Efforts to forge a smooth return-to-the-office in law firms or accounting firms need to take into consideration many new factors and attitudes that weren't prevalent before the pandemic
By all accounts, the elements of a successful return-to-office (RTO) effort are murky. Indeed, formulating a workable solution that makes everyone happy seems insurmountable. People either want guidance to mitigate near-crippling decision fatigue, or they want to be left alone to manage their own time and work pace. Either way, many leaders feel challenged.
The reason for the consternation is that since 2020 the office working norm has been turned on its head, and it’s been too long to go back to normal. In fact, normal has pretty much dematerialized. So, instead of getting back to a normal that is no longer possible, the RTO has become a wicked problem for many leaders.
Yet, a wicked problem isn’t evil in itself. Simply stated, a wicked problem is one that cannot be easily fixed and for which there is no single solution. However, it’s more than that. A wicked problem is the kind of problem that boasts unrecognizable, incomplete, contradictory, and insidiously changing requirements. Further, the unpredictable nature of a wicked problem means that it is often difficult or impossible to divine a solution in which people have much confidence. Complex interdependencies result in efforts to solve one aspect of the problem, revealing or creating other problems.
The RTO is the ubiquitous wicked problem. The flexibility in work location that lawyers and accountants are able to enjoy only serves to amplify the options and number of decisions leaders must make. It also means that leaders who desire an RTO must figure out how to do so without spurring resentment and resignations. There are numerous reports of accountants and lawyers threatening to quit if they are forced to come into the office when other employers aren’t making that a requirement. And, of course, the changing economy may affect that.
The wicked nature of the RTO problem is really about leadership. A leader’s efficacy, especially in difficult times, affects how team members feel about their work and the organization more broadly. Thus, although leaders may be exhausted by the plethora of return-to-office issues, for their team to be successful, they need to be mindful of each decision’s impact.
It’s not just the answer to how many days per week, the mandatory versus strongly suggested nature of the return, who gets exceptions from what, RTO incentives, and whether the return is universal or task dependent. Everything a leader does — including how they do it — creates, reinforces, or destroys morale and culture.
A 7-step process for leading an RTO
To effectuate change that is not necessarily welcome, leaders must cultivate buy-in among the managers, professionals, and staff within the firm. Here’s how they can do it:
1. Clarify why — If leaders accept that the hard-fought education level of lawyers and accountants is evidence of commitment and an intrinsic motivation to serve clients, leaders must also accept that industrial-revolution style command-and-control concepts such as timecards and surveilling the factory floor don’t apply to their workplace. Add to that the fact that technological advances of recent years now mean that people can work from just about anywhere.
So then, why do leaders care where people work? As a leader, you must be able to answer this question so that your people don’t complain that the RTO is a perfunctory time-waster. Identify meaningful benefits such as the opportunities for conversations in hallways or over lunch, and in face-to-face meetings range anywhere from nice-to-have to critical to firm culture, mentoring, and the functioning of the team. Be specific, thoughtful, and consistent in implementation of the RTO and other policies to eschew skepticism and resentment.
2. Create safety & invite discussion — An important aspect of culture is whether team members feel safe enough to express concerns, question leadership, and offer alternative solutions. Foster discussion with team members so that you can address any concerns. Not only does this lessen the sting of an RTO for the resisters and increase buy-in for all, but you convert the RTO problem into a team problem.
3. Ease into the RTO — Obviously, give plenty of notice that an RTO is imminent. Consider easing into the RTO by requesting cameras on during virtual meetings — and be sure to follow this example yourself. This practice is especially beneficial in the absence of a full RTO or if some workers remain fully virtual. No one wants a detached culture.
4. Establish expectations — A leader’s clarity concerning expectations is critical to trust and perceptions of fairness. Even before the RTO, set core hours for meetings and availability, team-wide work-from-home days, and time without meetings.
5. Address the real problem — An RTO is not a substitute for trust. You either trust team members to do the work or you don’t. If the work is not getting done, address that. Consider that the struggling team member may need training, coaching, or other support. Don’t conflate the cause of performance issues with working from home. Answering the question of Why? with any response that smacks of distrust would be toxic.
6. Be flexible and adopt a problem-solving mindset — Remember, RTO is a wicked problem, which means that the next challenge may surface before the next corner. Leaders must remind themselves that RTO is an ongoing challenge and avoid wedding themselves too intensely to a particular aspect of their RTO strategy. Whatever comes up, avoid frustration by focusing on finding the next solution. Accept that RTO and the balance between working from home and the office is likely to evolve.
7. Be calm, patient, and make the next decision — When the need for change or an exception does arise, stay calm and patient. Your demeanor is one of the most important determinants of team culture and success. Make the time to listen, consider, and respond clearly and decisively.
Leading through change isn’t always easy. That said, if you trust this seven-step process and your team, then both you and they will be more cohesive and effective. More than anything, an RTO effort is a time when insightful, decisive leadership is crucial for success.