Take back control with a return-to-office plan

Why employers should formulate and communicate a defined reopening plan based on core values and employee feedback.

By Kacey Larsen      
Take back control with a return-to-office plan

Amid reports that the spread of the Omicron variant is slowing across the U.S., some large employers have started announcing return-to-office plans. American Express Co. announced a flexible working plan, called AmEx Flex, that includes employees working in the New York offices at least once a week, beginning March 15. Bank of New York Mellon Corp. is similarly asking its employees to return starting March 7 “in regions where conditions allow, subject to local requirements,” it said in a memo to its employees. Both organizations are requiring staff returning to office to be fully vaccinated, which for AmEx employees includes booster shots.   

These return-to-office announcements are happening even as NBC News reports that jobs specified as “remote” receive 300% more applicants than jobs that are not. And questions linger about whether employers should have a vaccination policy in place, knowing it’s a divisive issue.

So what can you do to help navigate the ups and downs of a return-to-office plan amid all the pandemic uncertainty and employees’ desires for flexible work arrangements?

Harvard Business Review says, “There’s a surprisingly straightforward way to calm (at least partially) the frazzled nerves wrought by COVID and its many variants. The key is to give employees a sense of control—the feeling that there is order and predictability even in the face of constantly fluctuating plans. To provide that sense of control, leaders need a return-to-office plan that contains clear-cut contingencies and is clearly communicated.”

Control through contingencies

Research shows that people feel more content and have a higher tolerance for discomfort when they sense they can predict or control outcomes. For our purposes, that means having a clearly spelled out re-opening plan that details contingencies and helps people feel they aren’t in the dark. And frequent communication about the plan adds layers of certainty and predictability, such as a decision tree.  

“Decision trees are invaluable in helping people clearly identify decision points and their alternative paths,” says Adam D. Galinsky, chair of the Management Division, Columbia Business School. “The simplest version in the context of COVID is a decision tree that specifies the parameters that would shift a company from in-person to remove and vice versa. This decision tree could include specific markers for local transmission rates that trigger remote work or a return to office while also detailing how and when new Centers for Disease Control guidelines will be implemented.”   

Galinsky shares the Values-Perspective-Execution (VPE) model of decision making he created as a method for employers to regain control.

  • Values

“Any re-opening plan must begin with core values,” Galinsky says. “When leaders clearly identify and articulate their own and their company’s values, their strategic plans become not only straightforward and efficient to create, but also easier for people to process and accept.”

He adds the importance of openly recognizing the tension that can exist between competing values, such as the safety and focus offered with remote work against the evidence that collaboration and mentorship suffer remotely. A leader then needs to highlight the return-to-office being crucial for innovation and support while empathetically reiterating employee safety and well-being as top priority.

  • Perspectives

During the pandemic, the CEOs rated the highest by employees, according to Glassdoor, all incorporated employee perspectives within pandemic work plans. Galinsky explains that the perspective of all relevant stakeholders builds support for a return-to-office plan and opens the door for new ideas and solutions.

  • Execution

Communication is a key piece of execution, requiring leaders to articulate both the values and perspectives behind the reopening plan. And that communication must be continuous and across several platforms, Galinsky adds, plus be in channels that can receive employee feedback.

Be mindful—and communicative—of the need for updates

Even the best laid plans may need updates, so have a contingency for making updates or alterations. “The contingency plan needs its own contingency: a mechanism for leaders to become aware of and incorporate unforeseen circumstances, unintended consequences, and unexpected reactions,” Galinsky says. “No system is perfect, and, like the Constitution of the United States, every protocol needs a process for updating and refining it.”

Apply the VPE model here, too, by communicating the changing circumstance, the failure of the original reopening plan to address the new factor, and how the updated protocol will manage it.

“Leaders who create office re-opening plans with well thought out contingencies while communicating frequent updates and check-ins will help inspire a sense of control that has so clearly been threatened by the constantly fluctuating state of the pandemic,” Galinsky says. “Even if leaders can’t get COVID under control, they can, with the right actions, help offer their employees a greater sense of comfort knowing that a clear and well-considered plan is in place.”