I feel like I’ve just emerged from hibernation.

After a year and a half sequestered in my home office, leading our transcontinental team remotely and not meeting partners, clients, or new hires in person, a day in London this week reminded me why in-person interaction is important. The entire day highlighted for me what worked well pre-pandemic, and what we’re frankly in jeopardy of losing if we remain holed up in our homes in perpetuity.

I was struck by the value of the conversations I had, the goodwill and energy they generated, and how different in-person interactions are from the virtual meetings we’ve all become accustomed to.

Forgetting the elements of office life that worked well is the easiest thing in the world for people to do. It’s human nature, and there’s even a name for it – recency bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes us to give greater importance and weight to the most recent events, over those that happened in our past.

In our recent and collective past, many of us made the abrupt transition to remote work with aplomb. United in the determination to defeat our common enemy, the coronavirus, people worldwide demonstrated marvelous dedication and professionalism, achieving record levels of engagement even as they navigated continuous change and learned to work and collaborate remotely.

We’ve forgotten what worked about being in the office 

Without a doubt, we’ve learned some valuable lessons and new skills throughout the pandemic. However, our recent experience has effectively eclipsed the past. As we chart the plan for the future of work, and what that means for the organisations we lead, revisiting what worked in the past is an important piece of the strategy.

However, we’re at an inflection point, and leaders will need to strike a balance between the elements of office life before the pandemic that are valuable to the business and the elements of remote working that have proven popular with employees. As you work through the particular calculus for your business, it’s also crucial to keep in mind that remote and flexible work arrangements are indeed extremely popular with employees, and are being embraced by some businesses as a retention and recruiting tool.

This is truly a moment requiring empathetic leadership from the top – because gaining employee buy-in is crucially important for not just making the policy stick; it’s also vitally important for retaining current employees and ultimately strengthening the team culture moving forward.

What the in-office experience does really well

Let’s start by looking at some of the elements of office life we know are valuable and effective. While they’re different for every business, here are some aspects of office life that simply cannot be replicated virtually, including:

  • Real conversations. Think about the last great conversation you had with someone – when you volleyed ideas back and forth like the players on the centre court at Wimbledon. A great conversation encourages the exploration of concepts and provides subtle cues that validate ideas and highlight opportunities, all as copious information is exchanged. While recent events have proven that teams can connect and collaborate effectively, recency bias helps explain why we’ve so readily forgotten the value of in-person conversation, and the benefits conversations confer upon participants.
  • Human connections. It’s easy to overlook the simple fact that one reason why companies were able to successfully make the abrupt shift to working from home is rooted in the existing relationships and connections their employees already had. Building (and reinforcing) connections between people, and incorporating new employees into the fold, is enhanced and accelerated by in-person interaction. Case in point: a year of Zooming with friends and family left us hungering to see people, in person. return to the officeThose relationships benefit from our being together, and healthy work relationships are no different. Noted author Adam Grant put a finer point on it in a recent essay for the New York Times.

‘We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescence,’ he writes, describing the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose. ‘Peak happiness lies mostly in collective activity.’

  • Employee recognition and appreciation. A significant factor in employee engagement is whether or not their manager gives them enough recognition. The office is a fantastic facilitator of feedback and recognition opportunities, from managers, other leaders, and peers. As we wrote recently, some of the smallest-seeming actions – such as a simple ‘Great work!,’ positive feedback, or even a thank-you – are powerful ways to reinforce behaviors, as well as having an outsize effect on employees’ levels of engagement. As with other interpersonal communications, being together in person not only makes the interactions easier and more genuine, it also makes them more likely to happen.
  • Collaboration and cross-pollination. There’s simply no better way to generate, elaborate and refine ideas than to bring a diverse group of stakeholders together, and lob a challenge into their midst. The real catalyst behind a successful collaboration is the rapid exchange of information – the kind that occurs when an application developer gets to hear from a user on the front lines, or when a product designer gets a download on customer challenges from a sales rep to speaks to prospects each day – and then they begin to build upon each other’s ideas and feedback. That’s why I tie ‘cross-pollination’ in with collaboration, and it’s especially powerful when it happens in real life because the interactions I describe are the basis for increasing vital connections between people and the business.

There are also more defined activities that many organisations have found are better in-person, such as onboarding new team members, reviews and goal-setting, and learning and development.

Leaders should also be attuned to the needs of different generations and personality types. Employees early in their careers are increasingly concerned the pandemic has left them under-informed and cut off from their teams, according to a Bloomberg story, ‘Fed-Up Young Workers Fear They Need Offices to Save Their Careers.’

‘Despite a majority under 30 saying remote work made them more productive, over half of the survey’s respondents across Europe — ranging in age from 18 to 45 — say they feel anxious about a lack of training and career opportunities when thinking long-term about the future of work,’ notes reporter Marc Daniel Davies in the story.

How do I get employees to return to the office? 

Successfully returning to the office requires leaders to do two things: overcome recency bias and allow people choice and control. Overcoming recency bias by demonstrating the benefit to individuals of being in the office physically is an important first step – done correctly, it will motivate individuals to come back, and may also great word-of-mouth buzz to help the effort. The key to success – ensure people see the benefit. Productive collaboration sessions and face-time with executives (if not one on one, try small groups) are particularly effective.

Good PR for your efforts aside, allowing people choice and control is essential if you hope to garner their buy-in. They’ve been operating with unprecedented independence for more than a year – and in many cases, very successfully. It’s unlikely they will simply fall in line if you dictate a return. Instead, ask them to volunteer – for the collaborations, meeting up with new hires, and feedback sessions with leaders.

When they are allowed to sign up, chances are good they will sign on. 

Find the best fit for your team 

The challenge for leaders is in finding the approach to the workplace that fits their team, culture, and objectives, and then creating enthusiasm and buy-in from employees.

return to the office

To do this, one must “seek first understand, in order to be understood,” and that starts with gathering feedback from your people. However, expectations management also comes heavily into play, and right at the outset of this exercise. For example, if full-time remote work is not something you envision in your organisation’s future, you should avoid implying that it’s a possibility by asking whether or not people prefer working in the office or remotely. Instead, ask what kinds of interactions they gain the most value from having in person. Your team’s answers to that question would provide valuable guidance for leaders as they build the return to work policy – and nearly guaranteed buy-in from the team.

At Engagement Multiplier we’ve been providing the tools and resources to help leaders navigate returning to the office. It’s been very encouraging to see how, when managed properly, recency bias can be overcome and teams can, once again, enjoy working together in person. As I sign this off now, I’m preparing for a day in the office with the whole UK team, and lunch together. Just like the good old days…