When There’s No Going Back, Decide How to Move Forward

“When the dust finally settles…”

“As soon as we get back to normal…”

When we hear comments like these from our wishful-thinking clients, we tell them that try as they might, there’s no going back. There’s no such thing as “normal” anymore (and we’re pretty sure there won’t ever be anything resembling a static workplace state again), and the dust will never, ever settle.

And yet, many leaders are immobilized by uncertainty and fear, reluctant to make an “official” move to a new distributed work model, and at the same time, know that returning to the “old way” just won’t cut it. Where do these fears come from, and how can they be overcome in our roles as leaders? Joining me in writing this edition of Communique is Nancy Loates-Taylor, Principal, Loates-Taylor Consultants, a business performance improvement consultancy. Together, we speculated on the reasons leaders fear moving to a new model, the ramifications of stalling, and practical steps they can take to gain traction.

Why the fear?

●      They’re overly optimistic. They imagine that once everyone is back in the office, they’ll realize how great it can be to work side by side eight hours a day, five days a week, and will gladly accept a long commute, inflexible work hours, and a steady string of interruptions.

●      They’re insecure. They’re not sure how to lead or organize work using a flexible or hybrid work model, and don’t want to appear vulnerable or weak by acknowledging they need help. The command-and-control style of management that catapulted many of them to senior leadership positions hasn’t worked very well in the virtual world, and they’re not sure if they have what it takes to be successful in a hybrid organization.


●      They’re afraid of failing. They feel overwhelmed by the options, and don’t know how to go about weighing the options and making the necessary trade-offs. They pride themselves on being a strong leader and if they make any wrong moves, they’re afraid of losing credibility and respect, not to mention the potential cost to the organization in terms of employee attrition, lost opportunities and lost revenue.

●      They’re feeling forced to make a change they’re not sold on. Just because other organizations, including their competitors, are moving to a hybrid work model, they don’t feel they should have to follow suit, despite data that suggests most employees want the opportunity to work remotely at least 2-3 days/week.

●      They believe that people “can’t really collaborate if they’re not in the same room at the same time,” even when performance numbers from the last two years suggest the opposite is true. In reality, people working remotely have found ways to collaborate brilliantly, involving more perspectives than would have otherwise been possible, but old paradigms die hard.

●      They don’t trust that people are doing their jobs if they can’t see them, even though in reality, many have performed their jobs better than ever over the last two years, and research shows that most employees have been putting in longer hours than in the pre-pandemic days.

●      They want to justify their sunk real estate costs. Many have long-term expensive leases that they’re reluctant to change or terminate early, and they’re looking to justify carrying all of that expensive space.

Despite their reluctance to move to a distributed work model, many leaders realize that if they don’t offer some job flexibility as to where and when people work, they stand to lose employees and will struggle to recruit new ones, at any salary.

Practical steps to move forward:

●      Assess the real costs of not making changes. What if you do nothing? As employees leave, the cost to recruit, attract, retain and onboard new employees can be astronomical. Involve HR, Finance, Operations, Market Research and others who can help you get a true picture of the costs incurred when losing valued employees, as well as the cost of missed opportunities when you’re short-staffed.

●      Survey representative stakeholders from across your organization, at all levels, to find out what they’re thinking and feeling. By “survey,” we mean speaking with people, whether 1:1, in focus groups, or in an online conversation area. Written surveys can be helpful to quantify trends, but by having conversations, people will know that you care what they think, and you’ll be gaining deeper insights to help you make well-informed decisions.

●      Discover what your competition is doing, especially if they’re in a position to recruit your employees or candidates. In a recent Boston Business Journal poll, 40% of employees said they considered a remote work policy to be a benefit on par with paid leave, health care coverage or a 401(k) plan. If you’re not offering job flexibility, chances are, your competitors are.

●      Be aware of what you’re taking away from your employees if you go back to “the old way.” You may be taking away the time they haven’t had to spend on commuting, and the money they haven’t had to spend on transportation and clothing costs. Some employees may also need to purchase a second car, and those with school-age children may need to pay for after-school care or get help to pick up and drop off their kids. People who accepted these costs in a pre-COVID world may not be so keen to incur them again now.

●      Make an unambiguous decision as soon as you can. Vet the trade-offs with a representative group of leaders and stakeholders before stating your intentions clearly, along with your rationale. Equip leaders, supervisors, managers with what they need to communicate new policies, processes, rationale and related timing, along with the implications for their teams.

●      Establish and communicate boundaries, exceptions and related timing. Examples: We will follow this model for the next six months and use these key metrics to determine whether to make it permanent. We will give everyone a minimum of a 90-day notice if we plan to make changes. This represents a permanent change in the way we work. Those in the Maintenance and Customer Service divisions need to be onsite full-time, with certain exceptions.

●      Empower managers and supervisors to work with their team members to establish their operating model to agree on team norms or principles governing such areas as days and hours in the office, “golden hours” when everyone must be accessible at the same time, making the best use of office time, handoffs, how communication channels will be used, decision rights, issue escalation, and asking for and offering help.

●      In whichever hybrid model you select, encourage managers and leaders to get more involved with their people. Contact team members regularly, even daily in some cases. Discuss their challenges and explore ideas and opportunities. Find out what’s working, what’s not, and what’s needed. Where such conversations might have taken place at the water cooler in the office, now they need to be done consciously and systematically.

●      Make a few changes at a time. Caucus your organization to determine which changes are most urgently needed up front. For example, a new policy outlining minimum technology requirements may be most needed at the outset, while reworking the performance review process may have to wait.

●      Reconsider the use of space to make working in the office feel like an “offsite.” Instead of preserving rows of cubicles, imagine how you might create space for gatherings (spontaneous or planned), training, a place for cross-pollinating knowledge, all-hands meetings or social gatherings.

●      Identify skills gaps by population segment, and invest in the needed resources, which may include formal or informal training, job shadowing, mentoring, coaching, and ongoing management attention and support.

Many of today’s leaders are still deciding on a long-term work model that makes sense for their employees, managers, and the organization as a whole. Meanwhile, many employees are making a move to organizations that offer the kind flexibility they’re looking for. As you determine the working model that makes the most sense, don’t wait to create shared principles, which can help serve as guideposts for managers, supervisors and team members as they determine how they’ll get work done.

And finally, leaders need to believe in themselves. This kind of organizational transformation may appear daunting at first, but the same experience and expertise that made them successful leaders has prepared them to effectively manage the uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of this constant state of flux.




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