I see a lot of businesses struggling with their new model for people working in the office versus from home. This is a significant issue for those who worked so hard last year to suddenly create new approaches.

We’ve now discovered that “calling the troops back” isn’t nearly as simple as we expected.

Part of it is the still-evolving regulations, of course, but that’s minor compared to what workers need and expect from their employers. The difficult truth is that each person is making his or her own unique decision, based on complicated factors that they’ve never had to deal with before:

• Health concerns for themselves and family.
• Difficulty finding quality child care.
• Spending a year developing new work patterns that allow for a new work/life balance and no commute.
• Rethinking career goals.
• Missing the human contact of co-workers.
• Preferences for “focused time” and “meeting time” during the workday.

I’ve even seen situations where someone decided to move out of state while continuing to tele-work, so moving back to the office would be truly a hardship and probably a deal-breaker. The job market is unexpectedly good in many industries, reducing risk for those who decide to leave their jobs.

Many workers now feel that they’ve been just as effective working from home and are reluctant to return to being in an office full time.

Meanwhile, leaders are worried about:

• Decline in teamwork and innovation.
• Office space that is under-used and still a significant expense.
• Onboarding new employees when it’s much harder to develop bonds between isolated people.
• Lack of visibility when you don’t see your people at their desks every day.

If this last one is your overriding concern, then please work on the management culture you’ve created. It means that your managers probably focus more on seeing people working than the results they produce. That’s the wrong priority.

But for most of us, it’s worrying to see a decline in overall collaboration and team effectiveness during the pandemic. So there’s an incentive to start bringing people back, and we’d like to be fair about it.

Here’s where you start: With a confidential conversation with each and every person. This isn’t about convincing them because you’ve made up your mind. It’s about listening to their thoughts and concerns. In their job, career progression, team relationships, personal life, family situation, …. Everything.

No matter where you are in your decision-making process, it’s about listening first. Listening to understand and empathize. Not to develop counter-arguments.

The problem, of course, is that you’ll find that each person has different preferences and unique needs. You know that, and it may have been giving you sleepless nights.

This is a crucial step because it lets you know where each person is at, and what kinds of concerns you need to focus on in your decisions. You’re developing a mental model against which you can test various scenarios.

That’s a process you’re doing more by yourself and with your leadership team. You’re creating, debating, and evaluating — even some scenarios which might seem strange. Because we’re all navigating uncharted waters here, and there is no great approach that works for all organizations.

You’ll probably be faced with some tough decisions. Suppose you decide that Mondays and Thursdays should be in-the-office days so people can have face-to-face meetings, with workers deciding what they want to do on other days. Managers will be in the office four days a week to facilitate more meetings for the challenges ahead.

This approach might work for most people, but there are going to be specific problems. A couple of people will probably leave, while others may ask for exceptions. You’ll have to make these decisions, though, and be confident in your choices. You’ll give people the help and support they need for wanting to come back in.

If you think about it, this really is the same sort of change management that comes from any significant challenge — restructuring, competitive pressures, industry downturns, even rapid growth. So approach it with all the tools at your disposal: management alignment, team rollouts, and heaps of communication.

But it starts with listening to each of your people first.

This article was first published in BizWest.