We are often asked about return to the office (RTO) and were curious, so we reached out and listened to a number of clients and colleagues. Below we have captured principles and opportunities that make RTO compelling, build positive employee engagement, creativity, collaboration, and productivity. We discovered that companies with the curiosity and courage to try something different have seen tangible results.
PRINCIPLES OF SUCCESSFUL RTO
Focus on understanding organizational ‘edges’ when to tackle visible and invisible barriers. Instead of just meeting the basic requirements, look at the nuances, the unique situations and needs, and cater to those. An example to consider is the invisible load of childcare. The office return doesn't just disrupt tasks, it disrupts lives – especially for new parents. Genuine commitment to inclusivity ensures that even the most marginalized are felt, seen and valued.
Offering functional, collaborative spaces that recognise the needs for employees and how they work (individually, in small groups and larger teams). In Beiersdorf, they assigned ‘home’ zones for each team/department so they had a familiar place as well as including flexibility of where to work across the campus. Use these ‘Home’ zones to encourage rituals.
Consider a grassroots approach
Instead of imposing a top-down decision, start by acknowledging the role and power of teams or 'Tribes' in the organization. Recognize that employees live being as part of multiple tribes with shared values and visions. Empower these tribes to have a say in their return-to-office strategy thus fostering a sense of ownership, and nurturing future leaders who could guide their colleagues through the transition. By being flexible and listening to teams' concerns, companies can stand out in a sea of others trying to navigate the new normal.
Create a narrative or Story
From research and discussions with many multinational companies, it is clear a narrative, or story, is critical to engage and re-engage employees. For many tenured employees their remote work practices are so embedded there is no return to the office, it's about starting to work in the office. Airbnb crafted a narrative of resilience, adaptability, and inclusivity. This narrative resonated with both internal and external audiences, reinforcing the brand's position as a forward-thinking, employee-centric organization.
3Ms “Work Your Way” approach is principle-based and focuses on celebrating and creating and dealing with complexity and crisis. These simple principles help build common expectations by placing priority on physical presence to celebrate people, harness collective creativity, deal with intense complexity, and tackle crisis. The value and appreciation for this approach are reflected in employee feedback, especially from new hires, women, and under-represented groups.
Acknowledge that it’s a Journey
Start by meeting your employees where they are. Understand their mindsets and key behaviours using assessments and interviews. Being purpose driven enables you to build a bridge with employees that creates trust and leads them from where they are to where you need them to be.
In essence, the return-to-office strategy and its focus on inclusivity are not just policy decisions. They are a manifestation of a deeper understanding of organizational culture, storytelling, and the power of connection. Taking a page out of Seth Godin's The Song of Significance, there is profound impact of empathy, empowerment, genuine engagement and trust for teams to do their best work, no matter where they are.
Tackle the visible and invisible reality
The neuroscience of collaboration is the subject of a recent Fast Company article (Aug-2023) where Dr. David Rock wrote about return-to-office through the lens of his cognitive neuroscience model. Known as SCARF, the model describes the cognitive drivers of social threat and reward as Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Leaders experience multiple rewards around people they manage because leaders feel autonomous and important, from being able to turn to people at any moment and allocate tasks, to being able to see employees doing their jobs. The story for employees is quite different. Being forced back to the office triggers threat responses and, since negative signals are far stronger than positive ones, these are important to consider.
Start with a prototype and iterate
We didn’t forecast Covid and its impact on social structures and work systems. Whatever you create will be a semi-permanent or temporary strategy. GE Healthcare started with a policy of ‘work where you work best’ which evolved to ‘being 3 days in the office’ and has been developing compelling learning and collaboration spaces to make the office a compelling draw. Also, remember that different teams have different needs, so while it is important to be consistent with principles, it is critical to be flexible in application.
Build New Behaviours
The office isn't just a building, as Shell and GE HealthCare discovered. It's a habit, a rhythm, a certain kind of normal. Shifting back is more than a logistical change—it's an emotional, cultural, and psychological shift. Expect friction. Expect hesitation. But also expect opportunity for the new ‘new normal’ and new communities to grow. How can the workplace be a place where people want to be, where activities are happening that cannot happen at home, what is unique to the office environment or location, and how can early adopters be embraced into the approach? Design teams at P&G and GE Healthcare use simple cultural activators like placing jigsaw puzzles on communal tables to draw people together. These are very simple but can become ‘magnets’ for people.
Change the Geometry
This is the notion of “changing the geometry”, which is being very intentional about productivity and creativity in organizations as LEGO learned 1) the need for people to work individually, in small groups, and as a whole team and 2) the most important work to be done when people are in each of those 3 scenarios. Changing the geometry allows team members to shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’ and back again to serve the needs of employees and the work. The result is increased individual and collective creativity and productivity.
To learn more about how Hello Creativity! insights and approach may help to activate your team contact us at email@example.com.
Appendix – References
- The 'patchwork principle' may make both managers and employees happy in the RTO debate (Fast Company)
- Beiersdorf - Dynamic working
- Kursty Groves – The Office Chronicles LEGO
- The Song of Significance (Seth Godin)
- ‘Never again’: is Britain finally ready to return to the office? | Working from home | The Guardian
- Don’t Let Returning to the Office Burn Out Your Team (HBR)