returning to the office

What do you know about how the next couple of months look for your team? There’s a strange tension in the air right now as people see the end of the COVID tunnel. Many organizations are making concrete plans for returning to the office, a continuation of remote work, or some oddball combination of those. But what are the assumptions you’re working under, and how valid are they?

There are a couple of quotes that help keep me sane during times like this. The first is from the great philosopher Mike Tyson, who said:

“Everybody has a fight plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The second took a lot of criticism at the time, but looking back it’s more prescient than initially thought at the time. Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said, when asked about the war in Iraq:                

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

This statement was ridiculed at the time as an example of double speak or avoiding the question, yet there’s wisdom in it.

Okay, so how do these quotes relate to returning to work?

Confidence isn’t the same as omniscience

No matter how confident we might be, there’s a lot we don’t really know yet. Not everyone’s comfortable with that, and when we’re unsure there are behaviors that can create problems on a team. If we aren’t comfortable with ambiguity we can see all kinds of things like

  • Breaking promises. If something doesn’t happen like you said it would, you’re seen as either a liar or incompetent. Neither is going to build trust or confidence in your team.
  • Being intentionally vague. Not addressing people’s concerns directly can be seen as evasive and makes a big difference to whether or not people trust you.

Some uncomfortable realities we must face returning to the office

  • We need to have a plan, but we also know that things might be different than we expect, and what do we do then?
  • Do you know what you really know, or are you hoping? What assumptions are you making about how things will look like? Are they supported by facts or are they just fervent hopes?
  • What don’t you know that will impact your plans? This is critical. Being honest about what you really know for a fact, versus what you think is true but might not be? Acknowledging that you don’t know something is hard for a lot of leaders because you’re used to being the fount of all knowledge (and that impacts our egos), but isn’t that better than saying something is a fact when it turns out not to be?
  • What are the unknown unknowns? Nobody knows if there will be a second surge of the virus. It looks like more people will choose to find jobs where they don’t have to go into the office than many expected, and there may be a wave of turnover coming. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that (to go back to Iron Mike) you will get punched in the nose. What will you do about it?

This post asks a lot of questions without a lot of answers. Really, the desired outcome is to help you a) be honest with your team about where things stand and what’s expected, and b) ask questions as you go so that you fill in the blanks as soon as you can.

Ambiguity was always a part of our business lives. Embracing it will be the key to thriving in the foreseeable future.

There is plenty we do know, however. Kevin and I have been working with remote teams for decades now. We’ve collected our research and experience in two great book, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership and The Long-Distance Teammate: Stay Engaged and Connected While Working Anywhere.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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