How can leaders resolve the tricky dilemma of return-to-office (RTO)? After all, 80% of leaders regret their initial approach to RTO, according to a recent report from workplace platform Envoy, and a new Fiverr survey shows 76% of employees spend more time in the office than they would like.
According to organizational conflict expert and author of a new book Dr. Ralph Kilmann, the answer lies in collaboration. Kilmann is co-creator of the renowned Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), which identifies five conflict-handling modes: competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising, and collaborating.
Understanding the Collaborating Conflict Mode
In a recent interview with me, Kilmann explained that there is no single “best” approach for managing conflict. The most effective mode depends on the situation. However, collaborating tends to produce the most mutually beneficial solutions when certain conditions are met.
What is collaborating? This mode involves assertively pursuing your own needs while also cooperating to satisfy the other party’s concerns. The goal is a “win-win” solution that fully addresses both sides’ interests.
Kilmann notes that collaborating works best when:
- The issue is complex, requiring a creative solution
- The topic is important to everyone involved
- There is ample time for discussion
- Trust levels are high
- Communication skills are strong
- The organizational culture encourages cooperation
- People want to preserve their relationship
The return-to-office debate meets many of these criteria. It is a multifaceted issue, and both sides have legitimate interests at stake. Moreover, resolving it requires nuanced policies that balance employee flexibility with organizational needs. This level of complexity calls for collaboration.
Applying Collaboration to the Return-to-Office Transition
So how can leaders apply the collaborating mode to navigate the tricky return-to-office transition? Kilmann offers several practical recommendations:
- Foster open and candid dialogue between leadership and employees. Make ample time for thoughtful discussion of each side’s key needs, interests, and concerns regarding remote work arrangements. Create a safe space for sharing authentic perspectives without fear of judgment.
- Encourage collaboration and thereby expand the size of the pie by genuinely acknowledging valid viewpoints on both sides of the debate. Employees rightfully crave flexibility and autonomy; organizations legitimately value some in-person collaboration and oversight. But these realities are not mutually exclusive – there is room for integration.
- Jointly brainstorm creative win-win solutions that balance and bridge these interests. For example, consider hybrid remote/in-office schedules, shared workspaces to enable in-person collaboration on certain days, and technology enhancements to enable seamless remote participation in meetings and collaboration. Think outside the box.
- Design and test pilot innovative policies and programs to evaluate options and refine approaches based on feedback. Be willing to experiment, iterate, and customize to find optimal arrangements fitting the specific workflows of each department and team. Take an agile, design thinking mindset to policymaking.
- When rolling out final policies, put extra focus on relationship preservation. Avoid authoritarian edicts. Frame arrangements as a good faith effort to help both the organization and its employees achieve their interdependent goals in our emerging hybrid work environment. Communicate with empathy and care.
- Create feedback channels for continuous improvement. Monitor data and employee satisfaction related to new policies. Conduct numerous interviews to deepen understanding of what employees value most. Refine policies based on learnings to ensure optimal alignment. Make flexibility and collaboration ongoing pillars of the culture.
With this collaborative, learning-oriented approach, leaders can craft win-win return-to-office policies while building trust and engagement across the organization. Productivity and satisfaction can rise together.
The Interpersonal Skills Required for Effective Collaboration
Ultimately, navigating this complex, high-stakes conflict requires courage, wisdom, and emotional intelligence from leaders. As Kilmann emphasizes, how leaders implement a given conflict mode matters immensely.
Collaborating only bears fruit when executed with sensitivity, care, and skill. Leaders must foster psychological safety so people feel comfortable freely expressing their authentic perspectives and needs.
Active listening is crucial – leaders should listen attentively without interrupting, reflect back what they hear, and ask thoughtful questions to deepen mutual understanding. They must seek integrative solutions focused on collective gain rather than merely compromising. Think in terms of “and” rather than “or.” There are usually more than two options. Leaders should explain final policies and decisions in an inviting, non-coercive manner. Make a case with empathy and logic rather than invoking formal authority. They must manage their own reactions skillfully when challenged. Take a learning stance rather than a fixed mindset. Model openness through actions.
With this collaborative mindset and skillset, leaders can transform return-to-office conflict into an opportunity for mutual learning, understanding, and integrated solutions benefitting all. Strong collaborators also pay attention to the group process. They design engaging meeting formats that give all voices room to be heard. They synthesize divergent views and build new solutions together. And they aim to deepen workplace relationships and trust in the process. The journey is as vital as the destination.
By resolving return-to-office struggles via collaboration, leaders can co-create policies enabling their organizations to thrive in the hybrid workplace of the future. Just as importantly, they build social capital and community along the way.
Rather than dreading conflict, leaders must embrace it as part of any healthy workplace. Channeling inevitable differences into collaborative problem-solving deepens relationships and often sparks innovation. By resolving return-to-office struggles through collaboration, leaders can build trust and pave the way for their organizations to flourish. Having seen my own share of conflicts as I help organizations figure out their transition to flexible work models, I’ll be bringing Kilmann’s model into my consulting work with companies.
Written by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky.
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