After what’s been one of the most challenging years in recent history, I do believe that things are starting to look up. By this summer, vaccination programs in many countries will have achieved meaningful penetration and organizations will, I hope, be in a position to start the return to office process in earnest. If the past year taught us anything it’s to expect the unexpected, but a summer return certainly seems to be the hope in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe. It’s an outcome for which I’m keeping my fingers firmly crossed for those associates who valued working from a corporate facility or those corporations who realized measurable benefit from the collocation of talent.

Business leaders know that this won’t simply be a matter of flipping a switch and filling up their offices, factories, warehouses or outlets once again. For many organizations, their business requirements have changed dramatically over the past year, and that will require a different physical footprint and interior design. For example, one business I’m currently working with is moving from running large offices in three cities to 14 smaller offices spread right across the U.S. This change reflects the company’s need to source talent more broadly to meet its post-pandemic market requirements.

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Many people are desperate to return to work, reconnect with colleagues and experience again the buzz of a busy workplace, but they will also expect some flexibility so they can better balance their home and work needs.

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Of course, the pandemic has also changed people, and many of us don’t want to go back fully to how things were before. One study I saw found that three quarters of workers say they want a mix of office and remote working as the new normal, with a 50/50 split seen as the perfect balance.

I believe the wish to work flexibly will be felt particularly keenly during the summer, as families will once again have to navigate work and childcare duties, due to the school summer holidays.

Let’s also not forget that many people will have gone without a vacation or holiday for a year and a half by this summer – some will just want some time off before contemplating going back to their workplace.

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The four “Fs” of a successful return

Given the tough time associates have had during the pandemic, it’s vital that leaders get the return to work right, with a strategy that focuses on meeting the needs of their people while also driving the best outcomes for the business. I believe there are four key pillars to getting this strategy right – I’ve called them the Four “Fs”:

  1. Flexible. One-size-fits-all policies around the return to work will not cut the mustard. Individuals have different requirements and these need to be taken into consideration – some will be keen to get back to the corporate office complex 100% of the time, while others will need more flexibility and support. It’s therefore important to make the return to work a team-led process where decision-making is left in the hands of workers and their immediate colleagues. Teams should be free to decide they need to get together as a group. It’s also important that there’s not stigma attached to working from home, and that associates feel empowered to make the decisions that work best for them.
  2. Fast. Working from home all this time, we’ve got used to a “commute” of a few steps from, at most, one room to another. That will change expectations, and people will want the return to work to be a frictionless and fast experience. This will be a challenge in workplaces where the space has been redesigned around social distancing, and leaders need to think about how their people will be inducted into the new environment. One approach could be to set up a “check-in” service to quickly direct people to their new workstation, answer any questions they may have and support them in getting their workstation up and running. Employers will need to carefully balance the need for safety (even after vaccination programs its likely some social distancing measures will be required to keep transmission in- check) with the need for effective collaboration. It’s advisable to draw up a playbook covering things like how many people can attend meetings within conference room spaces and what measures they have to observe.
  3. Fulfilling. During the pandemic, leaders started to consider the whole person needs of their associates as home-life considerations were thrust front and center. This needs to continue with the return to work. As well as providing a space for collaboration, workplaces offer people opportunities to connect and socialize. Following the isolation of lockdowns many will be relishing this element of the workplace more than ever. Leaders should try and make work as fulfilling as possible by creating spaces in which social interaction can thrive – whether that’s through coffee mornings, lunch gatherings or other social events. Getting this right will influence how people think about their employer and will help turn the workplace into a space where people feel good about themselves and supported to do great things.
  4. Framework. Finally, there’s the fundamental importance of measurement. When you get to the summer of 2022, how will you know your return to work program was a success? When planning your strategy devise clear benchmarks around things like the speed-of-return, effectiveness of collaboration, employee-engagement/churn, etc., and schedule regular opportunities to measure progress. Remember Peter Drucker’s famous maxim: “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”.

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It’s vital that leaders get the return to work right, with a strategy that focuses on meeting the needs of their people while also driving the best outcomes for the business.

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This summer will mark the start of a new era of work, one which will most likely be characterized by a blend of remote and in-person working. My advice is that you think through your approach with care. People have been through a tough time, and will need support from their employers. Providing it isn’t just the right thing to do, it will also distinguish you out as a desirable employer and ultimately help you find and retain the talent you will need to bounce back from the crisis. The pandemic revealed just how important our associates are – let’s make sure we continue to be there for them in the important months ahead.

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Elizabeth Coulton

Managing Director – Talent & Organization, Human Potential

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