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NextGen Magazine


Management Consultants Urge Leaders to Rethink Their Return-to-Office Strategies

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Oct 2, 2023

Companies need to rethink how they implement return to the office (RTO) mandates, two management consultants wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

“Instead of threatening employees, CEOs should empower and enable their managers … to gain a deep and nuanced understanding of the work their teams do, the working style of their team members, and how that work best gets done,” wrote Deborah Lovich, a managing director and senior partner in the Boston office of Boston Consulting Group, and Rosie Sargeant, a project leader at Boston Consulting Group’s London office. They added that CEOs “must also consider the impact of generative AI, which will change all of these factors.”

As “many of today’s leaders struggle to embrace ways of working that are radically different from how they grew up,” the successful ones will be those who focus on four actions.

The first action is recognizing the needs of the work. That means understanding such matters as what tasks and activities are best done in person. Surveying more than 1,500 office-based workers, they found that participants were eight times more likely to prefer being in-person for affiliation and development, compared with doing work that requires focus or tackling administrative tasks, which are better done remotely. “It becomes even more critical to recognize which types of work are best done in different settings in the age of generative AI,” they wrote.

The second action is recognizing the needs of the people. That means caring about diversity, equity, and inclusion to get the working model right, they wrote. For example, they found that female employees are 1.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to prioritize flexibility. “But teams with high cognitive diversity will need more options to maintain optimum performance and happiness,” they wrote.

The authors urged leaders to remember “that your people are just as diverse as your customers.” Being concerned about their employees just as much as they are concerned about their customers “can reveal the root of the emotional and functional needs involved in making decisions about their careers—and create work environments that fulfill these needs.”

The third action is rethinking how work gets done. Such a step entails  not only giving employees a say in the work model policy, but also redesigning the office to make it more amenable to collaboration, as Cisco and Dropbox are doing. “Such moves are consistent with their respective work model policies,” they wrote, “which enable employees to do focus work remotely and encourage employees to come together for key events such as all-hands meetings.”

“Redesigned work models also need to consider the ways in which we communicate,” the authors wrote. These include asynchronous modes of work, such as email, chat, shared documents, or offline review. "Leaders will also need to monitor the impact of new technologies that they introduce,” such as considering “where and how people collaborate most effectively to ensure they retain their creativity and innovativeness.”

Finally, the authors advocated investing in building two new managerial muscles. One is to facilitate discussions with and align their teams on where, when, and how work gets done, something that was not needed before and during COVID-19. The other is the “need to build [managers'] ability to create connection and culture as well as develop, inspire, mentor, and coach across distributed and hybrid teams [and] meet employees’ emotional as well as functional needs.” The results would be “better performance, engagement, and retention, to name but a few.”

“While it may be easier to follow the crowd and issue blanket return-to-office policies, the potential upside of implementing thoughtful changes based on the four categories above is not only worth it—it will soon become an imperative for businesses that want to create and sustain work and talent advantages into the future,” they wrote in conclusion.