As more organizations ask their employees to return to the office, leaders find themselves in the middle of the greatest work experiment of all time and there is no proven playbook. Although we are still early in the transition, two things have already become clear – the effort and energy leaders must put into supporting the return to the office is significant, and there will be real challenges along the way.



Challenge 1 – Balancing organizational and employee needs

Over the last two years employees have re-evaluated their priorities. As organizations started their return to office planning, the misalignment between what employees craved and what senior leaders wanted and expected became evident:

  • Employees wanted more remote working days; organizations wanted more coordinated in-office days.
  • Employees wanted more flexibility to meet personal needs; organizations wanted to ensure equality.
  • Employees wanted the ability to work from anywhere; employers needed to pay attention to immigration and tax laws.

Front-line and mid-level leaders are stuck in the middle. They must somehow bridge the gap to retain top talent, maintain employee engagement, and meet organizational requirements.

To do this, they must first develop a deep understanding of what both their employees want and need, and the organizational policies. Next, they must overcome any biases they have about what they personally think is important and find solutions that meet the needs of both parties.  They will need to be open-minded, creative, and radically flexible.


Challenge 2 – Supporting employee well-being during the transition

We have all been through a collective trauma; regardless of how enthusiastic someone is or is not about returning to the office, everyone needs extra support. Leaders are dealing with a range of team members emotions, from fear or distress to delight and excitement.

For employees with more negative feelings, leaders must create a climate of psychological safety.  They must ensure that employees: (1) believe that their fears and concerns will be heard, (2) are confident they can get help if they need it, and (3) believe that they will be treated fairly, regardless of their concern.  Leaders must also familiarize themselves with the organizational support available to employees through employee assistance programs and other mental health and well-being services.

For employees who are more enthusiastic about the office, leaders must avoid proximity bias – i.e., favouring those who may be in the office more frequently. Leaders also need to watch for a shift in employee sentiment. Emerging data shows that even those who want to be in the office are struggling making the transition. The commute is more tiring than expected, meeting rooms are at a premium, and the technology in the office is often more difficult to use or inferior to what they have at home.

Leaders need to be prepared to coach and support people who start to become disillusioned. Failing to do so may result in employee disengagement and increased voluntary turnover.


Challenge 3 – Enabling hybrid skills development

Organizations have a great opportunity to ensure that the future workplace is better than the one of the past. While it can be easy and even tempting to fall back to past ways of working, we know employee expectations have changed; it is more critical than ever that the office provide value to people who make the commute. Investing in training to help leaders lead, and employees to work effectively in a hybrid model, is critical to a place people want to work.

Additionally, leaders need to be prepared to provide coaching to help employees develop skills such as leading hybrid meetings, creating a climate of inclusion and equity, and building strong and meaningful relationships with colleagues both virtually and face-to-face.


Accelerating the transition

This next phase of the new world of work provides tremendous opportunities. But it won’t be easy, and as with any transformational change, it won’t happen right away. It will take time for employers to transform the physical workplace into a space that enables collaboration, innovation, and employee belonging. It will also take time for employees to adjust. Leaders play a critical role in making this transition successful. By listening and being prepared to test new and different ways of working, they can contribute to creating a better future of work for everyone.



About the Author

Michelle Moore is the Senior Vice President, Client Solutions & Delivery at HORN. Michelle has over 25 years of global experience, working with organizations to use human capital to solve complex business challenges, and with individuals to maximize personal effectiveness and career success. She has expertise across a broad range of industries, and specialized knowledge regarding innovation and digital transformation.


About HORN
HORN is a learning and development company dedicated to creating learning that cannot be unlearned. We go deeper. We create lasting changes in behaviour, performance, and business results for salespeople, sale managers and leaders.