6 Lessons Learned from the Big Return to Office Debate of 2023

Hint: Trust your people for hybrid work to fuel the business.

Alex Triplett, CFO and COO

February 7, 2024

7 Min Read
Home versus office road sign.
Maria Vonotna via Alamy Stock

The remote versus office debate raged in 2023 as businesses battled to get employees back into the office. Meta, for example, announced over the summer it would require employees to be in-person three days a week starting in this fall.

The companies who mandated this return to office -- many of whom initially said they would fully embrace and support remote work models -- have faced an uphill battle and backlash as a result of this approach. Recent data indicates that nearly half of companies requiring employees to come back to physical workspaces reported seeing higher than average attrition rates. During a period of challenging economic headwinds, business leaders should focus on empowering -- not controlling -- their workforce. This includes inviting them to return to the office while offering flexibility and choice.

The possibility does exist to strike a balance between being fiscally smart and people-first in a hybrid world. At the root of it all, you have to trust your people for hybrid work to fuel the business.

As we start the new year, here are the top six lessons learned from last year’s hybrid-remote work debate:       

1. Ask “why" and answer with performance data.

From my perspective as a CFO and COO, my advice to fellow C-suite members is always to stop and ask, “Why the mandate?”

Related:Tech Pros Quitting Over Salary Stagnation, Stress

The effectiveness of remote and hybrid work setups is measurable through output results, financial results, and shareholder returns. If output is slipping and can be improved by people being together in person, then you have a valid reason to examine the need for in-office requirements. The question then becomes, “Do they need to be together every single day to do the job, or just sometimes?”

If the outputs and financials are largely unchanged and shareholder value is satisfied, then the next question -- if you’re planning to mandate an office return -- is, “What’s the objective?" 

2. Drive financial output with trust.

The more that business leaders trust their employees to make decisions about where to work, the more those workers feel motivated to go the extra mile. People don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be empowered.

In tandem, leaders must also increase executive engagement at all levels. Executives should be in the flow of the company, as helping hands, silent partners, sounding boards and safety nets. Clear and authentic communication matters in a hybrid world. This is not to be confused with adding more virtual meetings to the work week, which is a productivity killer. I’m talking about leadership articulating trust and evangelizing the mission. For example, “I respect and trust you. I value your work life, as well as your life outside of work and the things that make you, you. As a team, our objective is X. We’re going to go out and achieve it together.”

Related:Eliminating Remote Work Will Ruin Tech’s Drive for Diversity

This kind of clarity boosts culture, increases visceral buy-in to the mission, gives employees a better sense that what they do matters, and can lead to better output in a hybrid world where there is less direct oversight.

After all, the more human you treat people, the more they care about doing right by the company and the more they want their team to win. It’s then that we see employees, especially the younger generations in the workforce, voluntarily raising their hands to come into the office. It’s a bottom-up groundswell of enthusiasm to be together, train together and be a part of that winning team.

3. Hiring plays an important role in hybrid success.

There needs to be a close partnership between the executive team and the HR hiring team. If you hire the right people and they’re self-starters, then you will be able to deliver the message of trust, and you will be able to make trust-based decisions for the business, with confidence. You’ll have a greater degree of certainty that the employees you are speaking to will receive the message and then act in a trustworthy way.

Related:Revealed: The Top Reasons Tech Professionals Quit

Trustworthy employee behavior, in part, means that they will strike the right balance between the needs of their personal life and their commitment to getting their job done well. Teammates in a hybrid environment must be more willing to ask for help or ask questions, and even to self-study in order to find solutions to problems. HR plays a key role in finding candidates who match these profiles during the hiring process.

4. Respect both in-person collaboration and remote convenience.

There are certain jobs that greatly benefit from apprenticeships, where employees need to be physically near their team members to see, learn and absorb by osmosis. From personal experience as a banking analyst earlier in my career, I needed to be in an office and around people to learn by being part of the flow every day. We are also social creatures and there’s an energy when we come together.

On the flip side, if you force commutes on people and take them away from the fabric of their lives, it strips them of the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to during & post pandemic that allows work to be woven into life. Plus, adding flexibility helps to curb burnout and support retention over the long term.

There is a thoughtful balance to be struck between younger professionals greatly benefiting from in-office experiences and more seasoned employees benefiting from flexible work, with the caveat that these seasoned employees are the mentors of the younger professionals. Per the points in paragraph two, finding ways for the seasoned team to voluntarily come into the office is a more meaningful and sustainable approach to meeting apprenticeship needs.

5. Mindfully plan your in-office cadence and communicate the benefits.

Hybrid work empowers -- and challenges -- leaders to be intentional about when they get their teams together. Whether it’s once a quarter, once a month, once a week, or otherwise, there are endless options and structures that cater to the specific needs of any given team. McKinsey, for example, suggests that companies have anchor in-office days and remote “deep work” days.

Again, I suggest that business leaders consider and communicate the “why.” Let your employees know why it would be advantageous for them to consider coming into the office. Give them a reason, such as, “We invite you to join members of the executive team for a ‘listen & learn’ session and refreshments. Should you decide to come in, the experience would be a great opportunity for you to engage with these folks.” You may need to include an educational and/or social incentive, but it’s worth it both for culture and for training and development.

6. Support dynamic collaboration with technology, but don’t over-rely on it.

Dips in productivity and creativity don’t have to happen when people are working remotely. Chances are your company has invested in Slack, Teams, Azure, GitHub, monday.com, Atlassian, or a combination of these platforms.

A word of caution, though, when it comes to messaging. Teams and Slack are not replacements for in-office communication. Shifting to hybrid work means recognizing that the environment is different. As such, the communication must be different (less but structured) and the work cadence must be different, meaning more use of virtual tools, less real-time feedback and calibration, more trust in teammates, and more obligation to raise questions.

Trust Is a Two-way Street

The root of hybrid work success is the two-way trust between leadership and employees. When the business trusts its workforce and vice versa it perpetuates a culture of mutual respect and support. When employees feel supported, they motivate one another and make an effort to come into the office -- that’s a good thing. When they structure their work environment to meet their needs for success -- that’s a good thing. When they feel pressure to come into an office and friction develops between leadership and employees -- that’s not good.

Countless organizations made tough decisions in 2022 and 2023 to best support the future of work and they know it’s impossible to capture 100% approval from all employees. When leading in a hybrid workplace (or any style workplace), if your people understand the “why,” then at least they can appreciate the thinking behind what’s going on. Operating with transparency and giving people the opportunity to hear your thought process will help to uphold an incredibly important culture of trust in 2024 and beyond. In turn, the business can drive toward a reality in which having a people-first mindset improves the bottom line.    

About the Author(s)

Alex Triplett

CFO and COO, Appfire

Alex Triplett is the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer at Appfire, the leading global provider of software that enhances, extends, and connects the world’s leading platforms, such as Atlassian, Microsoft, monday.com, and Salesforce. In his role, Alex is responsible for capital structure, capital allocation, investor relations, operational scalability, financial objectives and outcomes, and shareholder returns. Prior to Appfire, Alex served as Global Head of Corporate Development ION Group, CFO for ION’s two SPACs, ScION Tech Growth I (NASDAQ: SCOAU) and ScION Tech Growth II (NASDAQ: SCOBU), and CFO for the ION Corporates Division. Alex holds a B.S. in Commerce from the McIntire Business School at University of Virginia.

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