Leading with flexibility to ensure a smooth return to office (RTO)

By Wiona Teo

Over the last two years, many employees have become acclimated to a degree of flexibility, autonomy, and efficiency while working from home. Today, they are facing yet another crossroad with the latest return to office (RTO) implementations. Change in the workplace is inevitable, but leading with flexibility would be beneficial as a recent survey shows that nearly 1 in 3 employees would switch jobs if forced to be back at the office full time.

Some leaders may argue that working together in a shared physical space is essential for team building and collaboration. Employees may think otherwise — A majority of workers prefer flexible work arrangements, instead of working from either home or office on most days of the week, according to a study by the Institute of Policy Studies.


This is where the new hybrid era unfolds. There are several types of flexible work arrangements (FWA) you could consider:

  • Compressed work schedule
  • Creative scheduling
  • Employees' choice of day offs
  • Flexi-hours
  • Flexi-shift
  • Shift swapping
  • Staggered time
  • Time bank

Adopting any of these work models will satisfy both employee sentiments and company objectives.


First, get a deeper understanding of your people

Before finalizing any RTO plans, consider running a simple pulse survey to gather employee sentiments. For instance, employees who are the main caregivers with duties to manage children and/or aging parents may require additional support.

Active listening makes employees feel valued and understood. A high degree of empathy is required to make the plan mutually beneficial for both employers and employees. 


Return with a purpose

According to our co-founder CheeTung Leong, employers have to first ask themselves while making RTO plans: “What is the reason for bringing employees back to the office?” If someone is already productive, is there a real need to lift and shift them to a different setting, and impose challenges like commute time and costs? 

The answers to these questions are often apparent to business leaders and senior executives, but not communicated very well to employees on the ground.

Transparent communication is a crucial factor to employee engagement. Without proper execution, it will cause negativity and uncertainty among the workforce, ultimately resulting in employees losing confidence in their employer’s post-pandemic workplace strategy.


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Empower managers to take meaningful actions

The role of implementing workplace change tends to fall on the shoulders of team leaders and middle management. With the right tools, guidance and autonomy, managers should be able to take meaningful actions to help their teams transition back to the office.

Offering two-way communication by creating a safe space for employees to express themselves, give feedback, speak up about problems, be it at work or home will help leaders/managers better understand their teams ’challenges. By getting into the root cause, they will be able to make quick adjustments to fuel organization success.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is to be empathetic as we never know 100% what is going on behind-the-scenes of someone else’s life. 


Putting best practices into practice: Cisco

In a recent interview with Cisco’s 25-year veteran, Francine Katsoudas, she shared that a successful hybrid work model is built upon a foundation of flexible, empathetic leadership.

A hybrid work survey with over 28,000 employees was conducted to measure their sentiments over the past two years, where hybrid and remote working have been commonplace. Turns out, employees don’t want either end of the extremes – to be back in the office or to be working fully remotely – they want a middle ground that offers flexibility to achieve their own personal version of work-life balance. 

With that, Cisco adopted a flexible work arrangement where the employees are given the freedom to decide when it's best suited to come into the office. In addition, managers are provided with tools and guidance to build meaningful connections with their team members. 

They emphasized the importance of active listening as circumstances are constantly changing. “The reality is that companies will need to iterate and conduct A/B testing to see what works and what doesn’t.” Only with constructive feedback, the hybrid work model will improve.


Ultimately, hybrid work is here to stay. Employers must give employees both a tangible reason to want to be in the office and support to work at home. Hybrid employees can enjoy the best of both worlds, but so can employers.


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Tags: Leadership, Performance Management, Employee Experience