Creating Success Back in the Office

More people are returning to offices this spring, whether on a hybrid or part-time basis. We’re not used to working together in person. How can some of their tips and techniques guide the return-to-office movement?

In the past two years, professionals have been through the wringer. They’ve experienced a rollercoaster pandemic, political polarization, social unrest and upheaval, economic confusion and the allure of the Great Resignation. And now, many organizations are calling people to assemble back at the workplace. How will they show up together? What conversations will they have? And, what will it be like when people return after two years having changed so much and having experienced a form of isolation.

As much as our social landscape has shifted, so have they as individuals. Despite connecting virtually, the people we engage with daily might appear foreign to us. This reunion will undoubtedly bring a new self to relationships, which may come with attitudinal shifts in work ethics, opinions and even deeply held values.

Now is an opportunity to bring intention, clarity and a structure to building an environment where they can connect across the divide to collaborate better. If one thing is evident in this new era, professionals have great latitude when it comes to how, where and with whom they work.

So, how can leaders shape a culture of collegiality, innovation and collaboration?

• Honor the team member’s contribution. Get curious and find out from your professionals what worked and didn’t work for them the past two years. Create an open dialogue about the challenges and rewards of being remote. Allow them to talk about their concerns about returning, and what you might do to alleviate them and support integrating back into the office. Celebrate their efforts, tenacity and commitment to their work. What strategies and tools can carry over into the office?

• Be present to this moment. In the first month of gathering back together, slow down and choose to be curious about the “updated” people you work alongside. Create opportunities to connect deeper — especially with colleagues that you may have struggled to understand, like or respect in the past.

Move closer to them — you have changed and so have they. Suspend past judgments and engage with a clean slate. We love the tool “We Are Not Really Strangers,” a purpose-driven card game that brings people back together and creates connective tissue in surprising and meaningful ways.

• Make meetings engaging. People are exhausted from being “talked at” with slides on video-conferencing. People want to be in a place of “with.” Allow time for small talk, play, movement and work games.

Bring conversation dynamics and engagement tools that deepen relationships because when fostering an environment of trust and respect, people must genuinely know each other to collaborate. Provide opportunities for them to engage in an activity and get to know each other. This is the glue that keeps people engaged and motivated.

• Co-create the future. True collaboration yields great innovation and products that stick. This requires deep listening practice and an authentic curiosity-based approach. The past two years required a more top-down approach to project management and collaboration because of the constant uncertainty.

At the same time, many professionals also learned how to manage their workflow and ideas at their own pace. Open your ears and keep your door open to hear the new thoughts of your people.

• Avoid division by implementing a culture of curiosity. Everyone can use a refresher and upgraded communication tools to overcome the divisive language that has snuck into many of our vocabularies. Leading with genuine curiosity in our conversations is an antidote to judgment, criticism and polarizing discussions.

Equip your people with language that opens people up rather than placing them in defensive, triggering places. Teach them the importance of psychological flexibility and showing up as curious listeners to hear and learn something new. Avoid asking “why,” and lead with “tell me about” as conversation openers to allow people to speak with what’s top of mind for them.

We saw a great picture of a client returning to work — taken like the first day of school picture — date and all! It will be exciting and joyous to return to work, and nervousness, anxiety and exhaustion will arise, too.

Be patient. Be present. Choose to connect and learn more about your colleagues. Slow down and create time for conversations, curiosity, and collaboration. Refuse the desire to return to business as you thought of it pre-pandemic and use this moment to deepen your team engagement.


Jennifer Edwards and Katie McCleary are coauthors of “Bridge the Gap: Breakthrough Communication Tools to Transform Work Relationships” (McGraw-Hill,  February 2022).

[Photo credit: bernardbodo]

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