As discussed in Part 1 of this series, a company’s return-to-office (RTO) choreography is pivotal for the business, the employees and the spaces they occupy. But what happens after the curtain closes on the initial return?

As strategies are evolving quickly during this profound time of learning, it’s crucial to consider the long-term implications of RTO to ensure continued success down the line. To do that, it may be time to ask new questions and change the language around the ideas of remote work, flexibility and collaboration.

From rethinking the workplace to gaining executive sponsorship, here’s what may be missing from the critical RTO conversations that companies are having right now.

Designating the Degree of Flexibility

From virtual happy hours to telehealth appointments, the pandemic accelerated the world’s digital-first shift. More than anything, it’s revealed the endless possibilities for flexible work. Departments such as quality assurance and technical support, which were once considered mandatory on-site teams, have proven to thrive in a distributed setting.

It’s no longer a question “if” flexibility can be part of a company’s work strategy, the conversation now needs to shift to include questions of “who” and “how often.” To determine the frequency and makeup of who should continue to work in a distributed way, companies can measure factors including productivity, supervision and collaboration by department.

“This experiment of working from home has driven even more accountability for work. It further punctuated the need for autonomy – we’ve seen accountability with no outcomes reduced,” according to Michelle Cleverdon, vice president of Workplace Innovation at Colliers.

Flexibility is not a one-size-fits-all, but rather exists on a spectrum depending on busines objectives and individual employee needs. Companies can wield different kinds of flexibility: organic, managed or traditional to best suit the business and workforce, and some are taking the approach of all three and observing the outcomes before moving forward.  Regardless, RTO conversations must acknowledge that location and time flexibility are the future – it’s just a matter of degree.

Identifying Where Collaboration Happens

Similar to the idea of flexibility, collaboration can take many different forms. Some kinds of collaboration are propelled by physical proximity, other kinds happen just as effectively across distances and in virtual settings. Identifying how a team collaborates best will inform workplace strategy and should be central to the RTO conversation.

In-person collaboration is ideal for onboarding, relationship building and creating new ideas. Whereas activities such as sharing information or evaluation can happen just as effectively through distributed collaboration.

Some groups flourish through casual collaboration, learning from each other by working in the same space and listening over cubicles with a kind of hive mentality. Other teams may only need to meet in-person on a weekly or monthly basis to stay connected, instead using instant chat to replicate organic collaboration when needed.

These subtleties indicate the kinds of collaboration that need to be supported – and facilitated – through the RTO strategy. Once it’s understood how each team works best together, a company can create different collaborative experiences for all employees.

Understanding the Indicators for Success

C-suite sponsorship is key to the success of any program, and that level of support will be won by presenting a rational approach and company-specific evidence. The RTO process allows companies the opportunity to gain answers to the many unknowns by gathering new metrics about how people work as they come back.

Obtaining this new data will both foster C-suite support and inform long-term strategy for the space. Companies that set themselves up to gather information beyond square-foot utilization with metrics like employee engagement, diversity and inclusion, worker satisfaction, etc. will end up with a broader data set to measure success.

The first six months of an RTO strategy will be the most critical for data gathering, and these four actions should be considered when evaluating: 1) Decide what success is; 2) Establish a baseline; 3) Measure regularly and frequently; 4) Adjust the levers.

While it’s clear a distributed workforce is here to stay, asking new questions about flexibility and collaboration will help companies drill down an RTO strategy that fulfills their unique business and workforce needs, and also delivers data that informs long-term decisions for continued success.

Stay tuned for more RTO insights, including the next article which dive further into why “flex” should be a part of any RTO.

Click here to read Part 1, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.