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Key considerations for maintaining culture as you create your return-to-office plans

Key considerations for maintaining culture as you create your return-to-office plans

6 Minute Read

Developing and implementing a successful return-to-office strategy is one of the biggest challenges leaders will face. With the right approach, you can strengthen culture and create value.

Organizations throughout the country are at different stages of reopening their offices. Regardless of where you stand in your office return, there are important decisions to make and a range of areas to consider. Business leaders have had countless challenges over the last nearly two years and implementing the return-to-office plans is likely to being one of the most complex because of the number of variabilities and sensitivities.

A successful return to the office requires more than following the guidance of local health authorities. You need to create comprehensive plans employees view as fair and reasonable, and then communicate them effectively so your team understands why you’re making certain decisions.

To build your plan, we’ve identified top considerations to think through as you and your team imagine the next chapter for your workplace.

Respect the differences in job responsibilities

The current discourse focuses so much on returning to work, but some employees never stopped going to the workplace. The language you use matters and organizations are increasingly focused on improving their inclusion efforts. Consider describing your plans in a way that reflects the realities of your workforce. We’ve been intentional in our description, referring to these efforts as return-to-office.

Establish a work model for your team

Throughout the world, organizations are evaluating how and where they get work done. The pandemic expedited the shift to remote work and increased the uptake of digital tools. Some organizations have embraced remote work completely, allowing their team members to work anywhere and hiring from around the globe. Others are eyeing a return to pre-pandemic workplace cultures, with people working from the office five days a week.

Organizations that dictate what the work environment looks like over the short-term to employees are risking significant pushback. Developing a work model is a complex task, with many factors to consider, especially if your organization has a significant number of employees and departments. Someone living on their own may want to return to the office because they miss the social interaction. But a parent with three kids in elementary school might not have the same desire because they’re concerned that school could move online again.

Uncovering these motivations and needs requires thoughtful engagement and conversation. Without showing compassion for what your employees need, you risk alienating them and losing key talent.

Maintain and strengthen your culture

The shift in work models is more than just an operational challenge. It’s a cultural one, too.

Leaders will feel the need address the culture with a hands-on approach throughout this period of transition. Patience is key to success in the long term. While you may be thinking long-term, employees are more focused on the upcoming months. They want to feel safe and feel that their decisions about where to work aren’t negatively impacting their standing in the workplace.

To accomplish this, start by taking regular pulse surveys of your team members. Ask what makes them feel safe at the workplace and how connected they feel to their team members. At the beginning, you’ll be able to identify your biggest gaps. For example, you may have created safety measures, but the survey shows that people don’t feel safe, or that they are not aware of what you’ve implemented.

Over time, you will be able to recognize the shifts in attitude and impacts of any actions you’re taking. You can also use the survey data to inform your long-term culture strategy and take meaningful steps towards emerging from the pandemic as a stronger culture than before.

You also need to create alignment among the leaders of your organization. Your culture can be threatened if people feel that one group is being prioritized over another. If you are taking a hybrid approach, managers need to be aware of proximity bias – the unconscious tendency to give preferential treatment to those in our immediate vicinity. If your employees feel like they’re missing out on opportunities because they’ve chosen to work from home, your culture will take a hit.

Leaders also need to be aligned on they are evaluating employees that work remotely. Some organizations are asking how they know their employees are working when they can’t see the people in the office. The answer: when that employee meets their deadlines and completes the tasks assigned to them. It’s a difficult but necessary mind shift for some leaders, and it won’t happen overnight. You need to work with leaders to help them understand performance measurement and push your organization to take a fresh approach to evaluation.

Prepare for resignations amid the vaccine passport rollout

Some organizations are mandating full vaccination in order to return to work, creating another trigger for employees to re-evaluate their career choices. There is a strong probability that some of your existing team will not want to return to even a hybrid arrangement, under such conditions. Leaders should start planning now for this scenario, by identifying areas of greatest risk, priorities for filling vacancies, and sources of short-term help to fill voids. Such a scenario could also mean re-examining processes and the use of technology, to make up for what is likely to be a longer-term trend of talent shortage.

The bottom line: every organization has a unique road back

A strong return-to-office plan cannot only preserve culture – it can enhance it. But building the right plan requires a unique approach that reflects the realities of your workplace. There is no template that businesses can wholly implement here. Your leadership team needs to be thoughtful and intentional as you take on one of the biggest workplace challenges in a decade.


To learn more about building culture as you return to the office, contact:

Kevin Joy, MBA
Partner, Consulting
[email protected] 

To ensure your organization's return to office plan adequately addresses the safety of your employees and has the necessary contingency plans in place, contact Cliff Trollope, National Leader, Business Resilience Services at 416.515.3851 or [email protected] 


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