Back to the company office leadership tips for a smooth team transition

With ‘work from home’ directives disappearing, employers are considering how to make the workplace appealing once again and how best to welcome back employees into the office.

While leaders excited at the opportunity of gathering their teams back to their offices, many employees are keen to maintain a work-life balance that they have become accustomed to, and indeed many businesses are benefiting from, with more of a hybrid working model.

How can you ease your team back into the office?

So what are leaders to do in these times of transition? Here are some tips for leaders who are tasked with the role of transitioning their teams back into the company office.

Show Empathy

Take the time to acknowledge the incredible efforts of your employees and any challenges they have faced since you were last together. Many have had to balance their personal lives, while maintaining professional responsibilities, and all during times of heightened uncertainty.

Remind your colleagues that this is not a ‘return to work’ transition, but a return to the company office transition. Initiate a new employee workplace survey to get in tune with your people and any challenges they may be facing. Be sure to gain a strong understanding of their appetite to return to the office, and any changing preferences.

Provide clear and obvious questions to get a new read on the basics, such as preferred break times, working hours and opinions on communal spaces and facilities. This will demonstrate transparency and a willingness to make the transition as comfortable as possible, for all.

McKinsey research from June 2020 highlights the importance of laying the groundwork by being sensitive to the needs of employees, and advises that before thinking about re-entry at scale, leaders should understand where people are at mentally and prepare accordingly.

Some will be enthusiastic about returning to office, while others will not. Others may want to re-enter in theory, but worry about risks to their health and the safety of their loved ones.

Give Your Teams a Voice

Communicate to your colleagues that this transition will be a journey for all, and that you will be taking it together. Once your survey has been issued and the results reviewed, host a group setting to address any key points, and discuss how they think any new suggestions can work. This can be done in individual group settings, or for larger groups, as a whole.

Address any potential new changes and policies, and flag these before they are rolled out.   By opening up the channels of communication across all levels of your organisation, you are demonstrating that this is a team effort, and that all opinions are valued. Ensure that everyone has the opportunity to speak, contribute ideas and provide feedback.

My expertise in hosting focus groups at AMP Capital Investors proved that the value of bringing together a diverse group, and asking them for their opinion, can’t be underestimated.

While surveys play a vital role, much can be said about the old fashioned technique of asking people face to face what they think and how they could be better served and supported.

Do Your Research

The challenges we are facing aren’t new for many of our counterparts, research and see how firms abroad have addressed the new issues that Covid has brought into their workplaces.

In October 2020, MIT Sloan Management Review analysed 1.4 million employee-written reviews on Glassdoor, to examine how the pandemic influenced employees’ perceptions of corporate culture. They compared 50 firms with the biggest jump in their culture and values rating during the first six months of COVID-19, with 50 firms with the biggest overall drop.

They concluded that the top 50 companies distinguished themselves in three main areas:

  1. Clear and effective communication
  2. Increased attention to employee welfare
  3. Ability to deal with environmental changes in a flexible manner

The MIT Sloan Management Review research highlights that a global pandemic does not necessarily mean that organisations need to accept mediocre employee engagement levels.

Instead, leaders have the opportunity to rise up to the challenge and allow greater emphasis on people, communications and organisational agility, to work together to help employees feel even more connected and engaged with the organisation than pre-Covid days.

Prioritise Wellbeing

Placing people and culture at the centre of your business strategy is never understated, and businesses should look to seek benefits or access to programs which support their wellbeing.

Include a section on wellbeing in your survey to discover how your teams’ wellbeing needs may have changed. What constitutes a work-life balance to them? Don’t forget to regularly ask – ‘are you ok?’And mean it. While it can be tempting to adopt a cookie-cutter approach to employee wellbeing, most experts advise that the starting point is culture.

Danielle McMahan, CPO for Wiley said in a 2021 Forbes article, “We put together a team across the organisation from facilities to HR, to other leaders, to think about how to get really intentional about creating community and culture. Without culture being considered as the ‘true north’ for wellbeing efforts, companies run the risk of having a disconnected jumble of tactics which are ineffective—or worse—inauthentic.” (Forbes, 14 March 2021).

Be Inspiring

Make the return to the office transition a memorable experience.

Take the opportunity to engage your leaders and refocus teams on the firm’s vision, strategy and goals. Include them. Listen to their feedback, and provide opportunities for people to work together and make a difference. Whether it’s a company or community initiative, don’t be afraid to start something new and allow it to inject fresh energy into your workplace.

During my tenure working at the Commonwealth Bank, I had the privilege to work in the CEO Communications team, with Ralph Norris. Ralph had talent for energising an entire firm in one, collaborative direction. Ralph set one simple goal to be number one in client satisfaction.

A goal which at the time seemed impossible, we were ranking below all other major banks.

Yet he brought the whole firm along on an amazing journey, and behold, we achieved this goal of historic proportion. So, what was the secret to this success? While there are many contributing factors, I personally believe a big part of it was Ralph’s ability to inspire and include employees, at all levels, to share his vision with belief and passion.

Regardless of whether your people are physically located in the office or working from their homes, they need to feel a strong connection to your purpose, strategy and values.

When your people feel engaged, they will feel valued for their contribution and empowered to make a difference. Not only will this create a positive workplace culture for your organisation, it will also enable you to build a sustainable competitive advantage over the long term.


Linda Karkafi is founder and director at Commcentric