The great return to work experiment: Finding a solution for your company

July 12, 2021

By: Chris White

For better or worse, people are returning to the workplace. There are no right answers about how to manage this process. There are, however, a lot of strong and mixed feelings personally and organizationally. In this article, I will share a research-based approach to help leaders develop a solution.

Let me start by acknowledging that remote work has been hard on many people. Those without supplemental care for kids or parents in the house, home office space (however improvised it may be) and adequate internet connectivity have really struggled. Juggling everything to work through the pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on some individuals and relationships. I believe we will only fully understand the impact with the benefit of hindsight in the years to come.

Of course, some workers never stopped going into work. For many of these people, the pandemic may have been even harder. For many essential workers, the months ahead are neither a return to work nor even a return to the workplace. Indeed, some are viewing this “return to work process” as a welcome (if gradual) reduction of the public health-related precautions that have been so challenging for them.

For many organizations, the decisions in spring 2020 were clear cut: Move all non-essential workers to remote work, and do it as quickly as possible. Mountains were moved to make it happen. Laptops were found, connectivity issues were addressed and schedules were realigned. I was inspired by the compassion that many leaders showed toward those juggling challenges in every area of their life at once. It didn’t happen overnight, but many were surprised by how quickly we figured out how to continue working and collaborating effectively remotely.

The organizational challenges of helping people now return to the workplace are very different from those we had in going remote. Some are returning fully. Others are staying fully remote. Many organizations are choosing to become hybrid workplaces, where people work some days in the office and other days at home. However, none of these options will happen successfully just by making the decision and willing it so.

The leadership, cultural and organizational challenges ahead are extraordinary. In many ways, the switch to remote working was an easier challenge to navigate than our imminent search for a new workplace normal. In my opinion, those who do not approach it with sustained skill and commitment will face a rocky road ahead.

This kind of challenge demands a deliberate approach to learning. My favorite such process is called “mindful engagement,” an area of research by Susan J. Ashford and D. Scott DeRue. In mindful engagement, we move repeatedly through a four-step cycle aimed at helping us learn more from experience and move toward continual improvement. Studies have suggested that those who take control of their own learning and development in this way learn more and achieve better outcomes over time. How then might leaders apply this process to the crucial return to workplace phase ahead?

1. Set learning goals.

The key word here is learning. What is it we aim to learn? In the case of returning to work, the learning goals may be personal or organizational. For example, you might ask these questions: What is the work-life structure or policy that works best for my well-being and productivity? What about my team’s well-being and productivity? What about the organization as a whole?

2. Run targeted experiments.

It is unlikely that leaders will land on an optimal new way of organizing the first time out. Most likely, it will emerge after a period of trial and error. Individuals, teams and organizations can move more swiftly through this experimentation period and toward the learning goals by being deliberate in the design of experiments. Ask yourself: What are we testing? How long shall we test it for? How will we evaluate these experiments against our learning goals?

3. Seek and reflect upon feedback.

Without a deliberate feedback mechanism, you will not be able to know with any reasonable degree of confidence or accuracy what your next steps should be. Without feedback, you are taking a scattershot approach toward your goals. Instead, ask yourself: Are there objective ways to measure success for the experiment? Whose subjective input is important to gather? How shall we review the feedback and make sense of it in order to decide what to keep and what to adjust?

4. Adjust and repeat.

Based on the feedback, make a course correction by creating a new time-bound and measurable experiment for yourself, your team or the organization. You can communicate the outcome of the previous experiment and then repeat this process for a period until you have learned your way to a new normal.

A word of caution though: It can be hard for individuals and groups to remain in limbo for extended periods of time. Offering a stated goal for when you will settle on the new normal after a period of experimentation will help people lean into the learning journey ahead of them.

Our collective relocation to the workplace following the dislocation of the pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop new ways of working that are better for people, teams and organizations. The solutions must be nuanced, not one-size-fits-all. We are solving for complex human, technical and organizational issues. Let’s learn our way into it.

The original article was published in Forbes. Copyright © 2021 by Chris White.