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Speak, survey, strategize: how to build an employee-driven workspace policy

Executive teams forcing people back into offices has not gone well for several high profile companies: Apple, Intuit, and Google are just three of the many that have backtracked on their return-to-office plans due to objections from employees and likely some high profile departures—or the threat of them. Intuit CEO Sasan Goodarzi got to the heart of the problem: “Being prescriptive creates all kinds of bureaucracy, because then you have to get management layers involved and it just becomes very rule-based.” And after more than two years of flexibility, rules from above don’t stand a chance, especially in a competitive job market.

Successful workplace policies are starting with a bottom-up approach that includes employee input and aligns policy with the company’s business needs. Every company is different with a unique culture, team and business requirements, so there is no single formula for everyone. But with a grass roots approach to workplace policy, companies can not only navigate a challenging process, they can mitigate the potential blowback seen by many CEOs that have tried to take matters into their own hands.

With a simple framework—Speak, Survey, Strategize—executive teams can build an informed workplace policy and get back to what’s important: letting their employees do their best work the way they want to do it.

Speak

Company and team leaders must personally talk to as many employees as they can. Yes, it will uncover valuable empirical data, but equally as important, it shows that you care enough to truly connect with employees and listen to them in a highly personal way. Human-to-human conversations are not anonymous like a survey so may not yield the most raw, honest answers, but they allow for follow-up questions and seeing and hearing the emotion behind what people are saying. That’s key. People have built entirely new lives over the past two years. For many, a drastic change to their lives with rigid return-to-office requirements is not only a physical change, but a highly emotional one too.

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan, said “that’s life” when asked about the criticism he was getting from employees in response to his rigid return to work policy. He’s right. That is life. And trying to alter people’s lives from above is clearly not a winning strategy.

Survey

Anonymity is powerful and that’s why a thoughtful survey program is also essential to building a bottom-up workplace policy. Companies have used surveys for years to gauge employee sentiment on a broad scale and returning to the office is no different. A survey will also act as an objective confirmation or counterpoint to the insights uncovered during in-person conversations. It’s the data portion of a workplace policy strategy—just one important piece of the full puzzle.

Here are some examples of the type of questions you can ask in these surveys to get started.

Strategize

Entire workplace policy decisions can be based solely on employee input. Your business has its own needs and you as a leader at the company know best what those are. This is the third step in building a bottom-up policy that weighs the input and data you have from employees and aligns it with your company’s business requirements. For many companies, staying 100% remote or hybrid with no permanent office is a no brainer, but for some it’s not.

When Apple announced its return to office policy, a group of employees that called themselves Apple Together wrote an open letter stating their opposition. But it wasn’t a call for fully remote work. They said,

“We are not asking for everyone to be forced to work from home. We are asking to decide for ourselves, together with our teams and direct manager, what kind of arrangement works best for each one of us, be that in an office, work from home, or a hybrid approach. Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where and what homework to do.”

That was Intuit’s approach too: backtracking from a strict directive and allowing managers and teams to figure out what worked best for them. An engineering team likely has very different needs than a finance team, for example. As long as it’s easy for people to get together when they need to, most motivated employees will take that initiative when it’s needed.

Company leaders ultimately make the final decisions on workplace policies, but that does not mean those policies need to control employees. While there’s no denying that building a workplace policy is hard and has big implications for every company, creating a deeper understanding of what your employees want can help ensure you’re making the right workplace decisions.