The Million Dollar Question: What Should Drive Your Return-to-Office Strategy?

May 12, 2021 | Julie Molnar


We’re here. We made it. We’re slowly emerging from the pandemic. With it comes a long-overdue renewed sense of hope and optimism… and a slew of new COVID-driven questions and challenges.

One of the hottest, and most pressing, topics among employers right now is the future of work. What does return-to-office look like and really mean? Fully remote? Full-time in the office? Hybrid? While business strategies are influencing those return plans for many company leaders, just as many are still trying to figure it all out. That’s OK.

No surprise, the same questions and uncertainties are also top-of-mind for employees. COVID placed a massive work-from-home experiment upon us. It drastically changed workers’ mindsets about what their workday can look like and where they can work.

Maintaining a healthy balance between work and homelife is now a priority, and most employees don’t want to lose that. Numerous surveys support that statement, showing the vast majority of workers want the flexibility to spend some of the workweek in the office and some of it working from home. 

Conversely, 83 percent of CEOs want to have employees return to the office. The McKinsey Global Institute recently looked at more than 2,000 activities in more than 800 occupations to determine which had the greatest potential to be done remotely. Some organizations’ activities are particularly reliant on being in person. They include things like creating a company culture, negotiations, client conversations, onboarding, coaching, feedback, knowledge sharing and problem-solving, especially within interdisciplinary teams.

One thing is certain: No matter how many future-of work webinars you attend or blog posts you read about this subject, no one has all of the answers. However, whether you’re an employer or employee, as complicated as it may be right now, there is an upside to the challenges office re-entry plans hold.

The pandemic has spotlighted one critically important people-related competency: empathy. Empathy allows you to create meaningful and genuine connections. It’s caring enough to truly understand another’s perspective, and situation, even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves. Employers and employees alike have had to flex their empathy muscles during COVID in more ways than we could have previously imagined.

Before you roll your eyes and chalk this blog up to another soft-skill peddle, hear me out. A return-to-office strategy certainly isn’t a simple task solely based on empathy; I’m not suggesting that. But, as companies make return-to-office plans, tuning in to each other, rather than tuning out, can serve as a helpful grounding framework for both the employer and employee.

Tuning in with empathy is at the very heart of the “human” experience we create for employees at all levels of an organization. Here’s how you can use it to guide those critical conversations and decisions:  

Stop and truly listen. Understanding the reasons for another’s actions and what’s driving those behaviors is the foundation of empathy. That can’t be done when you assume you know how the other person feels or you believe they should think like you do. Instead of spending time planning your response during a conversation, which many of us do, truly focus on listening to understand.    

Avoid the kindness versus empathy trap. To put a further fine point on it, kindness is steeped in acts of goodwill and positive words. Important actions to take, no doubt. Empathy, again, is about active listening and truly being able to relate to another individual. A large part of that listening is observing and connecting with people by reading their moods and non-verbal cues in addition to what they say.

Strike a balance between empathy and effectiveness. COVID has aroused the continued need for, and value of, workplace empathy. Respecting and relating well to people of diverse backgrounds is extremely important, but it also needs to be balanced with your organization’s needs. Empathy shouldn’t hinder moving your organization forward and achieving strategic business outcomes.

Build organizational empathy. Empathy is just one part of a larger Emotional Intelligence skillset that highly successful leaders possess. Your leaders will set the organizational tone during your return-to-office and beyond. Empathy will play a big role in this. The good news is, empathy can be learned. If your employees’ empathy quotient is lacking, it can be strengthened with an intentional focus on teaching and practicing the skill.        

Topics: Culture Leadership & Culture Corporate Culture

About the Author
Julie Molnar

Julie Molnar is the Managing Director of Culture and Talent Marketing at Falls. A marketing communication thought leader and organizational development specialist, Julie’s combined expertise in both fields uniquely positions her to address all aspects of an organization’s communications needs and the needs of its people. She has helped companies of all sizes transform people, performance and processes.

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