5 Considerations to Maximise Your Employees Success in the Return to Office World

In 2024, many of us are continuing to develop our working patterns, either returning fully to an office-first approach, or blending onsite and remote, with an increasing emphasis on presence in person. Head of Thought Leadership, Jennifer Liston-Smith shares ideas on how employers can help employees embrace this next phase, make the most of it and contribute to building an engaging culture.

As we reset our working patterns to a more office-based focus, there is space for real excitement at the opportunity to blend the ‘together’ sense of being back in shared workspaces with the life-balance appeal of occasional working from home. Doing it well matters in how employees feel, and in their engagement, and employee experience. HR practitioners and other leaders across organisations have a key contribution here.

  1. Co-Creating The Culture

One important question is: how do employers and employees best build, or enhance, culture as our ways of working continue to evolve? Many welcome the opportunity to be back in an office to ensure that mentoring happens (for their own growth and for others) and to ensure that they – and their teams – are fully visible for all career progression opportunities. It’s also important in how we transmit culture, especially for new hires. However your employees work, are they staying visible enough to be top of mind for that career-defining project, or promotion? And are all your leaders actively contributing to an inclusive culture?

The thing is, we need to be intentional about it. Many have had a lot of practice in the last couple of years of taking part in remote inductions, and online social events: of making sure all voices are heard in remote meetings, of finding imaginative ways to make things engaging.

We now need to be deliberate about this next phase: as we create new patterns of working, we’ll want to take the best of what we’ve learned and build an engaging culture around it. It might be important not to simply fall back on our old, pre-covid habits of working, nor to act as if we’re still in crisis mode and just scraping by. One fundamental building block is to work as a team with all key stakeholders and encourage teams to ensure that at least one of their office-based days coincides with others they collaborate with, so they get the most out of being co-located.

Let’s keep thinking about how we’re actively including others, particularly new joiners, who greatly benefit from in-person working. Perhaps leaders can make a point of asking, each time there’s a team meeting, for input on successful ideas or examples of working well in return to office mode or of where it didn’t work and what we can learn together.

  1. Shaping How We Work Together, with a Focus on Outcomes

Everyone plays a role in ensuring we work in the most effective ways. Part of it is about how we consider and involve others, especially those who seem different from us, or whom we don’t yet know well. After recent, more remote, working habits, some employees may feel they’re out of practice in the art of in-person interaction, and may find they’re feeling a bit ‘shy’. Leaders can help here by opening up conversations. They can ask open questions about how team-mates prefer to meet, and how best to update each other. Listening and exchanging in this way, can open minds to fresh ideas.

One thing is for sure: most of us find it easier to build personal relationship when we have those random ‘water cooler’ moments as well as more formal meetings. The central office or workplace wins here. With these random connections, we also ensure people with different perspectives are top of mind when we would benefit from their input because we’ve interacted with them widely enough to know they have a different angle on something (e.g. they play a sport, come from a different continent, have children, are a carer for an adult, are studying for an advanced professional qualification, have experience arranging gigs for their band at weekends, or so many other nuances). So, if there are moments when some feel a reluctance to ‘come in’, leaders can help by emphasising they are building vital networks which is as crucial to getting immediate things done as it is to advance their careers.

One key is to be clear about what everyone is there to deliver, wherever ‘there’ may be. We need to collaborate with those who rely on us and check together that the things we’re doing are having the right impact, with the right people contributing.

  1. Staying Skilful at Running Hybrid Meetings

Although we may be more in the office now, when we do run blended meetings what’s the etiquette? It might mean everyone in the office meeting space also has a screen and camera in front of them in the room, to level out the experience. An inclusive chair or facilitator helps – or even another nominated role - looking out for whose voice is not being heard.

If most people are now in the office, look out for the one person online, perhaps because they’re based in a different geography, or have health reasons for being remote. Remote meetings were often quite a democratic experience (if run well) during recent times, and we don’t want to lose that just because the online joiners may be the minority again, as they were pre-covid. We will also want to ensure the after-chat happens in the online comms channel, not only in a corridor. And whether we are onsite or remote, or in a blended meeting, it is worth being conscious that some meetings need clear preparation, agenda and outcomes, while others can be social, just for fun and to enjoy simply being with our colleagues. A lot of time can be saved by being clear which type of meeting is which, too!

In terms of working styles, team members can, and should, be encouraged to consider their own needs and make suggestions. It could be about shorter meetings to allow for breaks (it takes longer to travel from one physical meeting room to another!), or deliberately blocking out some of their remote time (if they have it) to make the most of head-down working without meetings coming in. Can meetings be scheduled into certain core hours? What works for one person’s own balance or productivity might just be fine for someone else too. It’s worth putting it out there.

  1. Reach Out, Be Visible

If individuals are more in the office, they can really leverage that by maximising their visibility in ways that many find easier onsite. Who could you encourage your teams to reach out to this week who would benefit from knowing what they’re working on? It can be easier to grab an informal meeting in-person – who’s their next coffee going to be with, including with key stakeholders outside of their own line of business.

Encourage employees to think about who can best advocate for them at a senior level (in addition to their line manager), and whether those other influencers know enough about their strengths and ambitions? Career progression is a top requirement for employee loyalty these days. We can support this by helping team members consider where they’d like to progress in their careers, and therefore who they would like to be ‘seen’ by? What are the priorities of those other leaders and how could your team members potentially help them?

Individuals can also think about whose work they would like to know more about. People often feel good about sharing what they do. Could team members map out their key stakeholders, people who have an influence over their success as well as those they can support and influence? Are there any gaps? How could they fill them in a creative way? Does it require them to be onsite at certain times to coincide with them?

Finding ways of being useful while also building relationships is a sure way of contributing to a positive culture; and our teams may find this becomes easier again in person.

  1. Ensure Childcare Works For All Options.

If some employees have got used to a shorter day of cover (for example their children are now used to them being at home when they come back from school), they might want to discuss travelling back from the office earlier in the day, then working on later in the afternoon while the young ones are doing homework.

All parents and carers need back-up plans if our care arrangements don’t work out on a given day. We also need wraparound plans when we are commuting. Bright Horizons’ recent research in the UK showed that well over 50% of professionals admitted their productivity takes a nose-dive if they find themselves looking after children while working from home, so care is essential wherever people are located.

Providing access to a Back-Up Care plan is an investment not only in productivity but also in wellbeing and peace of mind. In our 2023 client employee survey (the Work+Family Snapshot) showed those who used their employer’s back-up care attributed some very positive outcomes to this. Over three-quarters (78%) said it had a positive impact on productivity; 79% said it positively impacted their wellbeing, 78% were more likely to recommend their employer and 76% were more likely to stay with their employer, as a result of access to this provision.

Most employers ensure their back-up care programme includes access to wrap-around care, school holiday cover and even virtual tutoring, as well as the core offerings of nursery places, childminders, nannies and in-home adult care, all of which greatly eases the mental load for parents or carers travelling into a central workplace.

And finally: Be The Culture!

A little like ‘Be The Change’, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, we can all use our recent learnings to ‘Be the Culture’. We all saw that the hybrid working world needed a rethink in terms of building and sustaining culture. It didn’t happen accidentally then but there might be some easier wins in person: such as bowls of fruit at a team gathering, for example. A lot of it will be about how we relate and connect, wherever we are.

An engaging culture is almost inevitable if people are feeling good about what they do and why they’re doing it. There is an opportunity for each of us, and our teams, to make the most of new possibilities, and new ways of working. Many of us have had some new, more direct conversations than we’ve had before in recent times. How can we each build on that now? Let’s aim not only to navigate the culture, but to co-create it.