How to Manage the Return to the Office

Life before COVID, life during COVID, and life post-COVID. We now see the world in these three distinct time blocks. The pandemic came upon us quickly, and our lives changed almost instantaneously from an unrestricted one (and one that in retrospect, was somewhat carefree of the risks of disease) to multilayered lockdowns, physical distancing, masking, illness, fear, and death. Things that seemed so ordinary before COVID feel almost dangerous now. The simple act of shaking hands, unpacking groceries, and talking to neighbors was just mundane; no thought went into whether it was safe or whether we had to sterilize, mask and distance. Change and transition are challenging even in the best of times, and when fear, severe uncertainty, volatility, and anxiety (commonly coined as VUCAvolatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) are mixed in, many people feel as if the bedrock of their worlds has had a cataclysmic earthquake.

Probably the most significant change came with the lockdown forcing us to reconsider our entire lives, but mostly how and where we work. While many people were already working from home, and in fact, The ABA in the Practice Forward report found that 50% of attorneys already work from home 100% of the time, now the entire office workforce was working from home (WFH). Some people embraced this wholeheartedly and were more than delighted to relinquish the commute and the inconveniences of having to get ready in the morning to rush to the office, including the costs and time that going to an office entailed. They enjoyed the benefits of more personal time and the ability to work from anywhere and focus on deliverables/results rather than punching a time clock to be in the office from 9-5. They love(d) being able to work in comfortable clothes, perhaps even giving up an expensive urban apartment and moving to a more cost-effective city, state, or even country to save on living expenses, taxes, etc. Many appreciated the cost savings from not having to pay for gas, parking, pet sitting, dry cleaning, child care, eating out.

On the other side of the WFH spectrum, many people craved a return to the office. They bemoaned the lack of boundaries, the discomfort, and inconvenience of blending home and work, dealing with technology issues, screaming kids, demanding pets, and the alienation and lack of community that being at home meant. They struggled to balance work obligations with taking care of preschool kids, asking fundamental questions: Do we invite a nanny into the house who might infect us? Do we try to take care of the baby while conducting work? Or the challenge of becoming an unqualified teacher to take over the education of your kids or merely to supervise their daily attendance at a Zoom class? What do you do when you’re trying to meet the demands of the job with limited technology options, bad WIFI, no private spaces, large families, patients, or distant/senior parents, compounded with all the burdens and fears of trying to stay safe yet function on a daily basis.

Employees are now reconsidering their options. A recent NPR post, observed that people are asking themselves those metaphysical questions of how they view the work they’re doing, the job itself (time to get a new one?), their career (do I really want to do this?) and even making the decision not to return to work at all. But mostly, many are not willing to return in the same way, with the same parameters as before.

Employers also lived in this dichotomist world when analyzing the WFH benefits and drawbacks. They wonder how to both effectively and practically reopen and encourage (require?) employees to take their seats back in the office. Some employers have reaped significant benefits from having a remote workforce. A 2021 report by The Conference Board, Inc. titled The Reimagined Workplace a Year Later found that work productivity has soared during WFH. Sixty percent said employees worked significantly longer hours. The remote workforce also created an international pool of prospective employees and has reduced overhead on office space, parking, in-office perks, and other employment costs by being able to hire employees without any relocation obligations. On the other hand, many employers, practically those in more traditional businesses or of a more traditional mindset, felt that this new arrangement negatively impacted the comradery, connection, communication, and cross-pollination of ideas that offices provide.

The Conference Board report further notes that the “level of [increased sic]performance is likely unsustainable and impact on worker well-being has not been determined.” The report found increased amounts of burnout (42% in 9/20 to 76% to 4/21) and found a 9% drop in how people viewed having the right amount of balance between their in work- life. Because of this work-life imbalance and the high levels of stress and anxiety resulting from the global health crisis, politics, racial unrest, lack of child care, and other worries, employees and employers have significant incentives to return to the office. But this has to be balanced out with the needs of both sides.

In a recent survey of 2,000 workers commissioned by Prudential Financial Inc., a quarter of respondents said they planned to look for a new job post-pandemic, with many of those planning to leave citing work-life balance issues as among their top concerns. Half of the respondents reported feeling that the pandemic had given them more control in deciding the direction of their careers. And ironically for employers, because of this increase in remote worker performance, almost 40% of organizations expect their employees to work primarily remotely one year after COVID subsides. Before COVID, 75% of organizations in the survey only had 10% of their employees working remotely. (Source: The Conference Board). An employer has an opportunity to re-engage and reimagine the workplace, or will increasingly find it harder to retain top workers as well as to hire new ones. While in-office may provide substantial benefits, employers must be ready willing and able to hire remote workers.

In order for the disaffected and fearful employees to want to return fully engaged and excited about coming back, employers need to create an inviting and welcoming workspace, so that even those who are reluctant to return will see the benefits. It’s a time to reconsider many of the workplace protocols and standards, some of which have been in place for centuries, and to examine and question preconceived, conventional, and pre-COVID workplace standards, starting at the core to determine what to let go of, what to keep and what to rethink. Employees and employers are mulling over what a return to work would look like, what are they willing to accept, and what changes they can expect.

An interesting approach to rethinking a workspace that invites and encourages re-engagement is to use the SCARF model. The SCARF model is the brainchild of David Rock and uses five key social factors that impact how people feel and behave as part of a group. By using the SCARF model, we can look at what factors would help individuals feel socially threatened or rewarded. From a neuroscience perspective, social threats trigger the release of stress hormones, activating what is known as fight/flight/freeze, or what is scientifically known as the sympathetic nervous system. When in this state, blood leaves our primary organs, including the brain, and goes to our extremities so we can run or fight. It is physiologically impossible to perform at the same levels, and we are less able to collaborate, think logically, analytically, and rationally. In a threatened state, we are more reactive, emotional, negative, and defensive.

Different individuals respond in slightly different ways to stress, and we all have different triggers. However, if people experience frequent social threats, then our stress and anxiety levels remain elevated, which over time can translate into chronic stress and burnout. As a rule, we seek to avoid situations where social threats exist. Similarly, we seek to move towards situations where they do not exist. These safe places are those where we do not feel threatened, and may even have a sense of reward. Different workplace decisions and practices can be analyzed using this framework of whether something will trigger a negative/threat response, or whether it will be perceived as a reward or neutral. Even minimal uncertainty can cause our brains to try to create order and make sense of the unknown. This can cause us to feel threatened and lose focus.

As Rock describes it, the SCARF model “involves five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.”

  • Status is about where you are in relation to others around you
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of impartial and just exchanges between people.”

We will examine each of the following factors as a framework to consider creating a safe and non-threatening, or even better, a rewarding workplace that considers the needs and desires of the employer and the employee, whether in office or remote.

1. Status

As we return from working remotely, with disparate and dispersed teams and departments coming together physically, it’s key to re-establish roles and responsibilities. Doing reboots and assessments to realign and rebalance teams and leaders. Over the last one-and-a-half years, leaders may have been less present due to both personal and professional reasons; or more present, perhaps even micromanagers, due to fears that people wouldn’t be productive if they weren’t seen. Tips and techniques to infuse positivity, trust and connection include:

  • Set up one-on-ones with direct reports to check in with them. Find out what’s on their mind, what do they need, and solicit ideas to give them voice and visibility.
  • Conduct psychometric assessments to open conversations on performance and engagement.
  • Create an environment that provides empathetic and compassion feedback across all levels (see Kim Scott’s radical candor)
  • Ensure bonuses and promotions are happening on a regular basis, as well as public recognition of accomplishments and/or hard work, or even generally acknowledge that people have gone above and beyond. People want to feel recognized and rewarded for their work.
  • Create a workplace that welcomes and supports diversity, promotes equity, and thinks inclusively. The DEI community suffered significantly through the pandemic, and they need to feel welcomed back.
  • Establish opportunities for growth, development, and acquiring of expertise through learning and development, coaching, mentoring, stretch assignments, shadowing, and educational programs.

2. Certainty

As offices re-open, it will be important for leaders to communicate that they will be prioritizing health and safety concerns, and will be taking all necessary precautions to provide an environment where they can feel safe, with some degree of predictability and grounding. They are looking for ways to make the transition to the office both physically and psychologically safe and feasible while all their personal and professional obligations collide.

Tips to help build certainty and counterbalance VUCA might include:

  • Create clarity around expectations, deadlines, and assignments. Rather than saying “you can get this to me when you can” or “no rush” or even “can you get me this quickly,” be explicit, precise, and detailed. It also helps to provide context on the timing, so the person doesn’t feel it’s a ”hurry up and wait” scenario.
  • Provide clear pathways to success and promotionsclarify what it will take for someone to be promoted, make partner, get a plum assignment, or lead a team. When there are clear milestones and objectives, it’s much easier to develop action plans to meet the goals.
  • Build better support, personal days off, and stipends for working parents addressing child care and tutoring support, as well as help with eldercare responsibilities
  • Establish clear protocols around COVID safety and health guidelines. Clearly state the vaccination policy.
  • Establish in-office practices around desk/space assignments, parking, and who/when/where is remote work acceptable.

3. Autonomy

Both David Rock and Daniel Pink (author of Drive) focus on the need to feel autonomous and have the ability to have some control of the day-to-day. This is particularly relevant coming off the flexibility experience during the days of work from home. Some considerations might include:

  • Give employees an opportunity to pick the days they work from home
  • Consider retaining or offering positions to lawyers who might want to work part-time or flex time (see Practice Forward)
  • Create flexible work times to accommodate personal issues
  • Create work environments that adapt to different work styles
  • Make sure people can continue to be present in the kids’ lives after more than a year of being home.
  • If the work is more results/deliverable-based, then give the employee the flexibility to work when they are most effective.
  • Once goals, quotas, objectives, and roles are clearly defined and expectations are set, then give the employee the space to complete work as/where they feel more comfortable. This does not lower the bar or shirk responsibility; they remain fully and completely accountable for meeting date-certain deadlines.

4. Relatedness

Employers need to show they care about their workforce. An empathetic approach with attention to work-life balance and well-being shows an office culture that cares about the employees. Creating a culture that encourages comradery, collaboration, and teamwork can give purpose and energy to being back in the office. The office is that place to share ideas on the fly, drop into someone’s office, grab a colleague to chat at lunch, run ideas by a mate, or just sit in on a conversation/meeting to learn. Connection is the most significant thing people felt was missing from the WFH experience. While Zoom and other video conferencing connected us in ways we never thought possible, we still couldn’t just drop in for a quick chat or meet spontaneously over coffee. Here is an absolute advantage for the in-office experience. Providing an opportunity for a diverse workforce to connect and be visible is critical to maintaining a positive workplace. How to amp it up to make it even better? Think about:

  • Develop community across teams, departments, groups, and across the organization
  • Create mentorship and coaching programs
  • Create Lunchclub style one-on-ones
  • Develop opportunities for junior team members to connect with senior members
  • Make sure that diversity and inclusion are in the culture embedded in the organization
  • Provide wellness resources, including guidance about enhancing mental health and well-being, additional support for working parents, and personal outreach by their employers

5. Fairness

If someone perceives unfairness or lack of equity, this activates the region of the brain that is linked to disgust and triggers a powerful threat response. Ways to diminish the impact of this negative response is by being open and honest with the person about the circumstances, and why (to the extent it is appropriate or ethical to do so). In both my personal experience and in speaking with numerous coaching clients, fairness builds trust and creates psychological safety. As Amy C. Edmondson describes in her seminal works on psychological safety, it is the bedrock of a functioning organization. In creating a fair organization, it is important to weed out implicit and unconscious bias that unintentionally impacts women and diversity as well as age, status, family, etc. ABA president Patricia Lee Refo‘s recent article on Women’s success in legal careers: Lack of advancement is not a ‘woman’ problem, it’s a ‘profession’ problem noted that women in their 50s, even those with significant accomplishments, told us they feel invisible. Younger associates complain about receiving lesser assignments that limit their ability to advance. Implicit bias also figures into the problem. Most people do not believe they have it, and when they are called out on it, they rationalize their behavior. Practices that will enhance a culture of fairness within your company include:

  • Making sure that expectations are clear and understood and applied equallyuse metrics and other assessment tools to ensure fairness.
  • Provide an opportunity for everybody to be seen and heard in meetings, workgroups, teams by actively soliciting perspectives, especially divergent and challenging ones.
  • Model expected behavior not just through lip service but through active programs, leadership, and standing up for DEI and those who may not feel they have a voice. What behaviors are being tolerated and accepted that created an environment of unfairness?
  • Evaluate all of your opportunities, compensation, promotions, benefits, perks programs, and policies, etc. to ensure that there is equity /unbiased application across the board for all employees, and in particular for minorities and women.
  • Ensure psychological safety and trust by establishing open communication and asking questions.
  • Run assessments to determine impact.
  • Make sure that everybody within the organization is speaking the same language and understand the company’s mission and purpose.

Creating a workplace that is culturally astute and welcoming, and employing DEI practices can help build an office culture and environment that is conducive and welcoming to people coming back. Leaders need to start asking important questions to develop critical thinking. Encourage creativity, ask questions, and show leadership by being visionary and thinking differently about women in the profession. Asking the right questions and giving employees the opportunity to participate in the conversation will help make the transition from home to the office a smoother one, where people feel more excited about re-engaging and encouraged to give up some of the benefits of the WFH experience. The opportunity to re-right (or write?) things is now. Carpe diem and reinvent the office!

About the Author

Ellen Cohen is an attorney and executive coach who works with corporate executives and attorneys. She is a frequent speaker and presenter on Influence, mental fitness, and well-being. Find out more at

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