As companies schedule their return to the office (RTO if you’re playing Buzzword Bingo), we have been checking into them with a simple question: How’s it going?

Their answers fall into a couple of broad categories.

Everything is fine and dandy

A few report that everything’s great; they are either going to the exact some structure as before the pandemic (usually, everyone is in the office or working from home flexibly with the office being the default position.) As Shakespeare said, “we few, we happy few.” This hasn’t been the majority of cases.

Not really going like we planned

Most of our clients have realized that the policy they put in place is not working out exactly as planned. Some need minor tweaks to their original plan, others require a complete overhaul. Among the problems they have encountered:

  • People agreed to coming into the office a certain number of days and are regretting that decision. Sometimes they just forgot how awful traffic could be and think back on the days of working from home full time with nostalgia. The employees want to renegotiate the agreement.
  • The policy was dictated by senior leadership, and the managers at the team level weren’t completely bought in to start with.
  • Some people find they “can’t get any work done” when they are in the office.
  • A few organizations find that assigning days (usually Wednesdays) as the day everyone comes in means offices are shockingly empty the rest of the week, wasting both money and space.
  • At least one client decreed everyone return and then two weeks later had to close up because a majority of team members caught COVID This was extra disturbing because it was a healthcare company but didn’t put distancing policies in place since “everything was fine.” They are now re-examining  everything including health and safety protocols that weren’t in the original plan.

What we learned

When we are able to have candid conversations about the subject, we’ve learned a few things that are instructive. Not surprisingly, when policies come down as dictates (usually from Senior Leadership) there is more pushback on the rules, and more unpleasant surprises like absenteeism, disengagement and turnover.

Even when employees were part of the process and were involved in making the decisions about what their workplace will look like, there have been surprises. What people envisioned hasn’t materialized.

This isn’t a surprise. The old adage, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans,” has always had more truth than we’d like to admit. Circumstances change. People agree to something and then realize their reaction is different than they thought (or hoped) it would be.

Change is never simple

Changing policy isn’t easy. Never mind the documentation, communication strategy, and logistics of implementing, enforcing and then altering any new policy. It causes chaos, resentment and emotional stress that can impact productivity and morale.

That’s why we’ve been engaged in conversations that can be summed up as, “pilot first, policy later.” If we treat this period of reorganization as an opportunity to try new things adjust to reality and account for changes on both a team and societal level, it will be less traumatic when things change. And they will.

There is something comforting about policy. It makes decision making easier. It frees people of responsibility (“Hey it wasn’t my idea…”) and is a blunt instrument for helping to shape culture, which is an important consideration. But when a policy doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground, there will inevitably be conflict.

Pilot programs, on the other hand, allow more flexibility. It’s assumed they will be time-limited, examined, and re-assessed. Change, ranging from minor tweaks to a complete re-thinking of how your team will work together, is less traumatic and your next attempt is likely to be more successful.

As we look at what it means to “go to work,” what hybrid work looks like, and what kind of culture we want to develop for our teams, it’s might be easier to treat this period as  a pilot program, rather than a new, inviable policy.


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.

The latest book from Wayne and Kevin shows leaders how to design a team culture that has a one-team mindset and gets great results under hybrid-work conditions. You can pre-order The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for Everyone’s Success now.

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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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