“It’s time to get our staff back to work!”

I cringe when I hear leaders at different firms say those words. Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic hijacked so many businesses and caused massive disruption in homes all over the world. In a matter of days, if not hours, entire firms and companies dispersed their employees in a mad scramble to equip the right team members with servers, printers, phone setup, secure WiFI, file access, account management – it’s exhausting even thinking about all that went into this overnight pivot.

While so many people were simply trying to survive, let alone thrive, owners of law firms, accounting firms, wealth management firms, and countless other firms were still responsible for the monthly overhead. And, I understand that pressure. Just because a firm isn’t meeting on-site doesn’t mean the lease magically evaporates. Monthly lease payments still came due. Utility bills still needed payment.

Now that the pandemic seems to be easing up and more businesses are coming back into the office, leaders of top service firms are feeling the crunch to get back on-site. That’s what brings us back around to this sentiment:

(Translation: “Why am I paying for this office space if we’re not even going to use it?! I’m stuck in this lease for another five years. Why can’t we just get everyone back on-site like the way things were?!”)

It would be foolish at best to say your people need to get back to work, implying they haven’t worked since they headed home under lockdown orders.

Spoiler alert: some, if not many of your employees have been working grueling hours under less-than-ideal circumstances ever since the pandemic started. Some had zero home office space, often clearing out a small section of a guest bedroom with a makeshift desk and a somewhat normal background for Zoom calls. Oh, and their dog was also barking in the background, not a common problem in most law or accounting firms.

Speaking of Zoom, your staff had to learn a whole new set of tech to go with their already-demanding jobs helping grow your firm. This only fed further into an always-on, zero-off-days environment championed by professional service firms, specifically law and accounting firms, before the pandemic. There wasn’t this marked difference between when they’re supposed to be at work versus when their direct report expects them to respond to work-related details.

That’s where you can set a different tone with your firm for your current employees and future candidates. With a great back-to-the-office approach, you can create three key benefits:

  1. You reward your staff’s tireless work, a long-term investment in their relational capital and commitment to your firm.
  2. You foster a more optimistic outlook for your entire firm moving forward.
  3. You create a better culture of belonging and appreciation that can be a true competitive advantage when attracting more talented candidates to join your firm.

There’s wisdom in asking your staff to be back on-site for at least a few days a week. It creates a built-in culture of collaboration, mentoring, brainstorming, and engaging the collective brainpower of your company. It sets the stage for those in-the-hallway conversations that kickstart new ideas and realign perspectives. Maybe most importantly, it helps your staff remember they’re still valuable contributors to your firm’s future.

If you want to successfully welcome your staff back to the office, you need to take these crucial steps to best prepare your staff for that experience.

You Need to Acknowledge Your Staff’s Sacrifices – and Concerns for the Future.

You need to acknowledge your staff’s sacrifices. They’ve been working tirelessly, often in difficult conditions, for months and they deserve the opportunity to take care of themselves now that there is a real end date on this pandemic. Again, they’re not coming back to work – they’re coming back to the office.

And that office is likely as unfamiliar to them as it was the day they first started at your firm. Yes, the layout may seem familiar, but there’s a newly added layer of uncertainty: risk of infection. The pandemic still isn’t over yet, and with new strains affecting population pockets all over the world, your staff is wondering, “Will I be next? How do I know my desk or office is safe? Will I bring something home to infect my unvaccinated children?”

That’s where you need to acknowledge your employees’ concerns for their well-being moving forward. Have a cleanliness policy and procedures in place with a professional cleaner who can reset your office workspace for the initial concern, if you haven’t already. Follow up that initial cleaning with consistent, professional cleaning of your workspace. That preparation may also include new-to-you health guidelines that help your employees stay as safe as possible while the pandemic hopefully winds down.

These are the steps you must take to set up your physical workspace for every team member who wants to be back in the office. As they return, you have the chance to reward their hard work and sacrifices to help keep your firm afloat. Leave gift cards, handwritten notes, a special token of appreciation that lets your team know, “We’re so glad you’re back. It’s great to see you again. Let’s do great work to make a difference this year!” It’s amazing how far a simple gift can go in building trust and connection within an organization.

Need more ideas? I recommend reading Giftology by John Ruhlin. He has some of the most amazing ideas for giving gifts with a remarkable effect.

You’re Leading Real Humans with Real Struggles.

This may be easy to forget, but your staff is made up of real humans…with real human challenges, fears, uncertainties, and weaknesses. More than anything else, this pandemic reminds us how fragile life is and how everyday conversations and situations can play a dynamic role in how our staff sees their impact beyond work.

What your firm’s leadership team needs to recognize is that companies who prioritize the human side of work will be rewarded with loyalty, initiative, and a desire to contribute more than ever before. Those who don’t make those priorities will see their top talent exit for good.

What does it look like practically? It means taking a more proactive, empathetic approach to how you communicate and interact with your firm’s staff. Ask more open-ended questions. Take time to let them share what may be interesting or concerning to them. Give space for your staff to share their honest feedback, not just what they think you want to hear.

And maybe most of all, allow your staff to make mistakes and fail in a protected environment. What would your most committed team members attempt to do if they knew you had their back? What ideas would they champion? What initiatives would they launch to see what’s possible?

This freedom to try and fail allows their human side to shine. It also allows them to feel seen and heard by their employer – which is so important in these difficult times.

Your Staff Isn’t the Same as They Were Pre-Pandemic.

This pandemic changed people. It opened up so many people’s eyes to realize what they were accepting or silently endorsing. It also shook awake long-lost dreams and aspirations to do great work and help others. It helped so many of us re-evaluate our priorities when it comes to family, loved ones, our hobbies and interests, our work situation, and in many ways, what we value and want to champion for the future.

That fresh perspective is what so many of your team members are likely bringing back into the office with them. When the status quo changes though, there is a significant risk of friction. How are you going to deal with the inevitable friction and ‘bumps’ that often happen when the status quo changes? Be prepared for conflict, maybe more than ever before.

Your team needs a plan for how to process conflict in a healthy, productive way. What’s allowable? What’s encouraged? What’s the common ground where they can start to work out their differences in a positive way? How you answer those questions right now will tell you exactly how likely your back-to-the-office approach will succeed once you start adding people back into the mix.

You Need a Solid Back-to-the-Office Plan – or You Will Lose Talented Staff.

How is your firm set up to navigate an in-office versus work-from-anywhere approach? This hybrid workplace is the new normal, sometimes in-person and sometimes remote, and consistently contributing wherever you are.

What’s your policy for remote work moving forward? What steps will you take as a leadership team to model a great hybrid workplace? How will you communicate this new policy to staff?

What should your people do if they’re feeling burned out and overworked? You need a plan for them, and one that does not include saying “just try harder.” A lot of professional service firm employees are looking at the back-to-the-office movement as an opportunity. We’ve reimagined what it looks like to do work you love – and this could be your greatest competitive advantage.

As more and more employees exit with the Great Resignation (over eight million U.S. employees have already quit since April 2021!), you have the chance to attract the best of the best with a great back-to-the-office plan and a culture where they can thrive.

But so many leaders of different firms feel stuck, “Julie, we don’t know where to start. We know we want our people back on-site, but what does that look like? What are we missing? How do we do this the right way?”

This is why I created ReIgnite: your six-session professional development and coaching program designed to help you build a stronger, higher-performing, and more profitable hybrid workforce in 90 days or less. We cover key details like how to navigate change well, how to be conflict competent, the secrets to handling difficult conversations, how to give effective feedback, and how to prepare your firm for change in the future.

If you’re serious about creating a great back-to-the-office plan that goes far beyond “Well, they need to be in the office X-number of days!” then ReIgnite was made for you. See what’s possible with Reignite.