SHRM, a global authority on the workplace, says 53 percent of U.S. businesses will ask employees to return to onsite work by the end of this month. During working from home due to Covid-19, companies have learned that where we work—and the tools we use—alter the employee experience and subsequent business outcomes. From fielding a recent survey, we found that while working from home:

  • Video calls helped democratize meetings. The format encouraged increased contributions from junior staff—33 percent felt that meetings were less hierarchical as the ‘head of the table’ dynamic weakened because everyone occupied the same size space on the screen.
  • Employees were more productive; 71 percent said they worked through their typical commute time and did not have as many casual chats, resulting in more focused work.
  • Far more than half of respondents (64 percent) reported prioritizing fitness and self-care. People logged off when it was convenient, took a virtual fitness class or went for that run in the park versus carrying a gym bag to work and letting another day go by without following through.

These findings are important but not surprising because when people change environments, their behaviors change too. If, as a leader, you hope to maintain these notable gains when your employees return to the office, you must deliberately plan for several behavioral considerations. The key is to redesign cues, which trigger people to act in a certain way. Without new cues in the office, the familiar workspace will prompt employees to regress to prior behaviors.

The home environment cues candor and comfort, which explains why teams are productively working long hours and forgetting about hierarchy. These cues have solved some of what corporate America has tried to accomplish for years. Millions of dollars have been spent on ping pong tables, open-concept work environments, beer kegs and team-building ropes courses. And, even if your company culture is casual—with jeans and t-shirts as the norm—the office still is a distinct environment that prompts hierarchy and “corporate” behavior.

Another powerful cue while working from home is that we are hunkered down supporting each other to remain productive in the face of a common enemy (the virus). As a result, people have fused a “let’s get work done” attitude with being open and vulnerable. In the office, “let’s get work done” behavior dominates, with much less time spent on being open and vulnerable. Further, with people often traveling (in the past), working on separate teams and managing disparate projects, it was easy to deprioritize community and support.

Research from Duke University found that to develop a new habit, “the brain has to override its default wiring and create a new response to a triggering situation.” Expensive overhauls are not necessary to create new cues that trigger re-wiring and generate work-from-home behaviors in the office. Your company can design small changes. For example:

  • To cue democratized meetings, “juniors speak first, leaders speak less” could become a corporate norm.
  • To cue productivity, your team could plan working time with as much care as you plan meetings and have a daily designated two-hour work zone blocked on all calendars.
  • To cue self-care, you or your company’s leadership can give employees the last hour of a day off each week to do something for themselves.

Getting started

Sure, the changes can be bigger and bolder, but these small ones can net results, and now is the time to make them. Behavior is more pliable when there is a distinct moment in time—like “return to the workplace”—that makes people feel more accepting and capable of change. In one study at the University of Pennsylvania, this “fresh start effect” increased behavior change by 33.4 percent over baseline. It will be more difficult to modify cues later when many employees will have returned to the office and reverted to their prior behaviors.

To effect change, start by creating an inventory of old behaviors you want to eliminate versus new behaviors you want to adopt. Then, build the new behaviors into your team’s typical workday, wherever old behaviors would have taken place.

Data from SHRM indicate that nearly seven out of 10 organizations “probably or definitely” will adopt more flexible work from home policies from now on. For the days that employees will be in the office, however, companies need to successfully transfer to the work setting some of the helpful behaviors many of us shifted into at home. It would be a major loss for businesses if we don’t maintain the increased participation in meetings regardless of titles, keep productivity high, and continue taking better care of ourselves. These are important improvements in the working lives of many adults at a time when better outcomes matter most.

Note: The survey was fielded electronically to a random sample of 155 respondents across platforms, including LinkedIn.

Elena Grotto and Felicia Joy are Senior Vice Presidents and advisors in Edelman’s Business Transformation practice.