From Remote Work to Back in the Office: Management Lessons Learned

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As employees begin to gradually return to the office after the latest COVID-19 surge, what lessons can managers apply from the remote work world? Here are three key tips to help managers ease the transition back to the office by employing techniques you have already honed by managing remotely.

Over Communicate

Whether fully remote or in a hybrid context, understanding how to structure and operate a distributed team is critical to effective execution, and ultimately, success. Underlying that structure is effective communication. This means ensuring clarity across the team in terms of defined goals, and also truly knowing individual people and their particular strengths and weaknesses.

Therefore, it’s vital to continue to deliberately plan out written and video communication, as well as regular 1:1 meetings with employees, even when you have regular office time. You have worked hard to protect that 1:1 communication remotely, so don’t lose that when things go hybrid or fully back to the office. This is especially important when the novelty of being back in the office has worn off, so to avoid the potential of slipping into bad habits, make sure to be deliberate in your communication and over communicate, if necessary. Simply having close physical presence again with the team doesn’t mean effective communication will magically happen.

Managers may also want to use the occasion to reevaluate how to measure success and what employees want to accomplish as individuals and as a team. There are very few times where resets, especially a return to the office, are welcomed by a majority of the entire staff, so take advantage of that enthusiasm and energy and channel it into something productive.

Regularly Mix In and Prioritize In-Person Engagement

For virtual events during the pandemic, I’ve witnessed attendance significantly decrease and then drop precipitously over time as the planned returns to the office kept slipping. I have experimented with multiple virtual event types to see if they helped us connect casually and found that although a handful of people liked them, not more than about 10 to 15 percent of the group participated.

In contrast, in-person appearances can reinvigorate the team and keep everyone more engaged. With face-to-face environments, my teams enjoy rapid back and forth conversation, richer brainstorming and white-boarding, along with casual conversations to fill in gaps in knowledge and understanding. That is and continues to be difficult if not impossible to replicate digitally, even in the reimagined Metaverse.

If a strict 50-50 hybrid or more remote-versus-in-person environment prevails in your workplace long term, deliberately planning and organizing in-person events will be more critical than ever.

Respect Employee Autonomy

Most likely, employees in your organization have proven they can work remotely for long periods without direct supervision, especially if they are still with the organization now more than two years on since offices started closing across the world. Don’t forget that when you’re back in the office.

Use that precious office time to build better connections and to get to know your employees better than what was possible when everyone was remote. And don’t forget what you learned about them while in the proverbial home office – everyone has seen the errant cat walk across the Zoom call, or a child jump up on the screen during a presentation – keep those personal details in mind to foster better, richer relationships with colleagues.

After all, employee autonomy proved to be a formidable, but ultimately unfounded concern of remote workplace managers. According to a 2020 survey conducted for the Harvard Business Review, where researchers polled 1,200 people in 24 countries, they found 40 percent of supervisors and managers expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. Considering many of us have been managing remote workforces for years now, one unexpected benefit was discovering the flexibility and resiliency we all possess given the circumstances. Don’t forget that as we continue to see and interact again with colleagues in office settings with greater frequency.

At the end of the day, the pandemic has proven to be unpredictable. It’s possible that another variant will emerge and send us all back to working remotely. However, by keeping in mind the need to over communicate, to deliberately plan in-person engagement (when possible and permitted), and to respect well-earned employee autonomy, transitioning back and forth will get easier, or at least smoother, each time.

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