How to create a return-to-office playbook for your IT team

Struggling to come up with a hybrid or back-to-the-office work strategy? Consider this expert advice to ensure a smooth transition
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Whatever your return-to-the-office policy, there’s no denying that for the vast majority of tech teams, the future is flexible. That requires a lot of trust: Employers are trusted to encode and promote best practices in how to succeed. Employees are trusted to be responsive and do their best work – whether that’s in-person or remote. With this, a hybrid work culture can thrive.

In February, Microsoft revealed its hybrid working strategy, and last month, IBM shared its Return to Workplace Playbook – a global set of standards containing guidance, policies, and procedures to ensure that employees can head back to the office as safely and seamlessly as possible.

As other companies follow suit, how can IT leaders ensure that their own plan empowers hybrid workers, overcomes onboarding and organizational culture issues, and stands the test of time?

1. Explain why

Transparency is key, so first, explain how the playbook came to be. Start with the ‘why’ behind the notion of returning to the office. Is it related to productivity? Is it to encourage better collaboration? Culture building?

[ Also read Asynchronous remote work: 5 tips for success. ]

Without a reasonable pitch, it could feel forced if you fail to explain the switch – especially since people have been doing remote work for the better part of two years (most to good effect).

2. Share best practices

The idea of a playbook is to share best practices, but creating a lengthy how-to manual isn’t enough. In a perfect world, a playbook will be designed with direct input from employees through pulse surveys. After what many people have been through in the past few years, they could be feeling a bit raw, so transition your people with tact and care.

Setting expectations is a crucial part of outlining best practices – if flexibility is a part of the model, when should people come to the office? When is it ok to stay home for more focused, heads-down work? Be as specific as possible.

Explain how the office space itself has been adapted. Have there been changes to the conference rooms? Is there now hot-desking involved, and if so, how will that work? It’s worth revisiting how to run in-person meetings in addition to how to effectively loop in remote teammates virtually.

The idea is to make sure those who remain remote are still seen and heard, maintaining an equitable employee experience.

[ Want more advice on leading hybrid work? Read What is a hybrid work model? and Hybrid work model: 5 advantages. ]

3. Don't overlook human connection

IT teams need to understand and prioritize the human connection as they return to the office. The highest-performing teams focus on this element of culture, so consider how you can create venues to foster these relationships. Is it through mentoring, workshops, or perhaps ‘office hours’ – times set aside by managers to answer questions, address issues, and discuss topics with employees?

There’s no point in encouraging human connection without supplying employees with the tools to make it happen. Build up support channels, set up a buddy system, and encourage employee involvement through employee resource groups (ERGs) or community events. It’s important to encourage employee engagement, strengthen ties across departments, and foster camaraderie with a more human touch.

[ Read next: 4 reasons diverse engineering teams drive innovation ]

However, always respect employees’ wishes regarding close contact or interactions with others. Many people (particularly those with health conditions) will be nervous about reintegrating with colleagues.

Creating a successful return-to-office playbook requires first getting employee buy-in. Your team needs to feel that the playbook’s design was a cross-functional effort that serves both the business needs and the employees themselves.

A clear directive helps avoid confusion and maximizes collaboration in a work environment that has clearly evolved. Achieve this and avoid forcing it either way for the wrong reason – such as the age-old ‘this is how it’s always been done' – and your team will develop a future-proof playbook that suits the demands of employees today and for years to come.

[ Don’t try to recreate what was normal before the pandemic. Learn from leading CIOs in a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services: Maintaining Momentum on Digital Transformation ]

Marko Gargenta is Founder and CEO of PlusPlus.