The transition to home working last Spring was almost overnight. The transition “back” is very much more gradual, but it feels like the momentum is definitely increasing. More and more businesses are encouraging employees to return to the office, albeit in most cases not full time. And that means having to work out what a hybrid working model will mean in practice, for them and their teams. On the one hand this is incredibly exciting and feels like a real moment in history when we get to redefine how we work. But as with all great opportunities, it brings with it challenges to be overcome.
Everyone had their own unique experience of working from home during the pandemic and the challenges that went with this (living alone, with flatmates, children, home school to name a few). But the majority of knowledge workers have until now had one thing in common – most interaction has been online. This has been something of a leveller. Bringing your whole self takes on a different meaning when your home is your office. What now? With some at the office, some at home, others elsewhere, how do you make sure everyone feels included? How do you minimise the inevitable bumps in the road – expected and unexpected?
Don’t make assumptions
Just because someone has a child doesn’t automatically mean they will want to work from home more. Because they’re generally confident and appear healthy to you doesn’t determine their level of anxiety / how they might be feeling about the risk of Covid-19. And where they live and how long their commute is doesn’t automatically tell you how often they are likely to want to make a journey to the office.
Be open about your concerns and find out those of others. A good question to ask is “How are you managing?” – it makes it more specific and harder to pass off with a “good thanks” reply. Discuss ideas to help overcome any concerns and try making it a regular team agenda point. Consciously keep talking about our differences and then taking that a step further and thinking about them and what you can do to ensure others feel included.
Make a conscious effort to re-connect
Think about the type of interactions you have missed – such as team meetings in person, brainstorming, catch ups over lunch or coffee, spending time with someone you learn from, meeting new colleagues – and prioritise these. As a team, think of ways together and make sure these are planned for appropriately; for example on days when everyone is in consider ways to ensure new joiners / younger team members will be in at the same time as the more experienced.
Expect the unexpected
How you feel may surprise you – even extroverts may find it takes time to get used to being surrounded by people again. It’s also likely to change over time – how you feel about something today may be different next month. The same will be true for others.
Think about how you run meetings…
If you’re going to have people in and out of the office, how will this work? This was arguably an issue before the pandemic but it feels like there’s no longer an excuse and it’s likely to feel more exclusive if we revert back to old habits. Would it be helpful to think about start and finish times (to allow those in the office to move locations and those out of the office to not be left waiting while you get into a meeting room). Some businesses are trialling everyone logging in, including those in the office if anyone is not there in person. Another tool being adopted (again arguably good practice generally) is to do some prep with quieter team members you know may be feeling reluctant to speak up in advance, to encourage them to speak or call on them to share their ideas. Think about what you’ve learnt about yourself and others and how you can make sure you get the best from everyone.
…and key team events / moments
Consider carefully what the key moments are for your business / team and how you both communicate these and run them to minimise the chance of someone missing out.
Think about what type of work you do where…
You don’t need to be in an office / workplace to respond to emails and write reports. On the other hand, it’s much easier to have a team brainstorm and or bounce an idea off someone in an office environment. Be smart about what you do where and think about who else you’ll need around you to make this work (do you need to coordinate so you’re in the office the same day?)
…and how / when you travel
It’s also helpful to challenge how and when you travel – you won’t get much done on a packed commuter train but some days / times will be busier than others. Test out different options. Equally, swapping the train / tube for a bike might allow you to keep using that commuting time for exercise…and so on.
Leverage employee networks
Connection has become even more valuable and important – and it is always easier talking to others who feel like you do. Employee networks are a great way to help connect people (including yourself!), gain feedback on the challenges and what’s working to overcome them. And if you don’t have them, support their set up or lead the challenge yourself.
Be open minded and explore options
If you or someone in your team has concerns, try to approach it without judgment and explore different ways you can solve this. For example, if they are nervous of returning to the office you might explore a phased return vs jumping straight from all days at home to several at the office and / or if it’s commute related, experimenting with travelling at different times / in different ways, may help. Alternatively, if it’s more about feeling left out as one of the few working remotely, trying different ways for the team to engage such as all logging in to Zoom / Teams for team meetings even if several are in the office together.
Regularly discuss / remind everyone on policies in place to keep people safe
And of any updates – it helps remind everyone this is important, and that we’ll all be feeling differently about this at different times. If someone is anxious about being in shared spaces, can you reassure them about cleaning procedures in place? Some businesses have instigated different coloured arm bands to reflect people’s level of willingness for personal contact (hug / elbow / distance)
Get office ready
We’ve all heard the jokes about “zoom outfits”, and people with their PJ bottoms on whilst totally groomed from the shoulders up, but very seriously most of us haven’t been in the office regularly for several days a week for nearly 18 months. Think about your work wardrobe (does it need an update?), whether there are any new systems you and your team need to get familiar with (logins, pre-booking hot desks or maybe even a new office altogether) and what you’ll need to have with you / tasks you’ve not needed to do for a while like booking meeting rooms (especially if you’ll be working in a hot desk environment). Consider allowing time on your first day back to adjust.
Test and learn!
Perhaps the most important of all. As we have all learned from the last year, the situation has changed a lot and so has how we have felt about it. Given the slower transition to new ways of working, this is truer than ever. Keep checking in on yourself and others – what’s working this month might not be next month. Someone who bounced back into the office happily on day one may be feeling a little differently now. Keep testing and evolving your approach. And learning to be constantly mindful of this and how we can help ourselves and others to feel included may be the best lesson of all.
Catherine Oliver is a Diversity and Inclusion Advisor and Founder of the Bluebell Partnership. Following a 20 year corporate career, during which she founded Sky’s parenting network and co-founded their Women in Leadership initiative alongside her “day job” in the Strategy team, she now guides businesses through the challenges of supporting working parents and developing their gender balance and wider inclusion strategies. She’s also a regular speaker at industry events.