Is conflating the return to offices with hybrid working creating confusion and angst in our workforce?

Originally published in the Globe & Mail September 27th, 2021

As more and more companies firm up vaccination policies and children return to school, so too are many employees returning to offices. In what capacity colleagues are returning varies significantly based on two factors. The first is return-to-office (RTO) policies – the requirements to be granted entry, which can include vaccination, testing, attestations and masking. The second is the degree to which companies are implementing hybrid working models that include a blend of in-office and remote work. While these two factors are very much intertwined, we must not conflate them.

Even as we take into consideration some of the work practices we have tested over the course of the pandemic – particularly, the notion that work can be done productively from home – we must be cognizant that we are still living through a pandemic and there are factors at play that prevent putting an ideal hybrid model into effect.

It appears that many are struggling to imagine today’s return to office as distinct from a future hybrid model in which we are not as constrained by health and safety concerns. As a result, guidelines are being launched too soon, with arbitrary dates (some U.S. banks pushing back their highly-publicized September RTO dates to October, or later) and employee reactions are biased by pandemic-induced emotions (“How can I go to the office 60 per cent of the time if I don’t feel comfortable taking public transportation?”).

While many companies are planning to implement a hybrid model, we must take into consideration that certain guidelines, such as requiring that a predetermined amount of time or certain activities must be conducted in the office, may not be fully achievable until the real threat of the virus is behind us. So what do we do in the meantime?

Recognize variability in employee-comfort levels: Having an option to go into an office is a huge step forward on the freedom scale. And yet, many employees may not feel comfortable in doing so. Yes, new and evolving innovations like vaccines, rapid tests and space-reservation systems have enabled the implementation of more robust RTO policies. And good news from Pfizer/BioNTech this week gives parents some hope that our kids will also have the opportunity to be vaccinated soon – but we still need to respect that not everyone has the same comfort levels or reasons to return to the office. We need to be empathetic and mindful of inclusion, especially as we start to see a mix of in-office and remote working.

Have a plan, with room for exceptions: Given the variability in pandemic waves taking place across the globe, we are not yet able to adopt an ideal hybrid model for “normal” times – but will we ever be? Perhaps the key to success is allowing for the maximum amount of flexibility to optimize work by empowering people to work from where and when they are most productive, not just during normal times, but also during the current and any future “black swan” events.

This is achieved through some overarching “business as usual” guiding principles, allowing for exceptions based on individual, team, organization or global circumstances. For example, guiding principles for an ideal hybrid model in normal times can be launched now, with the caveat that we are still operating under an exception due to global circumstance. While timing as to when the exception will be lifted is still unknown, this distinction helps differentiate between the current pandemic situation and a “business as usual” hybrid model.

Be the tortoise, not the hare: Organizations that have been too quick to pull the trigger on mandating a full return to office have been faced with mismanaged expectations and a lot of internal friction. Creating arbitrary timelines and trying to control an outcome that cannot be controlled causes anxiety and erodes trust. We often think about the word “lead” as having to be the quickest, the first to come up with a definitive solution – but this is not always the case. In many ways leading during these times hasn’t been about being quick or having complete conviction, but more about constant communication, adapting to a situation and actually admitting that we don’t have a quick or perfect solution.

As RTO plans start to unfold, it is important to be ambitious and deliberate about your ideal working model – it will have implications on your culture and talent strategy. However, it is equally important to remind colleagues that we are not quite “there” yet, that we are still operating under exceptional circumstances. Constant communication is the key to building trust and mitigating disruption as we continue to navigate these uncertain times.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.