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ATD Blog

Create a Plan for Returning to Work That Builds Trust

Thursday, June 1, 2023

How to create the right plan for returning to work and building trust in remote and hybrid teams.

The workplace is still in tremendous flux. Many businesses have returned to the office for good, started trying to determine the best next step, or jumped to a hybrid approach to allow both individual autonomy and in-person meetings. When deciding how to steer your business forward, it’s crucial to listen to your employees as you develop the return-to-work plan, encourage performance and engagement from your remote workforce, and understand the power of trust to increase performance in your remote and hybrid teams.

Countless organizations are still grappling with whether to return to in-person workplaces, stay remote, or opt for a hybrid workplace. To start creating the right plan:

  • Check in with your employees first and consider them critical partners in developing your strategy.
  • Ask them for input and feedback or learnings from the pandemic.
  • Create opportunities for employees to provide ideas on the future of work and other ways to improve the business, on any topic: employee support programs, health and wellness, business process improvement, new products, or new behaviors that drive results.
  • Consider setting up a virtual future-of-work brainstorming series or a timed virtual contest to surface new ideas.

Layering open idea-generation opportunities with time-based events and competitions will give leaders more reason to engage their teams over time. If you have one, engage your change agent network to surface ideas and feedback from staff. This also creates an excellent opportunity for leaders to demonstrate visible, caring leadership.


If you have decided to stay remote, focus on encouraging performance, engagement, and follow-through from your remote workforce. Examine your remote daily leadership. What are the components of your secret sauce that encourage your team to deliver results, stay motivated, and engage with others? The following strategies may help:

  • Create rules of engagement with your team that define communication protocols, timing, and expectations. Conduct a brainstorming session to get input from the group and then review the first draft with them. Get alignment and agreement on the final version from all team members. Consider including: when team meetings occur and at what frequency (days, times, duration); preferred meeting formats (video conference, teleconference, etc.); standard meeting agenda topics; expected practices for video conference, teleconference, and email; and guidelines for choosing the best meeting format for the situation. It is also helpful to discuss boundaries for reaching out to one another on urgent matters.
  • Set up regular meetings with your employees at the right cadence for their career level and prioritize these meetings. These opportunities are essential for relationship building, helping team members develop, and nurturing another group of leaders. Today, I am more likely to work with the leaders who previously honored my one-on-one meetings regularly.
  • Ask interesting questions in team meetings to reveal more about your team members, what they do, what they dream of doing, or other interesting details about themselves. For example, “What bucket-list trip are you planning in the next three years?” All meeting participants should answer the question. As an experienced professional, questions like this help me learn more about the people I work with and what motivates them.
  • When your team is overextended, seek to uncover the root cause and act immediately to set boundaries. With your team, discuss business needs, required changes, boundaries, and what help they need. If they understand that you are genuinely motivated to help them, they will be more likely to go the extra mile when it makes a difference.
  • Close meetings on a positive note. Give each other virtual high fives. Meaningful actions transcend the moment and touch the spirit. A tremendous amount of research shows the value of a high five. Giving your team the visual or mental message “You've got this!” is priceless.

Further, trust is the foundation for great relationships and high team performance. Here are a few practical ways to build trust in your remote or hybrid workforce:

  • Provide opportunities for team building as a cohesive group, as well as informal one-on-one interactions. Perhaps hold monthly team-building sessions with creative experiences like virtual escape rooms, puzzles, or scavenger hunts. Many organizations plan this type of activity professionally so that you don’t have to figure it out on your own.
  • Boost engagement by creating fun opportunities for team members to share their interests, knowledge, and expertise in approachable venues like a virtual coffee break or brown-bag session. Activities like cooking, artwork, building and launching rockets or drones, digital photography, travel, and more can provide a creative outlet.
  • Launch a formal mentoring program that matches junior team members with senior team leaders they don’t know to help them navigate the business world, prepare for promotion, or work through dilemmas in a private, trust-based environment.
  • Have trusted senior leaders conduct virtual round tables to better understand staff concerns, learn more about the best way to engage employees, and find out how they are doing.
  • As a leader, be transparent and use fact-based language in communications. Openness, honesty, and straightforwardness can quickly shut down the rumor mill. If new information becomes available, share it with leaders as soon as possible so it can cascade through the organization.
  • Celebrate big wins—whether a new deal, solution, product, or award for a team member. Teams that celebrate together stay together!
  • Support building trust as a core value for your company and yourself. Sharing more of who you are, what’s important to you, and what you value will build stronger relationships.

In summary, spend time creating the right plan for your workplace. Including employee feedback when determining your strategy can foster engagement, and focusing on your people first builds trust and increases team performance.

About the Author

Sara Sheehan, PCC, is a consultant and executive coach who works with C-level executive leaders in designing organizations, developing business strategies, managing change, optimizing talent and leadership development, and solving complex human performance problems. Through executive coaching, Sara helps leaders sprint up the corporate ladder and increase their performance.

During Sara’s 25+ years in business, she has worked with leaders, teams, and organizations in Fortune 100 companies and individuals. Sara specializes in change management, talent and leadership development, executive coaching, and organization design. As a collaborative, results-orientated coach, Sara provides support and practical feedback to help clients effectively navigate change and address business challenges. She also integrates coaching techniques, methods, and approaches to help her clients develop change capabilities and learn to apply them right away. With a servant leadership mindset, she supports her clients in building new skills and customizes frameworks to her client’s project needs. Sara works with clients based on her network, referrals, and appointment.

Sara has been featured nationally and internationally on podcasts as an expert on change management, talent and leadership development, executive coaching, and organization design.

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