Being asked to get your team back into the office can put managers in a tricky position. Here are three ways to help you navigate the return to (hybrid) work.
Companies are starting to ask people to come back into the office, and it is often a struggle for frontline managers to square this with teams that have fully embraced remote work.
If they want to successfully get folks back to the office, senior leaders will need to think about the unexamined circumstances, such as office environments and work habits, that developed during the pandemic era and how they are contributing to the challenge of mass office returns. This particularly applies to engineering leaders managing teams who can’t imagine giving up the focus they have found by coding from home.
If you are a senior engineering manager and your company has decided that it wants people back in the office, you know you have your work cut out for you. Few people are excited about giving this message and dealing with the fallout from it. While there are many aspects of returning to the office that are out of your control, here are some areas that you can focus on.
If you work in a large company with many locations, chances are you didn’t think too much about where you hired people during the pandemic. You may have hired them into a location that has a local office that they could theoretically go to, but you probably didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether the other people on their team were also in that office.
There was fierce competition for talent during this period of time and leaders often made exceptions on location to hire great people. These exceptions created a form of organizational debt that is now coming due.
Returning to the office can be a vicious or virtuous cycle. When someone is forced to return to an office where they have no close colleagues or collaborators, they may feel like they are doing remote work from the office. That can lead to feelings of resentment and a sense that the office return policy is just a power play by leadership.
If you have not examined your location strategy, now is the time to do it. This may be somewhat disruptive, but the goal should be for people to be in offices with people they are going to collaborate with. When workers return to offices where they are surrounded by close colleagues they will quickly remember the value of in-person interactions and are less likely to resent the imposition of returning.
For those hired into permanently remote roles, you may want to make sure that the role parameters make sense given the return to the office. Work with those employees to make adjustments that will mean they are still able to contribute to their full abilities, despite many of their colleagues going back to in-person interactions.
2. Address the productivity narrative
“I’m more productive at home” is a frequent refrain from those who do not wish to return to the office. Companies spent a lot of time during the pandemic praising people for staying productive. They would show off metrics that demonstrated that they were, despite working remotely, still getting plenty of work done. Now that they are asking for a return to the office, some employees are wondering why anything should change, given the record of remote productivity.
It’s important to address the productivity narrative head-on and honestly. You may get more coding done at home, but coding is not the only thing that a company wants from a developer. If you max out coding productivity and sacrifice communication effectiveness, you can end up working very productively on things that don’t matter.
The company may value the culture that comes from in-person interactions enough that it is willing to sacrifice some forms of productivity to recapture that value. Remind people that casual in-person interactions are part of the job too and it’s not just about optimizing for any one facet of productivity.
3. Be realistic about where your company and your team can be flexible
Don’t torture yourself, your team, and your employees with vague work arrangements outside of the company’s stated standards.
While some of you may decide to advocate for different policies and push back against the choices that your company has made, for those not in that camp, now is the time to get with the program and get your team set up for success.
For your employees who are unwilling to come into the office at all and who do not have a case for HR accommodations, do the work to convert them to a remote job or give them a timeline for resolving the issue themselves, either by finding a new job internally, or leaving for an external opportunity.
Lastly, you can always just ignore the issue, but if your company is serious about the return, you may end up hurting yourself and your team by trying to wait out the situation.
You will notice that I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about how to “make the return to office fun.” Having fun together is one of the benefits of in-person interactions, but now is not the time to cajole people to come back. At this point, the manager’s focus is to reestablish day-to-day working habits, reset expectations, and adjust rituals as needed to maximize the value of having people back in person.
To create a virtuous cycle that shows the benefits of returning, make sure you have thought through colocating your teams and aren’t overfocused on coding productivity.
Be honest with everyone about what your company expects from them so they can choose whether this working situation is the right fit. And remember that the goal is to get your team members in the office to do in-person work, not just work remotely from the office.