We’ve heard a lot of speculation in recent months from business leaders and media outlets on what the global “return to work” is going to look like. But if we’re just going back to work now, what have we been doing for the past year?

Many of us who have been fortunate enough to be employed haven’t stopped working since the advent of the pandemic. In fact, according to a recent survey of remote workers, 45% reported that they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before the pandemic started. 

The phrase “return to work” isn’t just out of touch with reality, it’s exclusionary and quite frankly, insulting. “Return to work” disregards the tremendous contributions of full-time remote employees over the past year. It also excludes those who were fully remote before the pandemic even started and the 55% who intend to continue working remotely in some capacity after the pandemic subsides. If we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that work is not a place you go, it’s a thing you do. 

With many global organizations planning to implement a hybrid work model in the coming months, leaders should instead use the phrase “office reopening.” However, building an inclusive and effective flexible workforce isn’t achieved simply through a better choice of words. Businesses must take a step back and confront the larger issue of transparency and trust in flexible work. 

Bridging the Trust Gap in Flexible Work 

According to a recent survey conducted by the Centre For Transformative Work Design, 41% of managers said they were skeptical as to whether remote workers can stay motivated in the long term. Despite the fact that the last year has clearly proven that workers can be just as productive working remotely as they are in the office, skepticism toward remote work at the manager level still exists. 

This lingering sense of mistrust in remote work from managers and leadership may be the reason why some employees feel anxious or doubtful when a company says it is “embracing” a hybrid work model. Will in-office workers receive more attention or be treated differently than those working remotely if they have more face-time with the boss? Is leadership only paying lip-service to flexible work right now because it’s trendy? These are some of the concerns that run through many remote workers’ minds. 

Mean What You Say, Say What You Mean 

Honest communication from the top down and leading by example is paramount. Personally, I enjoy seeing employees face-to-face and I miss the spontaneity of catching up with an employee at their desk or chatting with a new hire in the hallway. However, I realize that not all employees will have the same opportunity to come into the office after the pandemic and they shouldn’t be disadvantaged if they prefer to work remotely. I also do not cling to an unrealistic world where all employees work from the office. That is simply not the future of work. As a CEO, I recognize that my words and actions have a profound impact on the way my team perceives and embraces remote work. That is why I lead by example and encourage our management team to do the same. 

At Fuze, we have had a “work from anywhere” policy for several years that empowers all employees to work wherever they feel the most productive. By implementing this policy across the company, we not only saw major improvements in productivity and engagement, but we saw a collective surge in trust toward remote work. We recently polled our employees and 91% of them feel that their manager and team would support their decision to continue working from home if they so choose after the pandemic subsides. In our company-wide communications, we have also emphasized that returning to the office is a choice and not an expectation.  

Implementing a hybrid work model isn’t a one-and-done effort. In order to build trust in flexible work, businesses must continually work to create equity between the remote and in-office experiences. For example, IT teams should create video conference-enabled meeting rooms that provide remote participants with the same experience as in-person workers. The same goes for interactive group events like happy hours and team-building exercises. 

Remote workers must be taken into account at every touchpoint of the employee experience. Just as many businesses had to completely reimagine the way they engage with their employees at the onset of the pandemic, the transition to a hybrid work model must be regarded as a moment to reset internally and anticipate any unique challenges that may arise. This especially applies to managers. Leadership teams should invest in resources early on to properly train managers on how to lead hybrid workers. How should managers keep an “open door” policy for both remote and in-person workers? How do you address issues between in-person and remote staff? These are all questions that many businesses have yet to even consider. 

As more businesses embrace hybrid work in the coming months, success will be largely measured by each organization’s willingness to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. By focusing on inclusivity and communicating with honesty and authenticity, business leaders will break down the traditional barriers to flexible work and ensure that their workforce remains productive and engaged.