Returning to Work: Are you a Leader or a Laggard?

I am fortunate enough to be part of a CEO peer group. Realizing no one has ever led through a crisis of this proportion, it has been tremendous listening to a large group of my peers and learning from them. Each Friday, we virtually get together and give our burning question(s) of the week.

One piece of clarity I have gained from these is how unique each of our businesses are and the varying stages we are each in from revenue impact, employee PPE needs, to what our biggest focus and concerns are over the next 30 days.

A great question was put to the group this past week, “What are your plans for returning employees to the office.”

As I listened to ten CEOs discuss their plans a few themes emerged.

There are leaders and there are laggards.

The CEOs began to put themselves into the categories of leader or laggard.


Leaders – Have put the plans together for prepping their offices and are working on a communication plan with their employees. They are deciding whether to bring everyone back at once or do a rolling return.

Laggards – Wait and see mentality. They are in no hurry to have their current WFH staff return to the office environment. They want to wait and let the leaders set the standards and learn from their initial mistakes before making any decisions. They also expressed some concern with any future stay at home orders and are contemplating waiting until Fall before making any more changes or moves.

A few considerations that are driving the Leaders group.

  • Currently have staff that are not working. Their primary focus is to get them back working as soon as possible.
  • Companies that rely heavily on training. They do not want to make virtual training a core competency and want everyone back together training and working together in an office environment.
  • Those with staff that are asking to return to work. Personal situations are driving this such as home office being the equivalent of the corner of a couch or not having A/C as we enter the summer months.
  • Much of their workforce is not in the ‘at risk’ group.

A few considerations that are driving the Laggards group.

  • Enough of their workforce has families with distant learning requirements and no other options for care at this point.
  • Employees are requesting to remain working from home.
  • Employees with ‘at risk’ conditions or have expressed a lot of fear returning to the office.
  • They are considering some restructuring and are not sure they will have much of their workforce return to the office.

In a conversation last week with an old friend and business owner in the transportation business, he pointed out that his office team had been lobbying last Fall to have the option to work from home. In recent communications, they are asking when they will be able to return to the office. They want to return!

In a recent article by Adam Grolick, The Productivity Pitfalls of Working from Home in the Age of COVID-19, he sites how unique the current conditions are. “We are working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days.” He mentions a study done by Ctrip where employees where given the choice to work from home. “After nine months of allowing those employees to do their jobs at home, Ctrip asked the original volunteers whether they wanted to keep working remotely or return to the office. Half of them requested to return to the office, despite their average commute being 40 minutes each way.”

As Adam points out, it may not be an all or nothing. Having the choice for a mixed schedule of home and office could be just the right balance for many companies.

Everything I needed to know I learned from my grocery store

For those CEOs in the leader category, a lot of plans were mentioned for getting their offices ready. The most common plans involved taking a few pages from the grocery store “how to operate during COVID-19” playbook. Some of these included:

  • Arrows in the office for foot traffic patterns.
  • Signs and markers for social distancing
  • Use of PPE equipment
  • Guidelines for central areas such as kitchens – must bring your own plates, utensils, etc.

As much as plans have been made and supplies purchased to prepare the office, how are we preparing our employees?

I spoke to a friend who is leading a team in a country that is 10-14 days ahead of the U.S. Given the concerns of his team, he started to slowly ease them back into the office environment first by coming into the office for partial days and in small groups. After a few weeks, he scheduled a single meeting to include everyone.

Much of the time, fear is built up from the unknown. The more we can gently ease that with taking away the unknown, the quicker the ‘new norm’ can be adopted, for whatever situation you find is best for your company.

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