Everyone has an opinion about how, when or whether to return to the office. This rings especially true for those of us working every day to solve the challenges in this space, be they organizational or technological. But no matter which industry you’re in or which role you play within your organization, it’s easy to let our personal preferences guide our thinking around what the “correct” role of the office is in the future of work.
The thing is, those personal preferences and presumptions are shaped by the way the story is told to us. Following the media discussion around work in the pandemic-shifted landscape, one could easily conclude that the differences in opinion between employees and employers are insurmountable. With headlines such as “All bosses ‘secretly’ want workers back in the office” and “Employers are trying to get their power back in RTO plans,” there appears to be a major chasm between employees and leadership.
And while it’s crucial to point out where interests and opinions between employees and leaders diverge, it’s equally important that we focus on areas of shared interest and use those as a point of departure for discussion about the best way to organize work for the future.
Let’s trace how this chasm has emerged and look at a few ways to begin to repair it.
The Great Return-To-The-Office Miscommunication
In a recent Time article, a C-suite executive speaking on condition of anonymity acknowledged the gap between employees and leaders, suggesting that we approach it with more “grace and benefit of the doubt.” Similarly, the leader criticized the tendency of many to generalize about a right way to approach the future of work, particularly where remote or in-office work is concerned.
“Everybody’s just trying their best,” they stated. “We want to do the right thing by our employees. We want to do the right thing for the company overall. And it’s really unclear what the right thing is. It very much seems to depend on where you sit, what day it is, and what article you recently read.”
The debate around the return to the office (RTO) is often misconstrued or misunderstood, largely because of the way companies, leaders and media talk about it. Every time a new article makes the rounds in the media or on LinkedIn advising executives on “how to get employees back to the office,” it’s followed by an understandably skeptical chorus of voices from employees who are unhappy with the idea of being “forced” back to the office.
And while the intent is often to address the practical challenges of adapting the office space to meet the challenges of new virtual-first, distributed ways of working, their impact can be limited due to miscommunication from the outset.
Sharpening Leadership Communication
Our most recent Hybrid Ways of Working Global Report found that 63% of employees want a hybrid work arrangement going forward. In other words, both leaders and employees want to be at the office.
Where the issue often lies, it seems, is in the language leaders use to communicate about it: policy vs. principle, mandate vs. motivate. As leaders, are we creating policies for returning to the office, or are we establishing guiding principles? Are we mandating employees to be at their desks, or are we motivating and enabling them to be there?
These differences may seem trivial but fumbled communication almost always leads to mismanaged execution. So moving forward, when we as leaders discuss the return to the office, our messaging must match our intent. We must show that we’re making an effort to enable employees to live their ideal work life, and we must be genuine about it.
Three Ways To Minimize RTO Miscommunication
1. Give a better reason to come into the office.
Many workers know that their job can be done from home, so to them, coming into the office may simply be seen as an unnecessary impracticality. In fact, 73% of employees say they need a better reason to go into the office than just company expectations. Whether that be a great technology experience, new learning opportunities or stronger ties to colleagues, make sure that your message drives home that “better reason.”
2. Identify areas of broad agreement.
Rather than basing all decisions on media pieces, start with the grains of truth in your own organization and build a model from there, or at least understand where people stand on the issue. As we’ve seen, there will always be topics where employees and leaders disagree. But equally so, there are areas where consensus is easy to come to or even just the natural conclusion for both parties. For leaders to be successful in communicating their office strategy moving forward, they must start by simply asking employees what they want from their work arrangement.
3. Put the shoe on the other foot.
If the roles were reversed, how would you receive this message from a superior? If you’d gotten used to working in a way that you felt suited your personal needs, boost your productivity and generally contributed to your overall sense of autonomy and well-being, would the message you’re now trying to put out land well with you? Would you feel disempowered by the wording or intent of the message? Reversing the roles like this—putting the shoe on the other foot—can go a long way in ensuring that your communication is received as empathetic and genuine.
By keeping these three communication principles in mind, leaders can better foster trust among employees that their voices are heard and that their best interests are being looked out for. By communicating in this way, leaders can, as our anonymous leader suggested, approach their RTO with more “grace and benefit of the doubt.”
This article was originally published on Forbes.com.