Feeling Lonely in Your Empty Office? Give People Better Reasons to Come Back!

 The debate over Return to Office, Hybrid, and Remote work still rages, with executives continuing to shift their positions. One of my clients recently shared her discomfort about being in the office when the majority of her team wasn’t. She expressed views that I believe many executives hold but may not say aloud, so I’ll paraphrase here: “The office feels less productive when it’s only half full. It can be lonely and much less stimulating without your team around you. It’s not as much fun to come to work and harder to tell what people are doing.”

These observations are true for many people in the privileged knowledge segment of the workforce. Workers who aren’t in manufacturing or direct service delivery can conduct their tasks virtually anyplace if they have the right hardware, software, and internet connection. And there are certainly incongruities and dissonances that have come from the lack of a consistent schedule and the confusing shifts we’ve made away from having standard meetings or just sitting alone in the office, heads-down, doing emails.

Using the Power of Flexibility

But it’s getting increasingly important to deal with those incongruities because large segments of the working population never intend to return to offices again and are willing to change jobs to get ones that permit more freedom. So if you want to hold onto—and continue to attract—staff, you need to find the greatest flexibility possible in the way you schedule and work with team members.

Here are some suggestions to inform your thinking and experiments you could try in your own shop.

Avoid a one-size-fits-all policy. Take the time to figure out the best possible schedules at the departmental or manager level rather than trying to enforce the number of days people need to be physically present in the office. Accommodations made at the manager level are more likely to take into account the realities of employees’ individual situations and the needs of the department’s upstream and downstream colleagues. Organizations and employees are getting more accustomed to the idea that not everyone has to be on the same lockstep schedule throughout the entire organization and across disparate jobs.

Reconsider all of your team’s important meetings and get-togethers. Instead of planning and announcing your handful of required days in the office, try to group meetings so that whenever people do come in, they can see that their time is dedicated to worthwhile activities: training classes, customer visits, team brainstorming sessions—things that usually feel more valuable in person. For example, if there are company or division-wide meetings held on Tuesday mornings, encourage department heads to hold their one-on-ones and check-ins on Tuesday afternoons so that “together time” isn’t wasted. People really hate it if they’re expected to come in just to sit around doing tasks that are as easy or even easier to do from home.

Grant leeway for commuting and the exigencies of daily life. It is a hardship for people who were able to redeploy their commuting time and money during the pandemic into exercise, meal-prepping, taking kids to school, or walking the dog to suddenly have to drop all kinds of wellbeing and sit in traffic again. So encourage people to avoid rush hour and to schedule their medical appointments during the time they might otherwise have been commuting. Let them come into work a little later with peace of mind, knowing they’ve had the opportunity to take care of some of their own needs or their home team’s needs.

Make in-office time feel more exciting or productive than working from home—that is, more exciting or productive to the individual, not the leader. This means that collaboration is happening—or mentoring, innovating, testing, or learning, and all the kinds of things that feel good, and that people wouldn’t want to miss anyway. This is part of making sure it feels worth it to come in. Similarly, if you were providing meals throughout the pandemic, you may be able to narrow the choices now or reduce the percentage of cost that the organization defrays on behalf of the individual, but don’t cut out all the services or perks that team members came to rely on.

Figure out how to evaluate and measure people you don’t see very often. It used to be easy for leaders and managers to know who was working heads-down, who came in with good questions, and who really didn’t understand what they were supposed to be doing. Start developing new tools for identifying and assessing how well work is getting done if you can’t observe it directly. Checklists may help, as well as project or task agreements about scope and completion. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this evaluative shift is figuring out what outcomes, outputs, or deliverables you need to see to confirm that individual and team goals are being met. You may want to come up with different ways of managing check-ins to learn what people are working on and what’s in their way. As a leader, your commitment to supporting them in accomplishing their outcomes is an important way to stay deeply engaged.

Onward and upward—

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