Back to the Office: A Leader’s Guide to Navigating Disappointment and Inspiring Productivity

Women working in the office

As the revolving doors of office buildings once again begin to spin, workers worldwide find themselves trading in their Zoom backgrounds and home-office comfort for a return to their long-empty workspaces. For many, this shift back to the office can spark feelings of disappointment, disillusionment, and even disengagement.

As leaders in this once again changed world of work, we must help bridge the gap between home-based comfort and office-based productivity. We need to provide an environment where employees not only adapt to the shift but thrive in it. It’s our responsibility to help our teams find strength in change and lead them through the office comeback.

This is not necessarily an easy undertaking. As leaders, we often find ourselves walking the tightrope between our teams and those at the top; this is especially true when it’s about returning to the office. You might not want this change yourself, but you’re now guiding others through it. This shift can stir disappointment, leading to disengagement and impacting morale and productivity.

Remember, being a leader isn’t just about navigating the journey; it’s also about lifting your team’s spirits amidst change. Our only course of action is to help turn the tide of disappointment into a wave of positive change. Accordingly, we must find ways to keep our teams motivated, even when disappointment is in the air.

Here are some strategies that will help you transform this potentially daunting transition into an opportunity for growth and increased employee engagement.

Open Communication

Start by acknowledging their feelings of disappointment. Let them know that you understand their concerns and are open to discussing their needs and challenges.

Transparency: Be upfront about the reasons behind the decision. Discuss the organization’s vision, its strategic goals, and how returning to the office supports these aims. Highlight any potential benefits that the team may have overlooked.

Empathy: Acknowledge the disappointment openly. Understand that everyone may have enjoyed different aspects of working from home, like flexible schedules, no commuting, or more family time. Being empathetic will show your team that you understand their feelings and care about their well-being.

Active Listening: Create platforms for employees to voice their concerns or suggestions. This could be one-on-one meetings, team meetings, or anonymous surveys. Encourage everyone to share their feelings and thoughts without fear of judgment or reprisal.

Problem-Solving: Ask for input on making the transition smoother. If individuals are able to contribute to the solutions, they’re more likely to buy into the change. This can also lead to creative solutions you may have yet to consider.

Support: Offer support where needed. This could be through resources for managing change, stress, or balancing work and personal life. The more support you offer, the less overwhelming the change will be.

Inclusion: Ensure all team members are involved in conversations about the return to the office. The more people feel included in the process, the more committed they will be.

Positive Reinforcement: Celebrate the successes and milestones achieved during the remote work period and continue to do so when back in the office. This can help keep motivation levels high and help employees see that they’re making progress.

Updates: Keep communication channels open post-transition. Regularly check in on how your team is doing, and be open to feedback. Changes might need to be made based on how the transition is going.

Remember, building trust through open, transparent, and frequent communication is vital. As a leader, you must be empathetic, listen to the team, and then take action based on their feedback.

Flexible Working Hours

If it’s possible, provide flexibility in work hours. This can help employees adjust and reduce stress. Some might prefer to start early and finish early, while others might want to come in later.

Implement a Hybrid Model: If possible, allow team members to work part of the week in the office and part of the week from home. This can help ease the transition and cater to those who enjoyed the flexibility of remote work.

Flexible Start and End Times: Not everyone is at their most productive at the same time of day. Allowing employees to start and finish at times that suit their personal schedules can increase productivity and job satisfaction.

Core Hours: Establish ‘core hours’ during which everyone should be available, and let team members choose when they start and end their workdays around these hours. This can help balance flexibility with the need for collaboration and coordination.

Compressed Workweek: If you can, offer a four-day workweek where employees work longer hours for four days and take the fifth day off, or allow for “half-day Fridays.” This can give employees something to look forward to.

Encourage Time Off: Encourage employees to take time off when they need it. This can help prevent burnout and maintain productivity.

Acknowledge Individual Needs: Understand that everyone’s situation is different. Single parents, people with lengthy commutes, those caring for elderly relatives, etc., all have unique needs that could be accommodated by flexible work hours.

Establish Trust: Show that you trust your employees to manage their time effectively. Micro-managing can be demotivating, so provide autonomy as long as the work is getting done.

Evaluate Based on Output, Not Hours: Make sure employees understand that they are evaluated on the quality of their work and their ability to meet deadlines, not the number of hours they spend in the office.

Transparent Communication: Clearly communicate the options for flexible working hours and how they can be utilized. Regularly check in with your team to ensure the new arrangement is working for them and make any necessary adjustments.

The key to flexible working hours is understanding and empathizing with your team’s needs. Maintaining open lines of communication will allow you to adjust as necessary and keep your team feeling valued and motivated.

Comfortable Work Environment

Creating a comfortable and inviting working environment can significantly affect employees’ morale and motivation, particularly in the transition back to the office. Here’s how to leverage this:

Ergonomic Workspace: Invest in comfortable and ergonomic furniture. Back-friendly chairs, adjustable desks, and other such facilities can significantly increase comfort.

Personalize Space: Allow team members to personalize their workspace. This could include family pictures, plants, or favorite quotes. It gives them a sense of ownership and makes the workspace feel more welcoming.

Natural Light and Views: If possible, arrange the workspace to allow for natural light and views. Studies have shown that natural light can boost mood and productivity.

Quiet Spaces: Set up quiet zones where people can focus without distraction. If space allows, consider creating areas for relaxation or quick breaks.

Clean and Organized Environment: Ensure the workspace is clean and well-organized. Clutter can lead to stress and lower productivity. Regular cleaning and maintenance can create a healthier working environment.

Technology and Tools: Provide the necessary technology and tools that help employees work more efficiently. This includes up-to-date computers, high-speed internet, printers, software, etc.

Community Spaces: If space permits, create community spaces like a comfortable lunch area or a lounge for informal meetings. These spaces can promote collaboration and social interaction.

Temperature Control: Make sure the office temperature is comfortable. Extreme temperatures can be distracting and can negatively impact productivity.

Healthy Snacks and Drinks: Offering healthy snacks and drinks can boost morale and show your team that their well-being is essential to the company.

Remember, it’s essential to gather feedback from your team. Ask them what changes they’d like to see in their workspace to make it more comfortable. They will appreciate being part of the decision-making process, and it shows that you value their input.

Team Building Activities

Team building activities can play a vital role in strengthening relationships, boosting morale, and enhancing team motivation, especially during challenging transitional times like returning to the office.

Organize Team-building Activities: Plan activities that are both fun and designed to strengthen collaboration and communication. These could range from team lunches, office games, team sports to organized team-building exercises.

Schedule Social Events: Regularly scheduled social events, like happy hours, office movie nights, or team dinners, can provide a relaxed environment for team members to interact and build stronger relationships. Don’t overdo this or make these mandatory – be sensitive to the fact that everyone on your team might feel differently about work social events and/or have interests and obligations outside of work.

Promote Volunteering: Organize volunteering opportunities in your local community (on company time where possible). This not only builds teamwork, but also boosts company morale and enhances your company’s community presence.

Encourage Collaboration: Foster projects that require team members to work together. Shared goals and accomplishments can help teams feel more united and motivated.

Incorporate Team Building into Meetings: Start or end meetings with quick, fun team-building exercises. This can break up the monotony of regular meetings and encourage creativity and collaboration.

Training Sessions: Organize training sessions where team members can learn and grow together. This could be related to specific job skills or broader topics like communication or leadership.

Celebrate Team and Individual Successes: Acknowledging the team’s hard work and accomplishments can build a sense of community and motivation. Celebrate big wins and also small victories.

Retreats or Offsite Events: If resources allow, consider organizing a team retreat or offsite event. A change of environment can be refreshing and provide a unique team-building opportunity.

Create a Safe Space for Feedback: Team building also means being able to give and receive feedback. Ensure your team members feel safe and comfortable sharing their ideas and thoughts.

Virtual Team Building: If some members are still remote or have safety concerns, virtual team-building activities can also be practical.

Remember, these activities aim to help employees feel more connected, valued, and engaged. When planning these activities, it’s important to understand your team’s preferences and comfort levels. What works well for one team may not work for another.

Recognition and Rewards

Recognition and rewards can significantly enhance team members’ motivation, productivity, and job satisfaction. When returning to the office is met with disappointment, such strategies can be particularly valuable.

Personalized Acknowledgement: Recognize individual achievements in team meetings or through company-wide communications. Personalized acknowledgment can make employees feel valued for their specific contributions.

Performance-Based Bonuses or Raises: Financial incentives tied to performance can be very motivating. Consider implementing a system where employees can earn bonuses or raises based on their productivity or achievements.

Reward System: Develop a reward system where employees earn points for meeting certain goals or exhibiting certain behaviors. These points can then be exchanged for rewards like gift cards, extra time off, or other benefits.

Career Development Opportunities: Reward high performers with opportunities for professional development, such as attending conferences, seminars, or further training in their field.

Small Gestures: Small gestures like thank you notes, mentioning accomplishments in team meetings, or celebrating work anniversaries can make employees feel appreciated.

Public Recognition: Use social media or the company website to recognize employees’ achievements. Public recognition can be very motivating.

Peer Recognition Program: Encourage employees to recognize each other’s efforts. This can build a culture of appreciation and strengthen team bonds.

Innovation Rewards: Encourage creative problem-solving and innovation by rewarding new ideas or initiatives.

Remember, recognition and rewards should be fair, transparent, and tied to clear criteria. They should ideally align with your team’s values and preferences. For example, some team members may value public recognition, while others may prefer private acknowledgment or tangible rewards. Keep communication lines open and solicit feedback to understand what types of recognition and rewards will most effectively motivate your team.

Personal and Professional Growth

Encouraging both personal and professional growth can play a significant role in fostering motivation among team members, especially during challenging transitions like returning to the office.

Provide Learning Opportunities: Arrange for training sessions, workshops, and seminars that can help team members improve their skills or acquire new ones. These can be related to their current job or career path or cover broader skills like leadership, communication, or project management.

Mentorship Programs: Implement mentorship programs within the organization. More experienced employees can share their knowledge and insights, boosting motivation and performance.

Career Advancement: Discuss clear paths for career advancement within the organization. Show employees their potential growth path and the steps needed to get there.

Support Work-Life Balance: Encourage employees to pursue interests outside of work and respect their time off. A healthy work-life balance can lead to increased motivation and productivity at work.

Individual Development Plans: Work with each team member to create an Individual Development Plan (IDP). This helps align their personal goals with the team’s and company’s goals and gives them a clear roadmap for their growth.

Encourage Innovation: Allow time for team members to work on projects they’re passionate about, even if they’re outside their usual scope of work. This can boost creativity, motivation, and engagement.

Leadership Opportunities: Offer team members the opportunity to lead projects or initiatives. This can provide valuable experience and help them grow their leadership skills.

Professional Networks: Encourage team members to join professional networks or associations. This can provide additional learning opportunities and help them build their professional network.

Financial Support for Further Education: If resources allow, provide financial support for further education like advanced degrees or certification programs.

Remember, personal and professional growth doesn’t happen overnight and requires ongoing effort and commitment from both you and your team members. Being patient and supportive and providing the necessary resources and opportunities can go a long way in fostering motivation and commitment.

Physical and Mental Health Support

Supporting your team’s physical and mental health can significantly enhance their motivation, productivity, and overall well-being. As employees return to the office, such support becomes even more important. Here’s how a new leader can implement this:

Promote Work-Life Balance: Encourage your team to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This can mean respecting their time off, ensuring reasonable work hours, and discouraging a culture of overwork.

Encourage Regular Breaks: Encourage your team to take regular short breaks during the workday. This can reduce fatigue, improve mental well-being, and enhance productivity.

Provide Health and Wellness Programs: If resources allow, these can include gym memberships, wellness seminars, meditation or yoga classes, or other health initiatives.

Support Mental Health: Talk to your HR team about making resources available for mental health support. This can include providing access to counseling services, offering mental health days, or creating a safe and open environment where mental health issues can be discussed without stigma.

Open Communication: Foster an open line of communication where team members can voice their concerns or discuss issues related to their physical and mental health.

Remember, every team member’s needs and preferences are different. It’s important to regularly ask for feedback and adjust your support as necessary. The goal is to create an environment where your employees feel cared for and supported, which in turn can significantly enhance their motivation and job satisfaction.

As many of us reluctantly return to the office, our ultimate goal must be understanding and adaptability. Yes, there is likely disappointment as employees return to the office, but we can harness this moment as an opportunity. It’s a chance to reimagine the workspace, realign our expectations, and reignite the spirit of our teams.

This journey back to the office isn’t without its trials, but within every challenge, there’s a seed of growth and innovation. And it’s our responsibility as leaders to nurture that seed. We can transform this period of change into an enriching experience filled with learning and growth for our teams, using our empathy and forethought as our guiding lights.

So, as we step into this next chapter, we get to question the status quo and redefine our working environments. Together, let’s create spaces that inspire productivity, encourage engagement, and nurture fulfillment. Remember, this isn’t just about returning to work as we knew it – it’s about creating work as we want it to be.

To gain valuable assistance in leading your team through the office comeback or to access comprehensive leadership support tailored to your needs, we invite you to join our empowering mentorship community specifically designed to support and uplift new women leaders like you.


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