Here in Illinois, the COVID restrictions are beginning to loosen. Personally, I had ten people at my home for dinner last Friday. I hope to have my hair cut soon. And on the professional front, employers are talking about when and how to have their teams begin returning to work.

In some ways, shutting down the office was easier. The rules were announced and companies sent their people home. Sure, there were a lot of technological and process issues that had to be solved fast, but at least it was clear. Unless you were an essential worker, everyone had to go home — period.

Now — it’s a lot murkier. When should an employer bring people back? What are the precautions that need to be in place? Maybe it would just be better to let people continue to work virtually? After all, many employers have found that the online work force was just as productive as they were in the office. 

Remembering the value of in-person teams

I am not at all convinced that deciding to keep your workforce virtual forever is a good idea. One of my friends, a young software developer, took a new job during the shut-down. He’s trying hard to integrate into his new role, but he’s never met his colleagues. He has young children at home and he’s getting precious little feedback on how he’s doing. He’s quite anxious about how well he’s integrating into his new job, and I don’t blame him.

How do you build and maintain company culture without proximity? How do you develop your personal leadership brand and the connections that make you influential and promotable? What happens to the casual camaraderie of the coffee center? These things are not fluff — they are powerful contributors to morale, to employee engagement and loyalty, and ultimately to the bottom line.

So, for most leaders, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to bring at least some of your people back into the office. This is a daunting and complicated issue, but here’s a simple framework to help you decide who should come back first.

Returning to work: Who goes first?

For each employee, ask two questions:

  1.  Is there a clear reason why this person’s job would be done better if they were in the office?
  2. Does this person want to come back to the office?

Then you can make a handy 2×2 chart:

The green cell is pretty clear: As soon as the office environment is prepared, bring this employee back. Similarly, the red cell seems simple: Let this person continue to work at home, at least part-time. The yellow cells are trickier. As a leader, you will need to weigh which factor is more pressing at this time: maximizing productivity or enhancing employee satisfaction. Of course, you want to do both. But depending on your organization’s priorities, you will need to choose one or the other. 

The complexities of re-assembling your work force are huge, and there are other factors to consider besides these two. But several of my clients have found that this framework provides a good place to start making decisions.

If you would like to talk more about bringing your virtual work force back into the office, contact us at

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