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A CEO’s Guide to Planning a Return to the Office


Feb. 25, 2021 Harvard Business Review

Because of such hopeful signs, CEOs at companies that remain all-remote are starting to think seriously about how and how much to bring their employees back to the office, and how to best answer questions about policies and timelines their boards will soon ask. They realize that given all that has happened over the last year, more employees than ever before will work remotely, and for tasks that can be done more efficiently that way, investments in technology are necessary.

Less clear are answers to other types of questions that only the CEO can address because they’re more strategic and fundamental to the nature of the organization, such as: How to handle tasks and decisions which are best done face-to-face even if many employees today say they prefer to work remotely? What will be the longer-term impact on the culture of dividing the work force? When do I have to make these choices? Whom should I listen to, and when?

While specific answers to such questions depend on the unique situation each leader faces, the guidelines below may help.

First, wise leaders will resist pressure to define a policy or make final decisions until it’s necessary to do so. We are getting nearer to the end of the pandemic each day, but we are not there yet. With uncertainty about what lies ahead, it is important to avoid steps that will either create unrealistic expectations or limit options. For such big, consequential decisions, one key success factor is to buy time to gather more information and leave options open as long as possible.

Second, in discussing return-to-work options and scenarios, leaders should keep their personal preferences close to the vest. In government, top-level leaders are taught to never reveal their policy preference to military or intelligence advisors too early to avoid influencing the kinds and quality of analysis. Likewise, at this stage, CEOs should ask questions and refrain from making declarative statements for as long as possible.

Third, don’t put too much stock in data gleaned from employee surveys. Many companies have asked workers how many days (if any) they want to spend in the office post-pandemic. Some HR departments treat these surveys as gospel. Much of the current public commentary on this question assumes that after it’s safe to return to the office, many employees will prefer to remain working at home for much of the workweek. However, wise CEOs recognize such opinions often change. What people say after a year of sheltering in place may not be meaningful this fall, particularly if by then they’ve had several months of living with fewer restrictions. In the same way that political leaders should not base decisions solely on public opinion polls, leaders must look at employee surveys as one data point.

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