Employee Surveys Won’t Tell You Whether To Return To An Office Or Not

Engage your team and understand their needs but craft your “Return To Office” strategy from the top down

We’ve backed a wide variety of startups at Homebrew but the CEOs are now all coalescing around one theme: it’s time to start making choices about what ‘back to the office’ looks like (note 95%+ of our investments are based in the US). Some are high conviction that all being back in an office five days a week is the right thing for their company (alongside modern policies around when flexible scheduling and WFH makes sense). Others embraced a distributed team from early on, or pivoted to one during the past year, and shake their head at the idea that a single HQ ever makes sense for a tech company like theirs. And of course, there are those crafting hybrid strategies, utilizing the skills their organizations have developed over 2020 to balance Work From Office and Work From Elsewhere. While I’ve personally advocated for in-office/balanced solutions, there’s one thing I’m absolutely certain about: you shouldn’t make the decision based on an employee survey alone.

Now this isn’t to say that you should develop your “return to office (or not)” plan in a vacuum and spring it on your teams fully formed with no chance to comment. But ultimately it’s going to be the decision of the executive team, and specifically the CEO, who must make the call.

And the Chief People Officers are going to deserve bonuses figuring this stuff out. DocuSign’s CPO Joan Burke concedes, “The truth of the matter is, this is just a big experiment that we’re all in and none of us really have an answer. We just have to stay open and fluid and listen to our employees.”

There’s going to be a TON of news coverage, hot takes, strong opinions, and purity tests on this stuff over the coming months. Assume as CEO that it will be impossible to retain 100% of your employees no matter what you decide. There’s going to be a talent reshuffling for the next 6–24 months IMO as employees decide whether their current employer’s workplace strategy is right for them or not.

And resist the urge to reduce this to assumptions like “equitable workplaces are those with the fewest mandates.” These choices are complex, often with unintended consequences. Flexible schedules more friendly for women? Unclear according to this WSJ article:

Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said hybrid models appear to offer the benefits of both worlds. But they could inadvertently disadvantage women, who shoulder the bulk of caregiving duties and may be more likely to seek more home-based arrangements and miss out on professional face-time, she said. Any solution to one problem will raise other challenges, she said.

The President of Barnard College fears similar and notes it’s about systems of choices, not just a single decision:

So what should well-intentioned companies and managers do? If you think flexible work will boost equity, especially for parents, it is critical to consider what other policies and practices must be in place to advance this goal. Providing paid family and parental leave — as opposed to just maternity leave — and encouraging employees to take it is one example. Ensuring managers do not favor in-person employees for mentorships, in evaluations or for other opportunities is another.

So start thinking about what’s right for your stage of company, the type of product you build, the culture you’ve created, and then prepare for a lot of communication over the second half of the year.