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The Return-to-Office Guide for Managers: Three Ways to Motivate Your Team as They Transition Back to the Office

The Return-to-Office Guide for Managers: Three Ways to Motivate Your Team as They Transition Back to the Office

“Our boss set a date. We’re heading back in a few weeks. The vast majority of my team, including me, is unhappy and just can’t understand the rush to return to our building.”

Recently, I’ve had this conversation again and again as I’ve talked to the managers I’m coaching. They, like many on their team, aren’t ready to leave their home offices and fall back into a work commute – a routine that left many unhappy, burdened, and burnt out.

Even though they’ve struggled in this virtual environment, they’ve discovered some of the secret benefits of work from home – you save money because you’re not eating out and driving your car as much, you can fold laundry during conference calls, and you can wear whatever you want… and no one seems to care.

These same individuals aren’t just challenged to inspire themselves to transition back to the office. They have to lead their teams to do the same.

If this sounds like the position you’re in, you are far from alone. These next several months are going to be really challenging as you fight personal resistance, plus the resistance of your team, to head back to the office. But the sooner you develop a strategy and enact it, the better off you’ll be with the hard reality you’re faced with: life, as you’ve known it for the past year, is about to change.

Here are three ways you can motivate and support your team as they return to the office.

Hide Your Opinion about the Situation

The reality is that someone in a higher position than you set the date and your job is to support that transition. You might not be happy about it, but now’s not the time for dissent. Besides, if you share your opinion with your team – or your colleaguesyou may unintentionally be undermining the performance and productivity gains your senior leaders are hoping to realize by reuniting the workforce. So, as hard as it is, hide your opinion and be strictly matter of fact about what’s happening, when it’s happening, and how you and others can support it. The less emotional and more results-focused you are, the smoother the process will be. This is the time for a steady, calm presence. Let that be you.

Be Clear in Your Language about Expectations

Here’s another reality: people on your team likely still have logistical challenges associated with return to work, ranging from childcare to taking care of ailing family members, to challenging living situations that developed during COVID. While every company has different rules and expectations for the type of flexibility given to address employee needs, the best thing you can do is to know what your employer offers and understand how you can support your team members on an as-needed basis. Then, with those struggling team members, be very clear about what you can/can’t do to support them as needs emerge. Clarity helps you and your employees agree upon expectations. Agreed-upon expectations build trust and accountability, which contribute to higher performance.

Know You’ll Have to Rebuild Your Team

The team, as you knew it, no longer exists. Expect that when your team gets together, it’s going to feel weird. There will be a time for a reunion, of sorts, so your team members can process the awkwardness of co-existing in the same, socially distanced space, as well as catching up on all that was missed during COVID. Take the time to hold a luncheon or a series of small discussions for processing. This is critical to rebuilding your team. It’s a stage that psychologist Bruce Tuckman calls “Forming” – in fact, it’s the first stage of his team building process. Forming establishes the connections you’ll need to help build a solid base for team performance. Don’t overlook the opportunity to facilitate engagement among your team members.

Leading and managing your team in the return-to-office movement will no doubt be an emotional as well as logistical challenge. The better prepared you can be from a communication and team building perspective, the easier it will be on yourself and everyone else around you. If you can move beyond the emotions of the situation – while expressing empathy and recognizing that every team member has a unique reaction and challenges of their own – the faster you’ll be able to realize the benefits that team collaboration can bring.


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by Angie Morgan // Angie Morgan is an executive coach who works with high-performing leaders to help them achieve next-level results. After her service in the Marine Corps, she co-created the leadership development firm Lead Star and co-wrote the New York Times best-selling books SPARK and Leading from the Front. Her third book, Bet on You: How Leaders Win with Risk, will be out in spring 2022.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.