Hybrid Work

6 tips for designing an effective office reopening plan

This article originally appeared on Inc.

Companies across the world are thinking about reopening their office doors and welcoming their employees back when it’s safe. Too many, though, are adopting a “wait and see” strategy—that is, they’re planning to unlock their doors and wait to see which—and how many—employees show up. Companies that adopt this approach are setting themselves up for irreparable damage. 

As a leader, you can’t afford to fly blind as you embark on this critical phase of reopening. Regardless of whether you’ve decided that you’ll be remote-first, office-centric, or somewhere in between, your approach should be thoughtful and strategic. 

Here’s how you should design a return-to-office plan that lays the foundation for effective hybrid work: 

Establish new rituals that empower hybrid work

Pre-pandemic, the workplace was teeming with rituals. Rituals help build unity and culture, and offer a critical protective layer against bad habits. Research by Stanford University professor and management guru Bob Sutton shows that rituals are most effective when they create or reinforce a mindset—especially when they are performed in front of others and repeated over and over again by everyone.

Being thoughtful about which rituals you establish as part of your return-to-office plan—and which will define your organization for months and years to come—will help you lay the foundation for effective hybrid work. 

Synchronous versus asynchronous communication rituals 

First, you should establish rituals around synchronous and asynchronous communication. Synchronous rituals should be established for activities like problem-solving, giving difficult feedback, and, especially, meetings. And asynchronous rituals should be established for activities like team emails, focus work, and results recaps. 

If you’re not thoughtful and strategic about establishing rituals related to different types of communication, you’ll quickly invite unnecessary inequities into your workplace. If, for example, impromptu conversations happen, by default, in person, this will put hybrid and remote workers at a disadvantage and lead to a pervasive fear-of-missing-out mentality.

Adopt written rituals

You should also establish rituals around written communication. In a hybrid workforce, written communication and documentation—especially documenting the “why” behind decisions—is key to success. 

As a leader, map out your teams’ core activities and decide how you can incorporate more written documentation into practices and processes. Consider, for example, daily “standups.” Can you hold daily check-ins via a work management tool—where updates are visible and trackable for all employees, regardless of their location or time zone?

Consider also brainstorming. How can you adapt your brainstorming rituals to incorporate more written communication? Prepared brainstorming—where participants come to the brainstorming session with prepared written responses to brainstorming prompts—is often more effective in hybrid environments.

Re-onboard new hires

Onboarding new hires remotely, no matter how well-intentioned, is not the same as onboarding in a face-to-face environment. If you’ve had new hires join your company during the pandemic, chances are they’ve had a somewhat inferior onboarding experience. And, almost inevitably, they are now a flight risk, especially as 41 percent are contemplating leaving their jobs this year.  

At Asana, where I work, we’re thinking about ways we can thoughtfully “re-onboard” new hires as we return to the office. Consider pairing new hires with a “culture buddy” who can help them navigate in-office norms and practices. Plan bonding events, especially between new hires and their onboarding cohorts who they’ve probably never met face-to-face. Consider organizing a scavenger hunt for new hires to learn where meeting rooms and collaboration spaces are. Regardless of your approach, your return-to-office should be a well-designed “orientation” period, not a dead-stick landing for your employees. 

Conduct a pre-mortem

No company has a playbook for returning to the office. I recommend that leaders take a page from Sutton’s playbook and conduct a pre-mortem when designing their return-to-office strategy. 

A pre-mortem will better prime you to make the right decisions as part of your return-to-office plan. It’s a pretty simple activity. Here’s how it works: 

1. Imagine it is a year in the future 

2. Imagine your return-to-office and hybrid work strategies have failed

3. Describe the events, decisions, judgments, and actions that likely led to their failure 

Pre-mortems are especially effective in situations like we’re in now when judgment can be clouded by excessive optimism. For many leaders, the thought of returning to the office is exciting. But your return-to-office is going to be challenging and punctuated by unanticipated outcomes. Leaders need to temper their optimism and be real with themselves and their employees—this return-to-office will, in many ways, be more challenging than navigating the initial abrupt transition to remote work. 

You’re returning to the office, not returning to work

As a leader, you have an opportunity to be intentional about reuniting your teams in person. It’s not as simple as unlocking your doors.

And, please, do not call this a “return to work.” That implies that remote or hybrid workers don’t do real work—and it also discredits all the hard work you’ve done over the past year and counting. Call it a return to the office—and infuse your plan with thoughtfulness and a commitment to minimizing inequities. 

For more insights on the future of hybrid work and on how to lead through change, tune into a fireside chat with Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University.

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