WFH or back to the office? Making tough decisions post-pandemic.

Paula Winkler
6 min readApr 29, 2021

Vaccines are rolling out. The weather is warming up, and there’s a palpable sense of optimism in the air. Everyone’s talking about returning to normal. But what is normal? What exactly are we returning to?

Many business leaders are faced with tough decisions about how, if, and when to return to the office. Should you bring your staff back? If so, when? Should you stay 100% work from home? Is a hybrid model the best approach?

There’s no shortage of questions. What’s the best approach? Let’s look to the brain science for some helpful insight.

Before you decide, let’s talk about your brain.

We all have biases — at least 175 cognitive biases have actually been documented. Our brains use these biases, often unconsciously, to filter information and prioritize the familiar and safe. These biases direct every choice you make and every action you take.

You have them as a leader, and your employees have them, too. These biases can be great for protecting us from danger, but they can also be limiting and cause us to view the world through the lens of our own preferences.

For instance, as a leader, you might be more inclined to save money. As a result, you could decide work from home is the best option because it’s the cheapest. But this decision would only be taking your own bias into consideration.

Biases can come in many forms and are sometimes contradictory. For example:

  • One employee might say, “Of course I want to return to the office because I can’t work or be productive with my kids here all the time.”
  • Another employee might say, “I feel so much more productive with remote work because I’m able to work from the comfort of my own home.”

Let’s back up a bit. Biases are biological mechanisms our brains use to keep us safe and comfortable. They are one way our brains seek out normalcy and certainty because uncertainty stresses out our brains.

Your brain relies on biases as a defense mechanism just like a turtle relies on its shell

“Normal” just means safe to our brain. It means we’re used to it. But “normal” is just as individual as the individual themselves.

There might have been things we did before the pandemic that kept us energized, motivated, positive, and productive. But many people have adapted and found a “new normal,” making the task of finding normalcy even more challenging. Which normal is better? Pre-pandemic normal or post-pandemic normal?

If a company has adapted effectively, employees might feel compelled to continue working from home because the new normal is working well. But what about a company that’s still in the transitional period? In that case, people’s energy tanks might be empty, and so they’re craving the old way. How can we get beyond the biases to make a more objective business decision?

Tips for approaching business decisions from a brain science perspective

By relying too heavily on our own biases and seeking our own sense of normalcy, we can fail to see the bigger picture. These tips will help you make more balanced business decisions.

Tip 1: Check your own thinking

We all have biases, but as a leader, make sure to take the time to double-check your options, choices, and actions. Try to figure out how much your choices are being swayed by your own biases. I personally love working from home, so I’m quick to say we should stay remote because it will save us money.

When I pan out, though, I see my decision is about 90% self-motivated and 10% finance motivated. This doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong decision. It’s just important to get a handle on how much your own biases factor into your decision-making, so you can make business decisions with full clarity.

Here’s another example: Many leaders feel like they can keep better track of their team if they’re present in the office to physically see what they’re up to. Employees will be more productive in an office environment, right? Not necessarily. This is another common bias that is important to check, as research has shown that employees are more productive when working remotely.

Tip 2: Explore the landscape

Before making any decisions about if and when to return to the office, take in the entire landscape. Look at all the near-term, self-motivated factors first and then take in the rest of the field.

It might look like an empty grassy field when you first look, but then other stuff starts to pop into view.

Some things to consider include:

  • What are the real estate costs?
  • How will other companies react?
  • What are competitors doing?
  • How will employees react?
  • How will your decision impact employee mental and physical health?
  • How will employees have to adjust their care plans (daycare, senior care, personal care, pet care, etc.)?
  • How will your decision impact employee productivity, accountability, flexibility, etc.?
  • How does your decision impact future scalability?
  • How will your decision expand or reduce finding great talent?

Take time to get the full picture of how your business decisions post-pandemic will impact everyone and everything. Really take in the entire landscape of possibilities.

A quick note on surveys: Some leaders opt to do surveys to get a better picture of the landscape and what employees want. You can do that, but keep in mind that you can’t just send a survey and disregard the results. Everyone will answer your surveys selfishly, honestly, and based on their own biases and definition of “normalcy.”

Let’s say you send out a survey asking if people want to return to the office or stay remote, and 51% of the people want to return to the office. That’s it then, right? The majority wants the office, so the office it is. However, 49% is a significant number of employees who might be demotivated by this move.

How will you address their needs? Will you? Now, if it’s only 10% who want to stay remote, maybe it’s not worth considering. Perhaps you’re comfortable losing that 10%. The point is, don’t assume 100% of the people will be on board with your decision — especially if you’re going against their opinion.

Surveys can be helpful, but you should act on the results with caution.

Tip 3: Ask for Help

Once you’ve checked your thinking and explored the landscape, how would you summarize your decision and plans? Come up with a quick summary and ask other people for their thoughts. Incorporate other perspectives for a final round of bias checking and missing data.

As leaders, we all think we’re supposed to know everything. That’s just patently false. There’s not a single job description in the world that requires you to know all the answers yourself.

Instead, ask a partner, peer, or a strategic coach for their perspective. This ensures you’re getting a complete look at all biases and points of view to make the best decision for the entire company.

New plans for a post-pandemic reality

We’re all thrilled that hope is finally in the air. But that doesn’t mean we should disregard the growing pains we experienced when adapting our workforces during the pandemic. And we’ll have the same growing pains as we move out of the pandemic.

If you need a thought partner to help implement new business plans, address employee responses, or check your own thinking — we’re here to help. At The Disruptive Element, we help leaders create plans and navigate the positive and negative reactions to those plans. Contact us now to start a conversation.



Paula Winkler

Paula is an experienced Corporate Executive and an Executive Coach with over 30 years of experience who co-founded The Disruptive Element to ignite potential!