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How Do I Communicate an Unpopular Return to Office Decision #AskingForaFriend?

“Hi Karin, we’ve just received word that after much debate and deliberation, there is a company-wide mandate that EVERYONE must return to office at the beginning of the year.

I know my team is not a fan (and quite frankly, neither am I). I get the rationale, AND it’s going to make all of our lives a bit harder.

We’re past the point of making a case; I’ve been told that this is no longer up for discussion. It’s time to communicate this to my team. The timing is terrible. It’s so close to the holidays I feel like the Grinch who delivered bad news.”

What’s the best way to communicate this to my team AskingforaFriend

4 Approaches to Get Your Team Past the Disapointment and Moving Forward Productively

return to office podcast

As a leader, not every decision you make will be popular. Sometimes you’ll be tasked with delivering news that you know won’t be popular. So, how do you communicate these tough decisions effectively? In the video above, I share four strategies that can help. Here’s a bit more.

1. Create Clarity

Communicate the ‘Why’ Behind the Decision

  • Explain the Rationale: Your team will be more receptive when they understand the “why” behind the decision. It’s easy to assume they know. But keep in mind, they’ve not been in the same meetings as you. They haven’t heard the case from both sides of the argument. What seems obvious to you, might not be clear to them. Be transparent about the factors that led to the decision to return to office.
  • Anticipate Questions: Prepare yourself for the questions your team might have and address these proactively in your communication.

Communicating the Decision Clearly

  • Be Transparent: When you’re worried about how people will respond, it can be easy to throw the bad news in the”diaper genie” and disguise it with spin and ambiguous language. Better to speak the truth.
  • Be Direct but Empathetic: Acknowledge that the news might not be what the team wants to hear, but it’s necessary.

2. Cultivate Connection

Creating a Supportive Environment

  • Open Dialogue: Encourage your team to share their feelings and concerns.
  • Reflect to Connect: Show that you’ve heard them by reflecting on what you’ve heard them say. “It sounds like you’re really frustrated.” “What I’m hearing you say is that the commute is going to create childcare issues for you.” The Powerful Phrases Connection G.O.A.T.s work well here.

Maintaining Team Morale

  • Focus on the Positive: Highlight any potential benefits or opportunities from this change.
  • Provide Support: Offer resources or additional support to help your team adapt to the change that comes with the return to office initiative.

3. Cultivate Curiosity

Encouraging Team Involvement

  • Brainstorm Together: Invite your team to share ideas to make the transition smoother. A great question to start is by asking “How can we…” make the most of this situation?
  • Respond with Regard: Respond to their ideas with gratitude (thanking them for their contribution), information (what will happen next– even if it’s not something you can do), and an invitation to continue contributing.

Focusing on Innovation

  • Think Forward: Discuss how this decision might lead to new opportunities for growth, innovation, and collaboration.
  • Encourage Creativity: Challenge your team to think creatively about how they can turn this situation to their advantage.

4. Create Commitment

Ensuring Understanding and Agreement

  • Recap the Plan: Summarize the key points of the decision and the plan moving forward.
  • Check for Understanding: Make sure everyone is on the same page and understands their role in the implementation.

Setting the Course for Action

  • Schedule the Finish: Lay out clear, actionable steps for how to proceed.
  • Regular Check-Ins: Schedule follow-ups to assess progress, address any issues, and provide ongoing support.

Communicating unpopular decisions like return to office is undoubtedly challenging, but it’s a part of the leadership journey. By creating clarity, cultivating connection and curiosity, and creating commitment, you can navigate these tough conversations with more confidence and empathy. Remember, the way you communicate can significantly impact how your team receives and reacts to the decision.

Have you had to deliver difficult news to your team? What strategies worked for you? Please share your experiences, and let’s learn from each other.

Want more powerful phrases for dealing with tricky situations?

If you’ve noticed we’ve been talking about workplace conflict and collaboration a lot recently, it’s because we’ve been doing a lot of research, learning from people all over the world about their biggest workplace conflicts and what they would do differently next time. More on that research here.

In the meantime, our new book, Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict: What to Say Next to Destress the Workday, Build Collaboration, and Calm Difficult Customers is AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW,  and we’re working on building our speaking tour for Spring 2024 (you can take a quick peek at some of our new conflict and collaboration programs here).


Related Articles:

How to Stay Productive as You Return to the Office

Leadership Communication: How Do I Get Everyone On the Same Page?

Human-Centered Communication with Lizabeth Wesely-Casella

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

  Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!


  1. Melissa Hipp

    Are companies considering how to compensate for the benefits that employees lose when they do return to work? My husband has had to go back to the office, and I can’t see a good justification for it. It made a world of a difference for our family for him to work remotely. He actually worked harder too. He’d be up working on something or working later instead of driving.

    I think the whole office vs. remote conflict is an Ugli Fruit issue on some level.

    • Karin Hurt

      Thanks, Melissa, It sounds like this has been hard on your family– I’m so sorry to hear that. I think these conversations and decisions are quite complex. In some organizations I see very careful weighing of benefits and drawbacks and in others not so much.


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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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