Workplace Podcast: Return to Office is not a Calendar Date

As the next round of return to office dates loom, I joined William Corless on his Workplace Podcast to discuss best practices and the right and wrong ways to think about hybrid and flexible work.

I particularly enjoy my conversations with William, an organizational development and mediation expert based in Dublin, Ireland (this is my second appearance on his podcast) for two reasons. First, not only is he delightful, but he’s deeply versed in all things related to change management and innovation. Second, the fact he’s based in Ireland and is asking the same questions and has clients facing the same challenges is a reminder that the flexible transformation of work is global.

Now is the moment to fundamentally reimagine the way we operate, to take the best of what we learned working more flexibly during the pandemic and combine it with practices that were more effective before.  In other words, take the best of then, the best of now, and reimagine the best of what’s next.

We have to meet in the middle where leadership and employees determine what we need to do and how, when and where we do it most effectively. Going forward that’s likely to be a new way of planning, coordinating and executing across workplaces, spaces and time. So, it will take commitment, intention and a willingness to experiment and be innovative. It’s not going to be a flip of a switch or a mythical date on the calendar.

That’s where I’m seeing the conflict. There have been many announcements about dates employees are expected back in the office. But most of those have been made with the assumption we’re going back to the way we worked before the pandemic.  That’s not going to happen. People have worked differently for two years. They’ve seen what’s possible.

Here’s what missing. Yes, many organizations have done the right thing, seeking employee feedback about their expectations. That’s great to have that baseline, but we can’t stop there. Yet, that’s what I’m seeing happen. Organizations must keep moving forward. It’s time to move into the reimagining process where everyone aligns – everyone agrees – how to move forward and start to experience operating in a new flexible, dynamic way. That requires structure, and by structure, that doesn’t mean a policy.

There needs to be consistency and fairness in determining the way work is done best, but that can’t be achieved with a one-size-fit-all policy-based approach. There are too many moving pieces and parts to individual jobs, functions and teams. Instead, the process has to drive the consistency. Setting the initial guardrails or parameters that provide a consistent, flexible operating framework that allows outcomes to vary depending on job and need.

What do we need to do? How can we make it happen? Who needs to make it happen? Where does it happen most effectively? What technology, tools and resources are needed? The answers are your initial guardrails. Then, give colleagues the freedom to work within that flexible work infrastructure to get the work done in a way that allows the business and people to thrive.

Return to the workplace isn’t just a date on the calendar with a mandate to come back and work a certain number of days onsite. Don’t stop there. It’s time to move to what’s next. And it’s not just about hybrid work or remote work, those are two aspects of work flexibility. Listen to the podcast for guidance on how to determine what’s best for your organization or team.

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