A Leader’s Guide to Return-to-Office




How do I know how much work my employees are doing?”

 “Why doesn’t my manager care about my needs?”

Many organizations find themselves in conversations about returning to the office that are fraught or contentious. Some have already implemented a model following the disruptive period of the pandemic and are now dealing with the consequences of their choices. Others are still grappling with these decisions and contemplating how their policies should evolve. 

These conversations often devolve into the physical location where employees should be working. However, there is a more productive and enlightening discussion to be had—one that focuses on productivity and shedding light on leaders’ blind spots and fears. All executives and managers should strive to create a policy that suits their organization’s needs, rather than prioritizing their own preferences. 

In this episode of Quick Clarity, Angie D’Sa and Jeff Hunter dive into the topic of returning to the office and finding the right balance between working remotely or in person. Continue below for a full transcript of this episode, and join us as we explore: 

When to Start with You:

  • Leaders must address their own fears with a coach or trusted partner to effectively navigate and understand the drivers behind their decisions.
  • Conversations that focus on delivering value to customers and the community, while acknowledging personal confusion and blind spots, will lead to better decision-making.

Why the Right Goal Is Important:

  • Prioritizing presence over productivity will hinder the achievement of your goals and ultimately create a fragile organization.
  • Productivity is about delivering the most value to customers and the community. Shifting the focus from physical presence to discussing how and where people can do their best work will yield better outcomes toward your goals.

How to Increase Productivity:

  • Design systems that incentivize and reward outcomes instead of measuring employee presence.
  • Recognize that productivity is influenced by psychological factors, not skills.
  • Learn to identify early indicators of employee confusion and proactively address them.
  • Recognize that productivity is a manager’s responsibility and invest in their development.

Full Transcript

Angie D´Sa  00:12

Welcome to Quick Clarity, the podcast where we discuss all things 3C. For those tuning in for the first time, 3C is the Talentism model for understanding why confusion exists, how to turn that confusion into clarity and productivity, and what happens when we ignore confusion and let it harden into certainty. Each week, I talk to the founder of Talentism, Jeff Hunter, about the questions we see our clients dealing with and his latest insights on the state of humans, business, and the world. In today’s episode of Quick clarity, I talked to Talentism founder Jeff Hunter, about return-to-office policy

Jeff Hunter (00:56):

Managers are experiencing confusion, which is understandable. During the pandemic, they were thrust into remote work abruptly, forcing them to adapt and figure things out. While it may have been just a couple of years ago, we seem to have forgotten the disruptive nature of that transition. Now, with the chance to return to the old normal, they are leveraging their authority to demand it.

Angie D’Sa (01:23):

I invite you to listen to this conversation if you find yourself in a discussion about returning to the office that feels tense or contentious. We often observe that these conversations revolve around the physical location and where employees should be working. However, the more fruitful and meaningful topic to explore is productivity, shedding light on leaders’ blind spots and fears, leading them to create a configuration that works for them instead of considering the needs of their employees. 

Okay, Jeff, welcome to Quick Clarity. I’m glad that we’re having today’s conversation, as it is meaningful to me. We’re diving into the topic of returning to the office and finding the right balance for organizations between remote and distributed work, as well as in-person time at the office. From our clients, we’ve learned that some organizations have already implemented a model following the disruptive period of the pandemic and are now dealing with the implications of their choices. On the other hand, there are those who are still grappling with this topic, contemplating how their policies should evolve in their respective workplaces. So I’m glad that we’re having this conversation.

In particular, you’ve shared an intriguing perspective that I believe is worth exploring further. You argue that the discussion should not revolve around physical place but instead focus on what enhances productivity and acknowledge the role of power in this context. With that, I’ll hand it over to you and ask you to share your observations and thoughts on how the return-to-office and the hybrid work model arise during your conversations with clients.

Jeff Hunter (03:26):

Thank you, Angie. It’s always a pleasure to be here. Before we delve into the conversation, I’d like to start with a self-reflection, ensuring that I maintain self-awareness throughout our discussion. As context, I have either founded or co-founded multiple remote-first companies, which naturally makes me inclined towards remote-first approaches. I want the listeners to be aware of my preference for remote-first. Some of these remote-first companies eventually transitioned into what we now refer to as hybrid, although back in the late 90s and early 2000s, we didn’t have that terminology. Some of them remained remote-first. As a founder, I always aimed to create a great workplace, recognizing that the responsibility started with me. I made an effort to be clear about my preferences and intentions, openly communicating them to everyone involved. That’s how I’ve operated.

Talentism, of course, is a remote-first company and has been for about a decade now. It’s been interesting for me to hear from my clients, especially as I recently attended an off-site where the topic of return-to-office (RTO) became a heated discussion. It seems to be a prevalent theme in the air, not just because some companies have already implemented their processes and are committed to that path, but also because many companies are grappling with the issue and determining their next steps. For Talentism, our approach has always been centered around putting talent first. This means being global and remote. We would not artificially limit ourselves to a specific location when searching for the most exceptional people to join Talentism. Our entire strategy revolves around this principle. That’s the background on this topic.

During my conversations with clients, I find it fascinating to pose a particular question. I ask many of the leaders, CEOs, and founders I work with, because this can be such a fraught topic, to consider the following scenario: If they had an incredible salesperson, someone truly exceptional, would they fire them for not filling out the CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system? The answer is always the same: No, they wouldn’t fire them solely for not completing the CRM. Then I ask if it’s because the CRM holds no value. They always respond, “Of course not. The CRM is incredibly valuable. It’s where we obtain our reports and critical information.” I follow up by saying, “Okay, help me understand.” And their response is consistent. They explain that if a person excels at sales and generates significant revenue for the company, they often dictate the terms of how they work. While there are boundaries and non-negotiables, for the most part, they will try to accommodate the individual, even if they deviate from the requirements imposed on everyone else. That answer makes sense to me. It also encapsulates the essence of what we’re going to discuss regarding RTO.

Returning to the office is going to be challenging to navigate effectively because it will likely be implemented poorly and inconsistently. There are two primary reasons for this. First, we’re not addressing the core issue, which is the confusion people experience, particularly when they hold positions of power. Second, we’re focusing the conversation on the wrong aspect—we’re talking about work instead of productivity. That is where I want to start this conversation.

Angie D’Sa (07:53):

Okay, I think this is really useful. I believe what I’m hearing you say is a lot of people thinking through what their return-to-office policy might be, could look to leading practice or serving their employees. And I think I’m hearing you say the discussion has to start with an understanding of the leader, and what any kind of policy is optimizing for. Either because of what that leader is like, or because of what the context of that company is. Is that right?

Jeff Hunter (08:34):

Yes, and I believe this will be a consistent theme in our conversations. When we talk about optimizing a policy, it creates the illusion of rationality in an argument that doesn’t fundamentally exist. Based on my extensive experience working with managers and being a manager myself, most of these decisions are driven by confusion, habitual thinking, or simply following the crowd. Let’s take the example of open office architecture. There is very little data to support the notion that open office architecture actually increases productivity, and yet everyone does it.

I don’t buy into the argument that managers have suddenly become deeply concerned about younger employees not receiving adequate mentoring. In my view, managers have generally been bad at that. The data tends to support that. The same goes for the claim that managers are now focused on employees getting more work done. Historically, managers have not excelled in that aspect either. There have always been individuals who slacked off and others who worked diligently, and managers have often failed to effectively manage that.

What I believe is happening is that managers are experiencing confusion, which is a central aspect of our IP This confusion stems from the fact that they hadn’t previously encountered the challenges brought about by the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, they were thrust into remote work by necessity, without a choice. They were in fight or flight. They had to adapt and figure things out. Despite the fact this was only a few years ago, it seems we have forgotten just how disruptive that period was and how isolating it felt for many people.

Now, with the opportunity to return to the old normal, which primarily revolves around managers feeling comfortable due to proximity, they are using their power to demand a return to the office. By power, I mean their ability to hire, fire, promote, and demote individuals—this is an inherent aspect of being a manager. They are deploying this power to deal with their own confusion, rather than addressing the confusion itself. The confusion arises from concerns such as, “How do I manage if I don’t have physical proximity, which I’m accustomed to?” or “What is the real goal we are trying to achieve here? And it isn’t just more work.” Without a clear orientation and a genuine exploration of these questions, that confusion continues to dominate the narrative.

Angie D’Sa (11:14):

So, if I understand correctly, what you’re saying is that our previous way of working was so ingrained in us that we didn’t even question it. At Talentism, we often say it’s “in the water” – it’s so pervasive that we don’t even notice we’re immersed in it. Many managers found comfort in this familiar way of operating, where they could physically see their team members at their desks and have a sense of being able to monitor or understand their activities. This established a set of habits and practices for managing teams and direct reports.

However, the sudden disruption caused by the pandemic necessitated rapid adaptation and upended the previous model. Now, as there is an opportunity to intentionally and thoughtfully shape the new work model, managers face both challenges and opportunities. They must approach this process with self-awareness, avoiding a mere return to the familiar mean without thoughtful consideration. It’s crucial for managers to understand why the old way felt comfortable and to recognize what implicit priorities they might have had in that context. This could include regaining a sense of line-of-sight or perceived power, as you mentioned.

The opportunity for managers when implementing new policies is to approach it with a heightened level of self-awareness. They should examine their own needs and motivations in shaping these policies. By doing so, managers can be more deliberate and effective in their decision-making process and policy-shaping.

Jeff Hunter  13:13

Yeah, exactly. So what we’re doing is applying our model of 3C to the current RTO question, and the current environment. We don’t start with the assumption that there are rational human beings consistently making logical decisions based on thorough exploration of data. Instead, we acknowledge that we are hairless apes who tend to default to habits, intuition, and instincts built on past experiences. Many managers are accustomed to working in close proximity to their teams, where they have a clear view of the office. Seeing all the traders and other employees on the office floor. This is why the open office model was established – to eliminate the need for managers to travel between offices and enable easy oversight. Managers now desire a return to that familiar environment for a sense of normalcy.

However, they often come up with post hoc rationalizations for this preference, citing reasons like preserving company culture. In our model, first you belong, then you believe. First you feel, then you think. So we’re looking to the feeling that the manager has underneath that. It’s important to note that all of this occurs within a hierarchy, starting with the CEO or founder and their own feelings. In my experience working with CEOs, many express concerns about productivity and confuse it with the amount of work being done. This confusion between work and productivity is significant, they are not the same thing. Today’s technology allows for higher crop yields and reduced manual labor, resulting in increased productivity despite less work. It’s crucial to differentiate between productivity and work. When we fall into the trap of equating productivity with work, we overlook human potential and hinder effective business management.

To clarify, there are undoubtedly goals and contexts that require people to be physically together. Scott Galloway and others have made valid arguments about the negative impact of remote work on human well-being and social connections. Loneliness is a real concern. However, what I’m addressing is the notion pushed by some CEOs that returning to the office is essential for business success, as if the two are inherently linked. I believe this is not always the case. Instead, it’s more beneficial to examine the underlying psychological factors that contribute to executive and founder anxieties and focus on the ultimate goal of productivity, rather than mere work.

Angie D’Sa 17:06

It’s interesting because as you speak, I find myself reflecting on the words I’ve heard from executives I’ve known, whether they were my clients or colleagues. I’ve noticed that what someone feels may influence the rules they try to establish, but often their justifications for those rules are different. Let me share a couple of examples that come to mind. I had a client who, based on his past experiences, grew up with a tough mentality. He feels disappointed with the current generation he manages, perceiving them as soft, often arriving late and displaying entitled attitudes. As a result, he sets expectations with his team by emphasizing the importance of coming in early and leaving after him, as a way to demonstrate commitment and dedication. He explains it to his team as if you are here for more hours, there is more opportunity to get more work done, make a meaningful impact on the firm, receive mentorship from both me and other leaders present. What he’s truly feeling in these instances is a sense of “I had to do it, so why don’t they?” 

Another colleague of mine from the past used to say, in our remote-first environment, that she still required people in the office for some time. Her rationale in those moments was that if she couldn’t see them, how could she know they are working and committed? How could she know they weren’t engaged in other activities during work hours? However, the way she conveyed it was by emphasizing the importance of fostering a sense of community and facilitating connections among colleagues, stating that it positively impacted longevity within the organization.

What you’re describing is the contrast between the genuine exploration of personal motivations for why we need things to work a certain way and how those motivations can be justified and expressed. It resonates with me as an opportunity for those responsible for designing the return-to-office plan to engage in Talentism practice of start with me. 

Jeff Hunter 19:56

Yeah, let’s dive into the story you just shared. I love it. Here’s what I think: as an executive, whether it’s right or wrong, you have the authority to define what you consider good or bad. You can establish your own criteria for evaluating success. And if being physically present in the office is what you believe constitutes as good, you have every right to hold that perspective. However, it’s important to recognize that this mindset creates a fragile organization because there’s actually no real correlation between presence and productivity. 

I used to work at a fast-moving startup, and there was a guy who sat next to me in our open office setup. He spent the entire day playing solitaire. He was remarkably skilled at Klondyke, the game. He had developed a script within the application he was working on that served two purposes. First, it tracked when the manager was approaching by observing their patterns, so he could anticipate their arrival. Second, he had automated most of his work, enabling him to receive a substantial salary without actually doing much work. What he was being paid for were those two scripts. Whenever the manager was expected to pass by, his screen would automatically switch from Klondyke to something that appeared productive, even if he wasn’t at his desk. This experience early in my career taught me a valuable lesson. Despite his lack of productivity, this individual consistently received excellent reviews and promotions. His job held little value, and he had found a way to excel without exerting much effort. It became clear to me that managers are constantly being fooled. I have countless stories of how under poor management, employees find ways to outsmart their managers. It’s only natural that human beings would optimize the situation to their advantage. 

So, if you insist that employees need to be physically present in the office for you to perceive them as successful, it will lead to a scenario where those who arrive early and leave late receive the best reviews, promotions, higher pay, and more attention. None of these rewards, however, have any real correlation to their actual productivity. Consequently, people will learn to invest the least amount of work necessary to achieve these outcomes. Their focus will shift towards figuring out how to win the game with minimal risk and effort. This is precisely what the human mind is designed to do—seek optimization. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people become highly creative in finding ways to manipulate the system, even if it ultimately diminishes the value of the company. It’s crucial to understand that this behavior doesn’t make individuals inherently bad. Rather, it highlights a lack of self-awareness on the part of leaders, as well as their failure to set the right goal and communicate clearly, inspiring employees to unleash their true potential instead of merely trying to win a rigged game.

Angie D’Sa 24:08

I believe we’re touching on a crucial point here, and I’d like to explore some practical strategies to address what you just mentioned. If you, as a manager, policy setter, or CEO of an organization, make the focus solely on returning to the office and physical presence, people will give you just that. They will find ways to make you believe that they are meeting your expectations by being physically present and giving you their attention. However, it’s important to recognize that if that’s what you believe you want, you are deceiving yourself. What you truly desire, in service of your business goals, is productivity. You want individuals to utilize their attention and resources effectively to move closer to achieving those goals. To accomplish this, you need to establish a different system that enables and incentivizes productivity. Instead of rewarding or measuring time spent in the office, the emphasis should be on measuring and rewarding the outcomes you are striving for. 

Engaging in a conversation solely about the return to the office and the amount of time people spend in a specific location seems like a distraction—a red herring. The more meaningful discussion should revolve around creating an environment and system that genuinely facilitates productivity. This conversation should begin with self-reflection from the leader and an exploration of what kind of environment and system can truly empower individuals to be productive.

Jeff Hunter 25:46

Absolutely. It’s crucial to think about the goal at the right level. Productivity should be the focus, not work or mere presence. None of those should be the ultimate goal. So, first and foremost, consider the goal from the right perspective. 

Secondly, start with you. As we delve into practical tips, this is where I begin with all acts of leadership. You must exemplify what good looks like. And in this case, it means not allowing your habits, insecurities, and intuitions to shape a rational framework. Recognize that they are not interchangeable. You can acknowledge your intuition and the subsequent actions you want to take, but be prepared to bear the consequences of those decisions. Alternatively, you can approach it rationally by evaluating each situation individually and determining how managers can unleash productivity. 

However, what often occurs is a state of confusion among leaders. They issue directives based on their fears, intuitions, or established habits and then try to justify them post hoc. Those directives are imposed on others, labeling anyone who deviates from them as bad and subjecting them to punishment. Yet the people who are superstars who disregard these directives often face no repercussions. This pattern only leads to more confusion and, ultimately, disaster.

Angie D’Sa 27:23

That’s a great transition. So, if I find myself in that position as a leader, recognizing that I may have fallen into that trap, what steps can I take? What should be my next course of action? Jeff, I’m eager to hear the practical tips you have to offer. Please take the lead and share them with us.

Jeff Hunter 27:42

Absolutely. So here are some practical tips to navigate through this. First and foremost, I strongly believe the “start with me” approach is the most effective method of leadership I’ve seen. While there are numerous books and courses on leadership, it all boils down to this fundamental principle. It is who you are as a leader, your clarity or confusion, that shapes the conversation, sets the vision, and establishes trust. Therefore, my first tip is to work with a coach or a trusted partner who can help you identify and understand your underlying fears. Trust me, fear is what drives this conversation, even if you try to rationalize it to others. In a safe and supportive environment, delve into the root of your fears and then communicate them in a productive manner to your team. This creates an opportunity for open dialogue and sets the stage for focusing on productivity rather than mere presence.

Secondly, initiate discussions about productivity. Shift the conversation from where work is done to where the best work can be accomplished. Let’s clarify the definition of “best work” here. I believe it refers to work that delivers the highest value to our customers and community. After all, we exist to serve them, and their satisfaction is crucial to our success. Engage in conversations about where individuals can perform their best work and be most productive.

Thirdly, address the leading indicators of confusion and clarity. Recognize that productivity is now primarily a psychological issue, not merely a matter of skills. This transformation in the nature of work has not received enough attention. As technology takes over more rule-based tasks, psychological factors come into play and confusion increases. When assessing financial indicators like EBITA and growth at the end of the month, remember that they are lagging indicators of underlying behaviors and psychology. By capturing the psychological states of individuals in key business criteria such as goals, measures, responsibilities, and culture, you can detect early warning signs of unproductivity. This allows you to address the root causes rather than resorting to generic calls for working harder.

Lastly, executives must commit to equipping managers with the necessary tools. Leadership goes beyond words and actions. Productivity is the outcome of efficiently, effectively, and predictably achieving goals through the work of others. It is a game for managers—a game that requires support and investment. Currently, executives tend to focus on issuing top-down policies without fully understanding the challenges faced by managers who are caught in the middle. Executives must recognize the pivotal role of managers in driving productivity and provide them with the tools they need. This means investing in their development and ensuring they have the resources required to excel.

In summary, here are the practical tips: start with me, initiate the productivity conversation, pay attention to leading indicators of confusion and clarity, and prioritize support for managers. Remember, it’s not just about policies; it’s about fostering a productive and thriving work environment.

Angie D’Sa 33:12

Jeff, I truly appreciate your insights. From my perspective, it all comes together in a valuable way. For those of us who find ourselves leading organizations or serving as HR and talent leaders in the midst of return-to-office conversations, it’s important to recognize that these discussions may often be contentious and challenging. However, what I’m gathering from you, Jeff, is that return-to-office itself may be a distraction from the real issue at hand, which is productivity. By shifting the focus to productivity and understanding the underlying needs and beliefs of leaders, we can reframe the conversation in a more meaningful and impactful way that aligns with the organization’s goals. Additionally, recognizing the critical role of managers in this process is essential. It’s about enabling productivity and empowering managers to drive positive outcomes. Ultimately, this reorientation can lead to more fruitful discussions and significant benefits for the business.

Jeff Hunter 34:08

Angie, you always articulate it so much better than I do.

Angie D’Sa 34:14

Haha, lol.

Jeff Hunter 34:17

For all the kids out there, that was “lol,” I believe.

Angie D’Sa 34:22

I don’t think we can say “lol” anymore. I think they say “I’m dead.”

Jeff Hunter 34:26

“I’m dead”?! Kids these days. I’m getting old.

Angie D’Sa 34:32

If you’re a kid and you’re listening, please write in and let us know.

Jeff Hunter 34:35

Exactly. Our core audience.

Angie D’Sa 34:41

Alright. Well, I think that’s all we’ve got for today. Unless there’s anything else you want to add, Jeff?

Jeff Hunter 34:45

Nope. That’s it.

Angie D’Sa 34:47

Okay! Thanks so much!

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