Return to Office Rules of Engagement

Lucas McGregor
6 min readJan 3, 2023


No matter what side of the Return to the Office/Work from Home spectrum your office falls on, the fact is most of us will be spending more time in in the office this year than the previous two. Much like kids who are returning to school after a long hiatus, we are finding that a lot of people have forgotten their manners. So this is a quick primer to help us knowledge workers remember how to treat each other in the office.

1) Commute Time and Core Hours

When the whole team worked from home, it became common for meetings to be scheduled right from the start of the day up until the last minute on the clock. When you are commuting from your kitchen table, jumping right into a Zoom call first thing was a sensible way to start the day.

Now that people are traveling back to the office, we need to return to “core hours,” where meetings are permitted and people are expected to be available.

When people are commuting, it is likely that someone will get caught in traffic or be stopped near the coffee machine with a question. Sure, you could demand that all employees are at their desk and ready to meet the first minute of the day — but you will find a lot of unavoidable absenteeism and end up wasting everyone’s time either waiting or repeating for the late comers.

Set core hours that anticipate the unexpected and allow for workers to come in, get settled, and engage in some human interaction as they start the day. End the meeting hours before the end of the work day to allow flex time for people who came in early so that they could leave early to take care of that doctor appointment, child care issues, or last minute emergency errand.

Everyone just added 1–2 hours[1] to their day by commuting to and from the office. When they were working from home, many of us claimed that commute time for meetings, but now we have to give it back.

2) Passing Periods

Virtual meetings gave rise to “meeting surfing,” where employees would finish one meeting and click into the next as quickly and simply as they would change channels.

The real world office is different. Meetings happen in physical rooms. People have to pack up, setup, and travel between locations. If your meeting ends at 9:30, you cannot instantly be across the building, have your laptop plugged into the shared screen, and be running another meeting that starts at 9:30!

All corporate calendars have an option to end meeting 5 minutes before the hour/half hour. Use it!

The physical world requires real world time for travel. This is why schools and Google have passing periods.

3) Team Rhythm

For some reason, managers like to schedule their workers like shift employees. As humans, we naturally think in terms of weeks and number of days a week.

What is your team’s work rhythm? How often do you all come together to plan, to check status? How long do these processes take?

Are you a sales team that meets weekly to check numbers? Or are you a delivery team that works on quarterly plans and deliverables?

Create in-person schedules that support the team processes. If your team works on a quarterly plan; then you probably need everyone all in for the first couple and last couple of weeks of the quarter. Asking people to come in 3 days a week is counter productive. Instead of getting 10 solid days in the first two weeks, you have 9 days spread across 3 weeks and no agreement that they are the same 3 days for everyone.

Same thing if you are a weekly sales team and you tell people to be in 50% of the time, and what you really needed was everyone together for the weekly kickoff each Monday morning.

Good leadership uses processes and schedules to drive aligment, not compliance. Focus on what you need the team to align around and create a hybrid schedule that supports it.

4) Office Is For Human Contact

The first thing everyone mentions when they talk about the need for Return To the Office is “water cooler talk.”

The first thing I have seen in every office is a bunch of people sitting on laptops in those “phone booth” cubicles — isolated from everyone and that oh-so-precious water cooler talk.

If you are a team member, use that face time to connect with your team mates. Schedule lunches with other people, not at your desk! In fact, avoid your desk! Work from a common area. Chat with people outside of your team. Seek out water cooler talk.

If you are a manager, facilitate socialization. Your team is going to be tempted to show up and be “heads down,” to impress you with their “performative” attendence. They want you to see them “working.”

As managers we know that half the job is working with other people. Encourage employees to engage outside of meetings. Reward and acknowledge people fostering informal communication and building productive networks.

If you come into an office and spend all day on a phone or staring at your screen, you are not getting any good out of the proximity to your team.

If you are a manager, and the only way you feel confident in your team is to see them all typing away; then you are not engaged with their work or product.

5) Trust

Google learned from Project Aristotle[2] that the defining factor to top performing teams boils down to trust. Did the managers trust the teams, did the teams trust their manager, and did the members trust each other.

I often hear leaders say that they want to provide employees with autonomy, mastery, and purpose; but then go on to deny them basic autonomy and tools to do their jobs.

Hybrid work is simply another trust exercise.

Do employees trust their managers to set boundaries that are meaningful? Are they setting expectations and creating systems that get the most out of the team and drive performance and engagement?

Or, do employees see meaningless rituals that are done simply to make someone in HR happy but get in the way of the actual work?

Do employers trust their employees? Do we expect them to be highly engaged and proactive about seeking out opportunities and moving the ball forward?

Or, do we see disengaged employees who need to be closely monitored to make sure that they are not slacking off and taking advantage of the company?

If you don’t feel that trust, change your team! Working in a low-trust environment is a red flag for knowledge work. It is almost a guaranteed no-win situation.

High trust environments can rise to almost any challenge. They can learn and adapt.

Knowledge work provides the opportunity to constantly be adapting. We are always inventing new tools, ways of working, and the future of business. The companies that will be successful will be the one who can harness the new tools and engage the best talent.



Lucas McGregor

SVP of Engineer @ StepStone. Code monkey, product person, policy wonk, armchair philosopher, and all around tinkerer.