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  • Writer's pictureCandy Bowles

Turn the "Return to the Workplace" battle to a learning opportunity?

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

Giraffes looking at different directions
Where should we go?

Some employees are keen to get back to the office but some are not. What should we do?

This must be one of the most widely discussed topics around the world at the moment. In fact when I searched for "return to work 2021", within 0.47 secs, Google claimed to have 14.6bn results!

Inspired by an informal survey done by an INSEAD classmate and a lively "z" discussion we had, I'd like to share a few thoughts on the topic here and welcome your thoughts and comments.

Organising the return to the workplace at this unusual time will involve a multitude of functions within a company. There are ways to tackle it and avoid a "messy spaghetti" situation.

Principles. People. Process. If you could have some clarity in these three areas, it may increase the chance of success.

"Hang on," you may be thinking, "What is the definition of success here?" Everyone returns to the workplace? A hybrid model? But based on whose definition? Or moved totally to work from home and big cost saving happily ever after?

Using the pre-lockdown old normal as a reference point is definitely not the wisest start. It would show the company is writing off the experience and the learnings in the last 18 months.

Success here dare I say means a reasonable transition to a sustainable operating model post covid19. The definition of "sustainable" varies by company, by office, by site and by many other dimensions. But there are some obvious characteristics - widely understood, accepted and adopted, compliant to relevant rules and regulations including health and safety, may not be immediately but ultimately productive, and definitely conducive to a profitable performance for the business. So basically (re)defining the (new) operating model is part of the process.


Having some basic principles spelt out is like setting the boundaries and the rules of the game rules before even starting the process. The principles explain roughly why / how we will approach this process. These are not instruction-like detailed "how to behave" principles. These should be easy to remember and easy to explain. Some of them may sound very obvious, but it is good to be obvious rather than being ambiguous in times like these.

For example,

  1. Embrace the fluidity: No one can make any "permanent" decision right now. So let's call this an interim arrangement or a transitional phase, all subject to review and feedback. Flexibility is the new currency.

  2. Be transparent: We need transparency but not endless meetings, surveys or consultations. Admit the impact of the lockdown on the business (be factual, not in a threatening "you may be fired" tone or in a disappointing tone). Admit what you don't know. Uncontrolled speculations are more harmful especially after the lockdown - remember, there is a lot of irritation but not a lot of patience left in the system.

  3. Set sensible expectation: It is not the end of the world if things don't work out perfectly the first time. doing that upfront could avoid disappointment further down the line. Whether it's about the pace of change, the scope of the changes, what you ask the employees to do, or the design of a new process, etc.

  4. Allow time for the "de-blurring" process: With the very blurred lines between "home" and "work", emotionally, mentally and logistically many people will need time to de-blur those lines in order to create the new routine - at work and at home. Resist the temptation to "prescribe" a definite time.

  5. For the greater good: This may sound basic and old fashioned, but it is worth reminding ourselves - this exercise of finding the new model is about the long term survival and success of the company and it is carefully done in the interest of the employees.


Many psychologists, counsellors, team dynamics gurus must be writing their new books about how to (re)engage the employees after the lockdown. The truth is what people have experienced during the lockdown - individually, with their family, and collectively within the community - is all very personal and unique. It is not easy to describe or express that experience sometimes, no matter how eloquent one might be.

And sadly some also experienced life-changing events - the loss of a loved one or a relationship breakdown. Handling grief itself is a big task. Handling grief AND returning to work facing all the uncertainties and changes - can easily overwhelm anybody.

Make your employees feel welcome. Make them feel at home and valued when they are back at work. Make them feel okay to be vulnerable. And make sure you have the professional help ready.

There is a catalogue of ideas how companies can spend money to do the nice visible stuff - welcome-back gadgets, posters, videos, cards, company chocolates, but the most important thing is the leaders themselves would show they really care - spend time walking about, appreciate the progress, respond to questions personally, use social-media close group to join the discussions, share your personal experience of the lockdown and the return to the workplace.

It goes without saying regular and meaningful communication is key in such as critical process. Communication is more than informing people what is happening, it is also sharing the learnings so far. Do use the communication to also invite employees to share their experience - failure, success and funny stories.

Encourage experiments where possible so that the employees feel involved and can have some sense of achievement. Give people a chance to make things happen even in a small scale, e.g. reorganising the office in the way they like (while meeting the health and safety requirements), choosing the new plants, the new wall paper or deciding the vending machine menu. (BTW, don't keep asking the staff to fill out questionnaires and not adopt their ideas.)

Lastly, create time for reconnecting but not necessarily in the form of a fixed schedule that feels like a routine or an obligation. Give people opportunities and space to socialise (safely). Some people need to readjust to have people around them, even-though they knew these people. And some people have changed by the pandemic. We cannot assume everyone coming back is the same as before.

Ultimately you want the team back - mentally and emotionally, treat them as part of the team.


Try a gentle start. Don't the jump the gun.

Many companies have started planning and implementing the return to the workplace in Q4 2021 and 2022; not surprisingly some of them are getting negative headlines (e.g., Google and Apple).

While embracing the fluidity, creating clarity is always helpful. Try to outline a high level and easy to understand process. For example:

Explore / Experiment / Expand / (for the areas that don't work) Redesign / Embed. Design - Develop - Deploy.

Spell out the goals and the key 3-4 activities of each phase or of each module where possible. Acknowledge the persons leading these modules and ask the employees to give them support.

For this learning process to work, arrange some key updates (e.g., CEO message, town-halls, newsletters) around the (safe) milestones. This will create some healthy pressure to treat the milestones seriously; and the key updates can be used to recognise the progress and acknowledge the learnings publicly.

Treat this a shared learning process. Revise the process and change your course of action when there is a good reason. Just make sure everyone is on the same page and all the inter-dependencies are being taken care of.

In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity. This return to the office exercise can be the time your organisation unlocks discover some shy heros and unlock some hidden power.

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