How shared principles finally got a leadership team unstuck

Senior leaders from a family-run Boston-area insurance company were frustrated that their 90+ corporate employees were refusing to return to the office full time.

“We want to get back to being a family, just like we were before COVID,” they said.

Employees and department managers saw it differently. “We’ve proven that we can be even more productive working remotely, and we like having the extra time in our lives. And besides, we’re not you’re family.”

As leaders continued to debate remote workplace policies over the three years since the start of COVID, employees began leaving for companies that were willing to commit to a flexible work model.

Laura, the Chief Human Resources Officer, called me in to help break the impasse. “We need an objective facilitator we trust who understands hybrid work to help guide us in making crucial decisions, but we don’t want someone to make decisions for us. Senior leaders are wary about bringing anyone who has a ‘hybrid agenda.’” After an initial meeting with senior leaders, we all agreed that a facilitated working session to create shared principles would be the best first step to help senior leaders get unstuck.

See the links below for templates, job aids and examples

To prepare for the workshop, I interviewed several leaders, and in parallel, I set up an anonymous virtual conference area for department managers and supervisors to share their perspectives. This way, we could start the workshop with a shared understanding of the current state from multiple perspectives.

I was thrilled when, early on in the first workshop, all senior leaders agreed to this principle: “Employees have flexibility in terms of where and when they work.” But it soon became clear that “flexibility” had very different meanings around the table. While some felt that work schedules should be part of the discussion, others argued that hours were non-negotiable. Some felt a minimum of three days in the office was “flexible enough,” while others wanted department managers and team members to make their own decisions.

By the end of this first workshop, the team agreed on a handful of principles, all of which had profound implications:

💎 Our company culture transcends work location
💎 Department leaders and team members agree on work location and hours
💎 We invest in technology that makes it easy to work from anywhere

💎 We foster connections though intentional in-person gatherings

Our second workshop, held a few weeks later, also included 20+ supervisors. Small groups brainstormed a series of policies and actions to help bring each principle to life. (Examples: Department heads take a first pass at identifying which roles require a certain minimum amount of time in the office, along with rationale. HR conducts focus groups and surveys to ask employees to brainstorm aspects of the company culture they value the most. Joe will lead a subteam to brainstorm ideas for in-person gatherings that make commuting worthwhile.)

As part of the debrief, participants agreed on priority actions and logical subteams accountable for carrying the work forward, along with delivery dates. The company finally had an agreed-upon policy they could defend, communicate and implement.

Creating shared, explicit principles is essential for teams to gain alignment and make decisions that are clear-headed, equitable and reasonable. Without shared principles as a foundation, the road ahead will be fraught with conflicts, accusations of unfairness, frustration, and ultimately, will cause delays that can be measured in dollars, lower productivity, and attrition.

Essential ingredients for success – The “secret sauce”

🎇 As a team, identify a few areas where principles are most urgently needed
🎇 Create a shared understanding of the heuristics of sound principles
🎇 Break into small groups to brainstorm wording
🎇 Discuss the implications. What has to change? What actions are needed?

🎇 Agree how your team will vet, validate and refine principles as needed

Other real-life examples:

This scenario is fairly typical of principles workshops I have facilitated—virtually, in-person, or hybrid—for dozens of organizations across all industries, such as:

❇️ A Federal government agency that needed to pivot overnight to an all-virtual community outreach program on the heels of COVID
❇️ The engineering group of a world-leading oil company that couldn’t agree on criteria and guidelines for greenlighting $1B+ projects

❇️ The drug delivery team of a global pharmaceutical firm facing costly delays due to the proliferation of multiple disconnected information systems

If you or your team need help creating shared principles and norms to make difficult decisions, assess tough trade-offs or simply to pave the way for successful change, Guided Insights can help.

Please see the links below for templates, guidelines, examples and articles that can help get you started. Even better: Send me an email or go to my website to book a quick call.


Downloadable checklists, templates and sample agendas


Past Communiques

Related Workshops from Guided Insights  


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