To return to the office or not? That is the question corporate leaders are asking yet again after two years of navigating the pandemic's impact on reopening office doors. While many are eager for in-person interactions, some who've had to deal with ongoing childcare and school disruptions, as well as increasing caregiving demands, are concerned about the impact a return-to-office mandate could have on their ability to juggle their newfound responsibilities.

"When you think about bringing people back, not everyone can come back," Chief Member Holly Jones, Founder and Principal at Tacoma Street Ventures, says. "It's not even that they've just gotten used to having the chance to work from home and be more focused on their families. It's that their families need them more."

Jones, who has worked with several organizations throughout the pandemic on their return-to-office strategies, says she's seen how divisive sentiments about remote work and in-person work have led to tension between corporate leaders and their teams. In fact, a poll by Morning Consult on behalf of Bloomberg News found that 39% of U.S. adults said they would consider quitting their jobs if their employers weren't flexible about remote work.

"Everyone that I speak with and work with is tired at this point," she says, in regards to the back-and-forth decisions leaders are announcing. "It's kind of like you ran a marathon and got to mile 25, and then you realized you were in an ironman and not a marathon and now you've got I don't know how many more miles to go. You're already tired and so it's tough to make decisions."

While it's impossible to please the demands and needs of every employee, Jones says there are ways for leaders to develop a comprehensive workplace strategy that best suits their bottom line. This includes, she says, having a solid sense of your team's concerns about in-person and out-of-office work, as well as having a fair outlook on performance measurements to accommodate  various working styles.

Conduct Culture Assessments

Being aware of your team's culture and how the majority of individuals will respond to an in-person, out-of-office, or hybrid schedule is key. "I think just basic pulse feedback checks with the team are helpful," Jones says. She explains that when companies first started discussing return-to-office plans earlier in the pandemic, pulse checks were more common as leaders tried to figure out their new normal. Now, she says, as companies have undergone multiple delays in their reopening plans due to COVID waves, some leaders have fallen short on reassessing how their staff feels about going back to the office two years into the pandemic.

"There's definitely been some drop-offs with pulse checks," she says, while adding that company leaders need to follow-up with their team and ask, "What do they want and how are they feeling?"

Chief Member Tania Salarvand, Managing Director at software development company Globant, says that she and other leaders at her company decided that a remote-first, office optional plan was right for their team after a culture survey showed them how people were feeling about the return-to-office plan they tested last summer. "Everyone said, 'We want to have the option of coming in when we want and not being told to or required to,'" Salarvand says. As a result, she says her team, who is fully capable of doing their work remotely, opted to give employees the flexibility they needed to effectively do their job. "We create a lot of autonomy in our groups because we want people to feel like they own how they work," she says, explaining that leaders who have a sense of understanding and flexibility to their team's needs will see a lot of satisfaction in their staff.

Preemptively Counteract the "Zoom Ceiling"

While company pulse checks will give leaders a sense of how flexible they need to be with return-to-office plans, both Salarvand and Jones agree that executing workplace flexibility will only be effective if leaders are fair in how they evaluate performances. Already, experts are concerned about the impact remote work could have on women and people of color, who tend to opt for more flexible work options than other employees. In fact, Elora Voyles, People Scientist at human resource company Tinypulse, coined the term "Zoom ceiling" to refer to the bias favoring in-person employees that can keep individuals working hybrid or remote from receiving fair promotions and recognition.

"Leadership really needs to take a hard look at whether they have a culture that really accepts and appreciates that some people need to have different work settings, and that they're a company that is inclusive and accepting of a broader range of work-life situations," Jones says. A lot of this work, she explains, starts with the human resource team ensuring that there is a careful and fair tracking of performance measurements that don't fall into the archaic view of in-person work meaning more dedication.

"Human resource teams need to really look beyond the quicker ways of assessing people and ask, 'How do we truly measure people? How do we measure results?' And they need to get past some of the inherent biases that might be in place and tied to a former way of working that was much more catered to everyone in an office," Jones says.

To ensure that fair recognition is received at her company, Salarvand says she and her team have implemented a new HR system called "Star Me Up" that requires employees and managers to recognize their peers and subordinates with stars for their great work. "It's highly encouraged to the point where if you haven't sent any stars you will get a notification that says, 'You haven't sent any stars in a month,'" Salarvand says. This AI-backed system, she explains, also monitors how often someone is engaging with and giving stars to one team member over the other, sending a notification if it feels like an individual needs to set-up a coffee date or Zoom call with another colleague.

While an AI-backed system such as "Star Me Up" may not be possible for all leaders, Salarvand says that doesn't mean there aren't other ways in which executives can take matters into their own hands when it comes to being fair at work. "I feel like it's each individual and each leader's responsibility to be super conscious of working women, mothers, and anyone else who is trying to manage it all and feeling like being in the workforce they can't."