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“When we get back to normal.”

“After things open back up.”

Frequent refrains like this litter social media — and likely your conversations. Employers and some employees crave the opportunity to return to the traditional office and resume “life as usual.” Putting aside the potential lingering effects of COVID19 on our economy, labor market, society, and health, we wanted to take a moment to consider what a return to the office (RTO) actually looks like.

Even if we return to the office, it’s almost certain that some workers will want or need to remain remote — at least temporarily. As that happens, we urge organizations to adopt remote-first principles to ensure remote employees are not second-class citizens. Here are 3 concrete recommendations to build a smooth RTO strategy.

Step One: Commit to giving your team time to plan.

You’ve read countless messages that begin “During these uncertain times…”. Yes, there’s a lot that’s outside our control. But there’s a lot we can control! Make a public commitment to making plans transparent and predictable for your team. Some companies are announcing plans 10–12 months in advance (Facebook announced in August 2020 that it would extend remote work through July 2021) but others are only providing a few weeks of notice.

Recommendations:

Step Two: Decide on your work philosophy.

Once you decide on reopening the office, you can’t assume that every employee will want to (or be able to!) return to the office immediately. From deeply held personal beliefs to dependents, there are a range of circumstances that may prevent employees from returning right away, if at all. If you want employees to fully return to the office, you may find that some employees may not want to after adjusting to working from home for months.

It’s critical that you provide clarity on what will and will not be tolerated in terms of working arrangements so that employees can make their own decisions. (Note that if you’re overly prescriptive or restrictive, you may find that your employees look elsewhere!) You can choose from a range of expectations, including:

Recommendations:

The Office: “Corporate says to me, ‘Gabe, we need you in Scranton.’ Scranton says, ‘Gabe, go back down to Florida, you’re needed there.’ So, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m up there. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’m down here… I can think of no better way to confront my deathly fear of flying.” (Reference.)

Step Three: “If one person is remote, then every person is remote.”

Quote reference.

Imagine this: You’re in a physical conference room with three people sitting around a table. There’s an open laptop at the end of the table with five people in a Zoom meeting. Technical issues of volume and muting aside, how effective do you think this meeting will be?

The effects here are cumulative: if you join from home, this will likely eventually have an adverse impact on your perceived performance! That’s a natural thought for people to have. For example:

“[Person who is remote] seems more disengaged in their work. Maybe they aren’t ready for a promotion.”

This will almost certainly put certain groups of people, especially parents and other caregivers, at a disadvantage. This is a type of bias that needs to be avoided!

Recommendations:

There’s a lot of uncertainty out there! However, it’s pretty certain that returning to the office is going to be challenging in both expected and unexpected ways. Try to provide your team with as much certainty as possible. By giving your team time to plan, being clear about your work philosophy, and adhering to the “if one person is remote, everybody is remote” idea, then you can make the RTO transition a bit smoother.

 is Growth Manager at Roboflow.

 is Head of Community at Career Karma.