Return to Office, Return to Work? First, question the “Why?”


Don’t return to the office because that’s how you used to work. Reinvention is where it’s at. 


Remember March 2020, when many of us thought we’d be back in the office by May? One year on, most companies are toying with what a return to office would look like for their teams while others, having not seen a dip in productivity, are going fully remote. We’re not returning to work, we’ve all been working very hard, and the office isn’t really where work gets done, or is it? It begs the question: what purpose does the office serve?

Office Purpose

Employers and employees alike have spent the past year creating personal work bubbles that meet their individual needs and preferences. A return to the office also represents a return to gathering, a source of anxiety and uncertainty for many. From where and how you work to how you run meetings and communications, it’s time to accept that the purpose of the office has shifted for you as a business and as a team.

Over the past 18 months, the team at Integral has worked from anywhere. Our founder decided we needed to re-establish a home base, headquarters if you will. Perhaps his real motivation was to escape a hectic house; for others, it’ll be a welcome change from the corner of our bedrooms, for others a source of longer days and increased anxiety commuting from farther afield, and what about all our fully remote team members, would they feel excluded? What if we didn’t have structured hours? What if we didn’t assign desks?

What we do know is that it could be a place of gathering.

Reinvention is where it’s at

It quickly became apparent that we needed the team’s input and a prompt. We went with this one:

How might we co-create an HQ that is collaborative, experiential, and novel in its balance of collective and individual needs and expectations as a hybrid organization? A space that represents everyone, not just those who work in the office. Supports the needs of employees, contractors, and clients.

We’re a small team, but we used multiple approaches to capture input and know that many easily scale to large groups. We’ve used 1, 2, and 3 so far to make employee voices feel heard, valued and included as we figure it all out.

1) 1:1 Conversations

Every one of your people managers should be having conversations with their team members regardless of being fully remote or headed back even an hour a week. People are having all sorts of feelings about this change. Listening is key. Your managers can help you identify pain points, potential FAQ topics and even champion the change on their teams.

2) Co-creation sessions using a digital whiteboard

This one gets everyone jamming! As a small team that embraces candor and transparency, we invited everyone to contribute their thoughts on a Mural board. We provided prompts: What purpose does the space have for you? What is most important to you in your workspace? What are 3 essential things you need in a space? What does your ideal workspace look like? What safety measures impact your confidence in coming to the office.

Everyone picked a column and took a few days to add their ideas, then we regrouped, and each person got to narrate what they’d put on the board; others could ask questions but never challenge their why.
If you’re a larger team, you may find a thematic layout easier but do make time for a playback with the team. Hearing everyone voice their ideas and see the overlaps helps understand the collective and the personal needs.

Try it with your team! Use our mural templates: our team member version or this thematic version.

Team Integral's Mural board showing our return to office brainstorming ideas
Team Integral’s Mural board showing our return to office brainstorming ideas
3) Senior Leaders’ actions matter and set the tone

Will your senior leaders show up to the office every day, or have you said they’re exempt from going in at all? Their actions inform your employees’ perception of the “company norm” and what will be expected of them despite all your words to the contrary.

4) Surveys

While most of us dread them, a survey can be impactful. Make sure you publish a compilation of insights gleaned and what actions you plan to take as a result. Remember, employee feedback is a gift that dries up from lack of follow-up.

Over the next few months, as we navigate creating our gathering space and implementing new ways of working, our team will candidly share the challenges and triumphs. As a company that preaches compassionate employee listening and positive change management, it only feels right.

Follow our journey by subscribing to our newsletter or schedule some time with us to discuss how you too can address this moment of change and co-create the future of work. 

Do you have any concerns about your return to work? Or perhaps, your return to office strategy has worked incredibly well, and you would like to share it? Let us know here!

Melissa Dain
Director, Culture & Change Strategy
As part of Integral’s executive team, Melissa leads strategists, creative managers, and consultants to reimagine how clients handle change and its impact on company culture.
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