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Stop calling it “return to work.”


Tips that you can use as your team — and your organization — attempts to plan out what’s next.
LAST UPDATED: November 14, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Leaders should reframe the discussion surrounding “return to work” as the “evolving work experience” to imply ongoing change.
  • Tips to create equity in this evolving work experience include acknowledging concerns, changing language, and engaging staff through one-on-one discussions.
  • Providing transparency and being human are also important, making sure people feel safe, included, and informed.
  • The lack of a “return to work” moment gives leaders an opportunity to transform staff concerns into an entirely new way of thinking about the work experience.

Listen: Stop calling it “return to work.”

I've facilitated over 100 roundtable discussions with senior design leaders from high-profile brands–many of which occurred during the pandemic that forced their teams to work remotely. As you can imagine, our topics have been variations on the “virtual world of work” theme. So it's no surprise that as the world begins to open back up, leaders everywhere are trying to figure out what “return to work” will look like.

There are hundreds of articles on the topic, from very tactical ones that provide checklists for physical space considerations to endless survey results that generally end with “Hey, people want to work when, where, and how they want.” But a fascinating take on this topic came up in a recent Seattle InsideOut roundtable, which started out trying to answer the question, “What can leaders do now to make return to work great?”

Instead of generating a list of things to do, these leaders questioned the entire premise and walked away with thought-provoking ideas that I cannot wait to share! Following are tips that you can use as your team—and your organization—attempts to plan out what's next.

Acknowledge the situation

It's REAL that people are concerned by all the uncertainty around what's happening next and that they have gone through a lot over the past year. So acting like this next phase is simple, easy, and a welcome change for everyone will no doubt alienate a portion of your team and make you seem out of touch.

Acknowledging their feelings goes a long way toward showing that you care and understand their fears. It also gives you a chance to engage them in the discussion by pointing out that everyone can play a part in moving forward from here and figuring out what's next. Once you're sure they've felt heard and valued, open the conversation: What IS “Return to Work”?

Change the language

Everyone's referring to “return to work” as though it's a singular, concerted event that will simply happen. The reality is that it's not a moment in time, nor is it likely that there's one physical place to which all a company's employees will return full-time. So stop calling it “return to work.”

It's up to leaders to help reframe the way people think about the next phase, and by using language that doesn't fit, you reinforce their trepidation about a future moment in time that seems blurry and out of their control. Leaders in our Seattle group suggested “The Evolving Work Experience” as a clearer way to describe what's happening next (and beyond) since it implies that future change is inevitable. And it is.

Create equity

As the work experience evolves, some staff will remain remote, some will become hybrid on-/off-site workers, and some will go into an office space on a regular basis. In fact, some staff were never remote. With most humans yearning for the benefits of physical proximity to others, it's almost impossible to manage everyone's expectations and create a fair playing field. But it's important.

Start those discussions now with your team and talk through what they believe will best keep them feeling connected, with equal opportunity to grow. It's up to leaders to provide an inclusive, balanced work experience and ensure that location doesn't hinder careers or show preference to those who gather together in person. As an idea for your physical space planning, one InsideOut leader suggests removing conference rooms (or not using them for group gatherings that include remote workers) as a way to level the playing field for on-/off-site employees.

Engage staff

Before you book that first chat about reimagining the work experience, be sure you're ready to meet people where they are, using empathy and vulnerability to speak to their unique situations. One-on-one discussions are the best way to open that door, listen to their concerns, and share your own.

Once you've made a real connection, encourage them to participate in building the next work experience and beyond, which can start today. Be clear that there's no one-size-fits-all solution but that with their help, you can better represent their interests. Remind them why their job exists (to help customers, solve problems, etc.) to reassure them of their place in the changing organization and help them move past their fear to become successful, valued contributors during change.

Provide transparency

To fully engage employees, they need to feel safe, included, and in the know. In the new VUCA world we live in (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), a good way to do this is to model the behavior. Get ok with saying “I don't know,” and position what you do know as a moving target, “Here's what I know today, and when I know more, I will share.”

Lack of transparency erodes trust (check out this great HBR article on trust) and allows misinformation to circulate unchecked. As one leader noted in our roundtable: information is power. Don't hoard it. And there had better be a really good reason not to share information with your team, or you will lose their trust entirely.

Be human

Pay attention to how people are behaving and make time to check in, connect, and address the humanity of the situation. Leaders can model vulnerability by sharing their own experience and concerns about the evolving nature of the work situation. One leader suggested revisiting Psychology 101 (including Maslow's hierarchy of needs) to make sure that before you jump to “growth mode” (top of the hierarchy), you know that the rest of their needs are met.

Also, it's easy to forget people or simply assume they're OK when you're not seeing them regularly, so don't be afraid to over-communicate and check in frequently. Worst of all, don't be tone deaf as a leader. People are paying attention, and as the job market continues to improve, they will be less concerned about your return to work plan and more focused on finding another place to work.

The bottom line: There will be no “return to work” moment where what work looks like is final, so stop calling it that. On the bright side, that's great news for everyone out there feeling the pressure to get it right. Leaders have an opportunity to transform the concerns of their staff into an entirely new way of thinking about the work experience—one that engages them in being an active participant in crafting the experience itself, indefinitely.

I love my job. Getting to meet such incredible leaders and provide space for them to explore, learn, and connect is a complete joy. If you're a senior design, experience, or operations leader of an in-house team and want to connect to others who share your unique challenges, let's talk. Our InsideOut community hosts virtual roundtables to support the learning, growth, and sanity of our members, and I'm honored to get to facilitate those discussions.