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

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 we can 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 a real excitement felt by many at the opportunity to blend the ‘together’ sense of being back in shared workspaces with the life-balance appeal of occasional working from home.

Taking Charge of The Culture

One important question is: how do we 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 our own growth and for others) and to ensure we – and our teams – are fully visible for all career progression opportunities. It’s also important in how we transmit culture, especially for new hires. However you work, are you staying visible enough to be top of mind for that career-defining project, or promotion? And are you actively contributing to an inclusive culture?

The thing is, we’ll need to be intentional about it. Many have had a lot of practice in the last year-and-a-half 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 our key stakeholders and ensure that at least one of our office-based days coincides with others we collaborate with, so we 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 we can make a point of asking, each time we have a team meeting, for input on successful ideas or examples of working well in our return to office mode or of where it didn’t work and what we can learn together.

Shaping How We Work Together, with a Focus on Outcomes

We can all play 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. It can feel as though we’ve set aside the art of in-person interaction, and we may find we’re feeling a bit ‘shy’. How about taking the attention off myself and turning my thoughts to others instead? Asking open questions about how our team-mates would prefer to meet, or how best to update each other, can open our 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. In this way 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 we feel a reluctance to ‘come in’, we can remind ourselves that we are building our vital network which is as crucial to getting immediate things done as it is to advancing our careers.

One key is to be clear about what we’re 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.

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 camara in front of them in the room, to level out the experience. An inclusive chair or facilitator helps, 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. Remote meetings were often quite a democratic experience (if run well) 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, we can, and should, also consider our 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 your remote time (if you 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 our own balance or productivity might just be fine for someone else too. It’s worth putting it out there.

Reach Out, Be Visible

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

Who can best advocate for you at a senior level, and do they know enough about your strengths and your ambitions? Considering where you’d like to progress in your career, who would you like to be ‘seen’ by? What are their priorities and how could you help them?

Whose work would you like to know more about? People often feel good about sharing what they do. Could you map out your key stakeholders, people who have an influence over your success as well as those you can support and influence? Are there any gaps? How could you fill them in a creative way? Does it require you 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 you may find this becomes easier again in person.

Ensure childcare works for all your options. If you’ve got used to a shorter day of cover (for example your children are now used to you being at home when they come back from school), can you negotiate to travel back from the office earlier in the day and work on later in the afternoon while the young ones are doing homework. All of us, as parents, need to make sure we have back-up plans if our childcare arrangements don’t work out on a given day. This is true when we work from home too. 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 ensure you’ve had a conversation with a partner (where relevant), friends, family or your wider support network about how you might cover any shortfall in cover if plans change. It’s much easier and less stressful to do this ahead of the time when you actually need it.

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: I’m thinking here of 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, as well as our organisations 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.


Jennifer Liston-Smith is Head of Thought Leadership for Bright Horizons

For over 20 years, Jennifer has been relentless in pursuit of innovation, identifying, defining and sharing best practice and 'next practice' for leading global employers in flexible working, family-friendly and wellbeing programmes, closing the gender pay gap and promoting gender-inclusive parenting. She is a sought-after speaker, writer, conference moderator and consultant on these topics and more.