ensure a collection of individual choices benefits the whole?
  • Different roles and circumstances are more compatible with remote work

Finding the balance

Developing a return to office policy is all about striking a balance, but with strong opinions across the spectrum, where exactly is the balance? Getting it wrong can create a backlash eg Apple this month.

A return to office policy that’s too tight may not meet individual needs:

  • Impacting ability to integrate work and life
  • Making employees feel disenchanted from a lack of trust
  • Increasing cost of living with commute expenses

A return to office policy that’s too loose might not meet the needs of the team:

  • New team members may struggle to forge relationships
  • Junior employees not seeing/hearing role models of what good looks like
  • Empathy for each other may drop without the regular flow of casual conversations.

How much autonomy for return to office?

Our principles bring us back to creating the right environment vs telling people what to do, in a belief that the real solutions lie within ourselves.

But letting people make return to office decision on their own can have challenges too. Not because of malice or poor intention, but because many of us suffer from common biases, for example:

  • When granted total freedom to make a decision, human nature will often choose what is easier for oneself over what is best for oneself. eg. If it’s beneficial for a person to be in the office x days a week but it feels like too much effort on the day, they might just stay at home. Similar to go to the gym or stay in bed - it can be tough decision!
  • If a person takes a purely individualistic decision for when and where they work without considering the impact or needs of other team members, it might be inadvertently reducing the effectiveness of others on the team.

How might we create a policy that works if we shouldn’t tell people what to do, but at the same time ceding the decision to employees may be problematic?

What type of return to office policy can work for everyone?

We suggest a return to office policy that offers a high level of freedom at the organisation level, with scope for managers to co-design arrangements with individuals on their team. This avoids the dangers of a one-size-fits-all and allows a more granular discussion around individual circumstances.

Managers and team members can together contemplate nuances of the role, the team, work/life integration, wellbeing, ways of working, etc.

Clearly, there has been a pendulum swing of power from employer to employee which has left employees with significant scope to call the shots. If the policies being made now are rooted in a mutually rewarding employer/employee relationship (not a power imbalance), these flexible work arrangements can become an enduring win for all, even when the pendulum swings back.