CEOs are asking one question – how do we return to work?

Across America, CEOs are at a crossroads with a quandary – when and how to bring workers back to the office.

CEOs want to return to work full-time. Most employees don’t.

Surveys from Harvard Business School and McKinsey reveal a sharp disconnect between what executive leaders and employees want.

HBR found that 81% of workers surveyed don’t want to come back to the office, or would prefer a hybrid arrangement. Of those seeking a hybrid schedule, nearly two thirds want to work from home two to three days a week. Less than 20% want to return to work in-person full time.

Contrast that with three-quarters of C-suite executives surveyed by McKinsey who said they expected typical core employees to be back in the office three or more days a week.

In that survey, the same amount (75%) of employees said they would like the opposite – to work from home two to three days per week. Half want even more than that.

There is no going back.

Much of this stems from the new realities ushered in by the pandemic. While trends and issues were already present, many were pushed into overdrive as the world shut down and everyone learned to work and live differently.

It’s critical for CEOs, like myself, to guard against the desire to make return to work plans contingent upon their own preferences.

A study published by the CDC in August of 2020 found that 40% of adults struggle with mental health issues that onset during the pandemic.

Seeing those stats may lead some to believe that a return to pre-pandemic work conditions will necessarily help relieve those issues.

However, drawing that conclusion ignores the reality that working from home wasn’t entirely negative for everyone. Many employees rediscovered a connection to their homes and families that they are reluctant to give up.

Flex time, employee assistance programs, counseling support and a hybrid work environment are all tools that should be in every leader’s belt when thinking through how to solve this problem.

What leaders must resist is the urge to issue a grand statement of returning to the office as a salvo for all the discomfort and upheaval of the past 18 months. Such a message will not only fall flat, but will risk coming across as tone deaf to the employees leaders are trying to engage and encourage.

Around the world, workers are leaving their jobs at much higher rates than is typically seen. Microsoft found that 40% of employees are considering leaving their current jobs by the end of 2021.

That desire is unlikely to change by requiring a return to full-time, in-person work settings.

Finding a path forward

So, what is the path forward? Should employers cave to what their employees want, or do they have legitimate needs and concerns as well?

As a small business owner and CEO of a full service ad agency that not only survived, but thrived during the pandemic, I believe the answer lies in finding common ground. Employers and employees must hear, understand and consider each other’s viewpoints and needs.

Office space is an investment. I know because we moved into our new headquarters shortly before the pandemic began.

We barely had time to settle in to our new digs when the pandemic ripped us out of them.

Seeing pristine office space that was designed purposely to foster creativity, engagement and enjoyments sit largely unused week after week is not ideal.

However, I understand that our team is dealing with a host of new issues around childcare, work environment, productivity, collaboration, family life and more and I am genuinely concerned for their personal well-being and professional development.

Let Four Principles Guide Your Plan

Through conversations with other leaders and a review of the abundance of research on this issue, I have settled on four principles to guide our path forward:

If these four priorities are kept in view, they can guide CEOs and small business owners alike, not to a finish line, but through the journey that the American economy must now embark upon together.

1: Communicate Often & Transparently

When the pandemic hit, the strategic communications team went into overdrive, creating crisis communication tools to help businesses weather the storm and stay connected with their customers.

Our top tip for business owners was to keep talking.

Many wanted to cut advertising because of the cost, but we helped them see that going dark is the worst thing a business can do during a crisis.

It turns out that the same advice we offered businesses at the start of the pandemic applies now.

As you lead your team through the coming months, over communication and not radio silence is going to keep employees engaged. As you communicate regularly and often with your team, remember to be transparent.

You should think through and resolve how you feel personally about returning to work before addressing your team about it, and keep it on the back burner, careful not to let your own preferences outweigh the voices of your team and what’s best for the company.

2: Reimagine Work Teams

When McKinsey interviewed CEOs about returning to work, it found a commonality among companies that thrived during the pandemic – cross functional work units.

That resonated deeply with me as I’ve seen better outcomes generated by cross-functional teams assembled at project start. If your industry is like mine, your teams are organized into silos.

While that creates efficiencies in areas of expertise, it hinders breakthrough thinking and hampers agility.

When teams are represented by every function within your company and empowered to achieve outcomes by whatever means they deem best, they are not only efficient, nimble and effective, they are engaged in meaningful work, which improves their commitment to the organization and enjoyment of their work.

3: Prioritize Strategy

I have no doubt that C-suite leaders prioritize strategy. It’s the connective tissue between the vision in our heads and the outcomes we lead our companies to achieve.

The problem is that at too many companies, strategy does not move throughout the organization such that every employee understands and applies it.

When employees lack clarity around the company’s goals and the strategy to achieve them, they are forced to operate in a vacuum. Absent the context of organizational strategy, they become focused on executing individual responsibilities in a silo.

That kind of setup often returns poor decisions that don’t advance company goals and causes managers to micromanage employees, who end up feeling disengaged and frustrated in their daily work.

Instead, empower capable employees to make good decisions based on strategy and you will see the results in your bottom line.

4: Invest in Technology

While this is something we do every day, what we really need to focus on now is investing in technologies that enable collaboration and connection.

That was another commonality shared by respondents to the McKinsey study that came out of the pandemic ahead of their competition.

Sixty percent of them made collaboration technologies easy to adopt versus only 25% of respondents that didn’t fare so well during the pandemic.

Find low-cost, flexible ways to collaborate as you forge a hybrid work environment. Be inclusive in your application of it so that employees can join every meeting they need to.

Consider having every team member join company-wide meetings from their computers, regardless of whether they are joining from the office or remotely.

Such a step connects every employee to each other and removes the perception that in-office employees are engaging in communication that remote employees cannot.

A final word as we forge ahead

I say ‘we’ here because I really do believe we are all in this together. The American economy is fueled by businesses that have the power to uplift entire communities.

There’s nothing I love more than helping businesses grow. It’s why OBI Creative exists.

A healthy bottom line for your business also means a healthier community for your employees.

Listen to your team, communicate often and with transparency; prioritize strategy; invest in collaboration tools; and reimagine work through cross-functional teams.

Follow these four principles and you’ll experience not only a healthy bottom line, but your employees and the communities they call home will be part of finding not just a new normal, but a better normal than we’ve had before.

Want help reimagining work, communicating openly, prioritizing strategy, or investing in collaboration technology? Connect with me today to start a discussion about solutions that will help your business grow.


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