My Vote on the Return-to-Office (RTO) Balancing Act

Nov 21, 2023 5 Min Read
employee leaving the office after work
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Finding Balance in the Return-to-Office Debate

In the past three-and-a-half years, I’ve gotten to see firsthand how business leaders have transformed their workplaces to fit the needs of a world challenged by COVID-19. Of course, the most notable change has been where work occurs. We’ve gone from a total work-from-home setup, to a remote-primary model, to the current push to ask (i.e., plead, demand, entice) employees to return to the office at least for a few days each week. I’ve also watched this final “forced hybrid” transformation become a major point of contention.

The “Return-to-Office” Struggle

The way we work together has changed permanently. Expectations, power balances, and attitudes have all changed, and so have the technology-enabled results people have been able to create from home. Leaders are fighting to find policies that balance individual autonomy and the productivity workers have developed at home with the creativity, community, and collaboration that all thrive in a face-to-face setting. Employees have the found freedom and flexibility of throwing in a load of laundry between calls, and they’re not going to give it up. But the benefits of coming together are real too.

So, what are companies to do?

What would I do?

I’ve been holding back for a long time, listening and observing and weighing the pros and cons of each side—one camp advocating for total freedom and autonomy to decide where to work and the other demanding a set amount of actual in-person office time. Before I give you my take on how to find that balance, let’s take a look at some of the solutions out there, including a couple that I find really interesting.

"We’re the Bosses; We Know Best"

I’ll give this short shrift, but this is basically the camp of the financial, technology, retail, and many other sectors from Salesforce, Apple, and Amazon to BlackRock and Disney that are requiring in-person, in-the-office work for three, four, or even five days a week (at JPMorgan). Employees are accepting but also balking at these mandates, and the jury is out on how they will fare over time.

"Chicago Weeks"

One of our Midwest pharmaceutical clients who deeply cares about striking the right balance has built their policy around “Chicago Weeks.” Once a month, all employees fly into Chicago for a jam-packed week of in-person events that go long into the evenings.

I fully endorse the compartmentalised or “sprint” style of this approach, but that week is intense. I feel that’s too long a stretch for the health of employees, their balance with family and kids, or their ability to do their best work.

"Core Weeks"—The J.M. Smucker Experiment

A recent piece by the Wall Street Journal profile explained how leaders at J. M. Smucker—the fifth-generation Ohio jam company—-dove into a “core week” strategy. Basically, each employee needs to work in-person six days a month and is expected to meet that threshold by coming in to the office during twenty-two designated “core” weeks each year.

Over time, these core weeks have become action-packed periods of strategic sessions, business planning, team training, problem-solving, and catch-ups. According to the article, staff have actually logged "additional hours, scheduling back-to-back meetings and dinners with peers." Local staff can commute from shorter or longer distances, and “super commuters” can fly in and stay at a hotel at their own expense.

 I love this model. However, my own first choice breaks with J. M. Smucker’s ever so slightly.

Six hours over twenty-two potential weeks would allow for many days of half-full offices. What’s potentially missing from the J. M. Smucker plan are galvanising moments with everyone together at the same designated time, fostering a rally cry of “All for one, one for all.”

 

Read more: 

Six Serious Challenges Of Hybrid Work and How to Overcome Them 

The Missing Tool in Your Hybrid Work Plan


What Would I Advise?

So, here is where I’ve come down (so far) on the balance of time in or out of the office. For companies that formally or informally ask our advice, I am currently recommending the following:

  • Companies designate six days each month for in-person, collaborative work.
  • These days should be absolutely mandatory.

I envision these days as split into two monthly “sprints” of three days each: one sprint of three days of intense work, and a second sprint comprised of two days of intense work and a final day for culture, fun, and connection.

Time on the workdays would be allocated to brainstorming, collaborating, and other innovative activities. These full days of in-person connectivity would be built for rich, creative work in which physical togetherness could provide the energy and insights that lead to more innovative solutions to both the big new ideas we’re working on, and the everyday problems teams have previously faced alone.

On the culture day, there would be no corporate work. Instead, it would become an opportunity to focus on the community aspects of company connectivity. I can imagine a day full of recreation, good food, intimacy-building exercises, lots and lots of white space for teams to get to know one another, employee awards or surprises, or even company-wide service projects. This day could even occur off-site, depending on company size. This day would become a monthly deposit in the bank account of the interpersonal relationships that make a company work.

When it comes to returning to the office, I think six days of togetherness is more than enough time to support innovative collaboration, build a cohesive company culture, and provide all the face-to-face benefits of an in-person workplace while still giving employees the level of autonomy needed to do their best work (and retain top talent in the process.)

As a frequent traveler, I think two short trips a month is manageable for families at home; connecting with loved ones; and providing time for less hurried, more focused work. If I were an employee, this is what I would want. And if I were a boss (which I am), this would strike a fair balance.

Doing our best work should always be the goal, and that goal can be achieved by thoughtful policies that push our own biases into the background and prioritise a healthy balance of both company-wide communication and individual autonomy.

Now I would like to hear from you. Where do you come down on RTO, and how successful have you been in implementing this strategy?

This article was also published on Juliet Funt's LinkedIn.

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Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO at JFG (Juliet Funt Group), which is a consulting and training firm built upon the popular teaching of CEO Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think.
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