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  • Tara Rethore

When and How Do We Return to the Office?

I hear that question regularly, particularly from office staff. Of course, much remains uncertain and public health and safety must remain top of mind. People have been making the best of a very difficult situation. We’re learning to live with the virus in our midst. And many things are going well.


So, what if we don’t return to the office?


Asking the question in that way – versus when and how we return – caused the CEOs in my executive roundtable to pause. Then, they asked another question:


What do we lose by not being together in person?


In other words: Of all the things we do to sustain and grow our businesses, what benefits most from being together? Those are the things leaders must address, irrespective of when or how they return to offices. The CEOs identified three outcomes that they’ve found to be easier to achieve – and more fruitful – when done in person: customer intimacy, strategic thinking, and organizational pulse.


1) Customer intimacy


Knowing your customers – intimately – is central to strategy. Quite simply, the better you know your customers’ needs, wants, and pains, the better you can serve them. Yes, it requires listening actively to what customers are saying (and not saying). It’s also about sharing the insights internally in a way that is accessible to multiple parts of the organization. Often, customer intimacy is nurtured by conversations that happen organically or are about seemingly unrelated topics. These generate shared learning, a broader organizational understanding of customers, and new insights.


2) Strategic thinking


Like brainstorming, strategic thinking is expansive and fluid. It feeds on a variety of ideas and is strengthened by curiosity and a sense of exploration. As the ideas flow, it’s about finding patterns or putting things together in new ways to suggest options or create different outcomes. It is very hard to do effectively all alone. Certainly, there are technical tools that mimic the sticky notes you move around on a whiteboard to shape new ideas. Yet, in my experience, it is not the same.


3) Organizational pulse


“How’s it going?” Casual conversations in the hallway or on elevators are often the best way to discover that answer. Working remotely, leaders can’t rely on feedback via water cooler banter. They have to ask directly and that can be harder, especially for the boss. Many people censor their conversation when talking to their boss or the senior leaders in the organization. Without the water cooler, leaders lack that window into the organizational pulse.


Today, leaders can’t rely on organic conversations to share information or foster connections. We must be more intentional about capturing data and exploring its implications – for customers, staff, and strategy. We can still put the right people in the (virtual or actual) room. Yet, we can’t count on that expert sitting down the hall when the topic arises. Instead, think ahead: set time to ask the questions and explore the answers. Then, invite different people to participate in the conversations. When possible, perhaps bring smaller groups into the office for that specific purpose.


People’s health and safety must be paramount. Starting with the critical outcomes makes it easier to identify specifically how and when you gather in-person. From there, you can determine what steps are needed to protect your people while continuing to drive progress for your business.


 

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