As companies move into a hybrid office the rules, written and unwritten, will be different. Leaving them unwritten creates risk; by addressing them as a team you create engagement and reduce employee frustration.
For years there had been a growing debate over whether working remotely could work. We had a definitive answer the past two years that it can. But while 100% remote can work, it’s not optimal for every company and so many are bringing people back to the office using a hybrid or semi-remote model.
The reality is things are different now. The rules, written and unwritten have changed. Unwritten rules were a problem for companies pre-pandemic but with people spending less time together the problem gets exacerbated. It’s important to be explicit with as many of these new and updated rules as possible.
Some changes may be formally defined such as a new work from home policy. Others may be informal, like shifting from “everyone’s at work at 9am sharp” to “try to be in by 10am.” Small may be small, but important, e.g., always including a video link in calendar meetings. Some changes may not have been explicitly planned but exist nonetheless, like more active use of private chat systems even when people are back in the office together.
What’s obvious to you . . . may not be to others.
Most of these changes may seem obvious. I like to remind people common sense isn’t common. Likewise, what’s obvious to you, from your vantage point, may not be to others. Given their role, or their department, they may not see what you see. When thinking through these changes, here are some things to consider
To start, list out these rules so that everyone is clear. Some might be in formal HR pronouncements; others may be less formal “team rules.” What matters is that they are explicit, and everyone is clear what they are. It’s time those unwritten rules get written. This is especially important for new team members who may not be in the office much and can’t easily learn the ropes by watching others.
If you’re a manager or in HR, don’t try to remember them all yourself. Ask your team about informal practices that have changed and will be different as you return to the office. This not only makes your job easier, but it helps you engage your employees who may be anxious about returning and begins an open dialog with them.
Sending a welcome email with the rules is helpful, but you can do better. We hold ceremonies at transitional periods in our lives: birthdays, graduation, marriage, housewarming. We hold similar events at work: goodbye parties, project completion, product launches. Coming back to the office and/or setting a new normal is significant. It happens less frequently than any of those other events so let’s recognize it for the significance that it holds. Hold a ceremony within a few days of the official return to office date.
This could be a formal all hands welcome back event led by the CEO, or maybe it’s done at the department level. It might include some companywide changes and a Q&A. It might be an in-office covid-safe celebration or going out to an official happy hour Hand out company branded hand sanitizers. Have a cake and a big “Welcome Back” banner. It can be as solemn and formal or as casual and fun, as you want (do what works for your company culture).
This is new for all of us. It’s ok if you don’t get it right on your first try. Create a system of feedback. HR may do a formal quarterly company survey. While that’s wonderful it may not address the specific, informal practices of your team. How are meetings going? Should we be relying more on email or chat instead of in person? When we hold your weekly team meeting and some are remote, but others are in the office, is it working for us? Here you want to look at not simply abstract “Are you happy?” questions but very specific, concrete activities and outcomes to see if it’s working.
It’s ok to say to your team, “We’re going to do a check-in in 30 days and another in 90 days because we know the process may need to change.” Rather than make you look uncertain or weak it shows that you care about your team and want their input to make things work for them.
No matter what your company does, returning to the office is a big step. HR will be focused on big picture items like safety protocols and employee happiness. For your team, your department, or your company, you need to focus on the practical ways you work and make sure they’re designed for how you’re going to work going forward. This is huge. By taking the steps above to address it and recognizing that it will need to be adjusted as you go, you can turn this transition into an opportunity for better productivity and better employee engagement.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.