• Tara Rethore

The Real Question About Return to Office

Most of the conversations about returning to the office reduce the decision to a binary question: will we be in or out of the office? Unfortunately, this question adds little. It seems to spark more debate than resolution and obscures the issue rather than providing clarity. In a related article, I advised CEOs to think more strategically about this decision and to consider whether in- or out-of-office is the right question.

So how do executives discern the real question about return to office?

As I say in my book, Charting the Course: CEO Tools to Align Strategy and Operations, much depends on where you are in your strategic journey. I think this is why so many different approaches have emerged or are debated in boardrooms and the media. There is no single question or answer that suits every business or team. The ‘real’ question is the one that best helps you to identify what’s needed to achieve your objectives.

For this particular challenge (deciding whether, when, and how to return to an office), I recommend doing three things:

1. Start with the destination.

Before considering how or when, you need to know why – or to what end? This is your destination. It’s also your vision – where you want to take your organization or what you hope to achieve. Your business, customers, and competitors have been fundamentally impacted by the events of the last 20 months. Take a moment to understand your new business context to better understand the impact of these events on your vision. (Check out the External Landscape Roadmap and Aids beginning on page 30 of my book.) What’s changed? What is still relevant? What can be reaffirmed? Then determine what is needed to reach the destination in light of this new context. Start with the destination.

2. Focus on value.

Whatever business you are in – B2B, B2C, B2G – whatever work you do, it’s all about value. If you don’t add value for customers, you’re out of business. Interestingly, this fact is less about where people sit and more about how people serve. Be clear about the value you add for your customers and how you deliver this value. Then consider: how well are you delivering this value? And don’t take your own word for it: ask customers, staff, stakeholders, and board members. (See the Customer and Value Questions Aid on page 88 and the Feedback Roadmap on page 216.) Use the data and feedback you routinely collect to assess your effectiveness and whether the value you provide is the value customers expect. Focus on value.

3. Build on what’s working.

Often, when we get to the end of something (including a crisis), we do the happy dance or breathe a sigh of relief and carry on in the same way as ‘before’. In my experience, this is often a missed opportunity. For nearly two years, we’ve delivered value differently. Surely, we’ve learned a lot from this experience! Yet without deliberately taking time to identify what has worked well and what can be improved, learning is lost. The classic Plus-Delta evaluation asks those questions. It is one way to discern what you’ve learned and identify specific actions to embed what works and jettison what’s getting in your way. (See the Plus-Delta Aid on pages 248-250 and Retooling on pages 253-257.) Build on what’s working.

The real question about returning to the office is not solely about time, or place, or space. It’s about strategy. Starting with what you want to achieve – your vision – links the decision to your business objectives. Focusing on value makes explicit and/or reinforces what matters most to customers, staff, and stakeholders. These are the elements that generate and retain revenue. Whether your organization is soaring or struggling, CEOs that also take a moment to learn from the experience may unlock opportunities to accelerate performance.