Co-Founder of Gig Talent, a modern talent collective connecting organizations with first class HR consultants and coaches.

As organizations start to rethink their return-to-the-office plans and whether a hybrid workforce is right for them, the conversation of culture is front and center. Allowing employees to continue working remotely or creating a schedule to work in the office is deeper than a policy discussion; it’s a philosophical discussion centered around culture.

There isn’t a universal right or wrong answer as to whether employees should remain remote or be in the office. However, there is a right or wrong answer based on your organization’s values, beliefs and ways of working. Below are some questions to consider, from a culture perspective, as you start thinking about your organization’s future.

1. When not in the office, do we trust our employees to complete their work?

Think back over the past 12 months. Have your employees been completing their work while navigating a pandemic, home schooling, taking care of parents and the countless other situations that occurred? If the answer is yes, then why wouldn’t you trust your employees to complete their work without some of those other circumstances?

Perhaps even deeper is the question surrounding why you hired employees you don’t trust. If you hired for values fit and you trust the employee to complete their work while in the office, you should trust them to complete their work remotely. Hold employees accountable and manage their performance. This will remind employees that they are valuable and the work they do matters.

However, if you find yourself answering the initial question with a no, then I would suggest taking a deeper look into the various elements of your culture and leadership that might be leading to that level of distrust.

2. How ready are employees to return to the office?

I’m not saying what employees want, employees get. But to maintain a strong culture, it’s important to ask employees their preferences. The last thing organizations need is unhappy, unproductive employees in the office. For some employees, being in the office, even for a few days, is preferred. They may be able to focus better, or they may want to be around other people, especially if they experienced feelings of isolation. Additionally, other concerns could be uncovered when speaking to employees.

Health and safety are among the top concerns for employees returning to the office. Before putting a plan in place, asking employees how they are feeling is going to be important. If employees are nervous about returning to the office, how will you help alleviate those fears so they can be productive?

One item to consider here is a phased approach, taking into account employee concerns around their health and safety while slowly starting to bring some employees back to the office. Another consideration is training — how will all employees returning to the office be trained on health and safety protocols to keep one another from getting sick? From a culture perspective, it will be important to listen and respond to how employees are feeling. This can help with engagement and retention as well.

3. How do we fairly and equitably determine who can work remotely and who needs to be in the office?

There are inevitably certain positions that cannot be done remotely, such as manufacturing jobs, lab work, etc. However, to maintain a strong culture, organizations should review each position to determine the need to be in the office. Something important to remember is that you are assessing the position, not the individual in the position. If the person in the position is not performing, that’s a separate discussion related to the individual and their performance and is not relevant to whether the role can be done remotely.

If it is determined that, for business purposes, a role cannot be done remotely 100% of the time, the next step is to determine what percentage can be completed remotely and what percentage needs to be in the office. From here, you can decide how many days per week a position should be performed in the office (e.g., two days per week? Three days per week?). If you consider the person versus the role, then it is easy to open yourself up to unfairness or discrimination allegations, neither of which helps the organizational culture or the productivity of employees.

4. How do we set our leaders up for success?

Once a decision has been made about which positions can remain virtual, which are hybrid and which need to be in the office full-time, organizations need to set their leaders up for success.

For example, will managers (regardless of role) be required to go into the office one or two days per week, especially if they have employees who are required to be in the office? How will managers assess their teams for new opportunities or promotions if some employees are working remotely? Will all team meetings continue to be done virtually to allow all employees the ability to be heard equally?

Ensuring leaders have the right tools, resources and direction to lead in a hybrid working environment will be instrumental in continuing to maintain a strong culture. While there will inevitably be a learning curve as leaders acclimate, it is essential they feel supported.

One of the fastest ways for employees to lose trust in their organization is for decisions to be made unfairly. The decision of whether to return to the office or who should return to the office is one of the most important decisions organizations are currently facing. It isn’t just a question of local and state guidelines and regulations; it’s a question of values and making decisions in alignment with those values. It’s a culture conversation, and now is the time to take a step back and look at what your actions and behaviors are saying about your organizational culture.


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