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Resist Old Routines When Returning to the Office

by Vijay Govindarajan, Anup Srivastava, Thomas Grisold, and Adrian Klammer for Harvard Business Review

As vaccines are being shipped and administered, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people’s lives and the business environment will gradually lessen over time. This will be a welcome change, but organizations must resist a complete reversion to their pre-pandemic practices.

While the crisis imposed severe restrictions, it also provided a unique opportunity to conduct thousands of experiments and innovate with new practices, some of which are beneficial in any period — pandemic or no pandemic. In addition, the crisis lowered the resistance to change and thus helped organizations get rid of deeply entrenched, dysfunctional practices that would be difficult to shed in normal times.

Many organizations were forced to do things that would have been considered inconceivable not so long ago. In addition to many companies’ successful digital transformations and widespread remote work, courts started delivering justice online, healthcare providers shifted to telemedicine for many minor illnesses, banks disbursed loans without meeting clients in person, and auditors conducted virtual company audits without visiting company premises.

But what will happen to these practices once the pandemic is over? Our research on the Three-Box Solution shows that sustained organizational changes depend not only on the discovery of new practices and their initial adoption, but also on ensuring that managers and employees don’t fall back into old routines when the impetus for change is gone. The following four-step framework will help leaders identify, retain, and sustain the beneficial changes that were introduced over the past year.

1. Identify which new practices should be sustained In the early days of the pandemic, circumstances forced companies to react and experiment in swift and pragmatic ways. Most companies followed one unequivocal dictum: Keep pace and survive. Now it’s time to make space to reflect.

As a first step, companies should identify which new practices were successful, why they were successful, and under which circumstances they’re expected to continue to succeed. New practices are more likely to be retained and sustained if managers and employees consciously identify and recognize them, then establish them. Survey employees to understand what they did differently during the crisis and then conduct follow-up discussions about what succeeded for them and what didn’t. Distill the efforts that were successful into common organizational procedures, translating them into documentation and communicating new expected practices to employees.

2. Reduce the influence of symbols connected to old practices We’re notorious creatures of habit. Given two choices, we’ll almost certainly opt for the more familiar one. Old habits and their signals are not only ingrained in our brains, but they’re also embedded in our surrounding environment. Language, spatial arrangements, rules, and work systems are preservers of knowledge in organizations that can trigger relapse. Manipulating or removing those symbols facilitates sustained change.

For example, while online teaching was reasonably successful in universities during the first wave of the pandemic (at least for certain subjects or classes), there is a strong call for wholesale reversion to lecture halls after the summer. University administrators are facing pressure from trustees to justify the existence of massive university infrastructure and from students and their parents to resume face-to-face teaching or reduce fees. As a result, many administrators have begun forcing instructors to conduct a minimum percentage of classes in lecture halls, irrespective of whether a physical class is necessary.

A better solution would be a careful determination of which classes facilitate co-creation of knowledge and necessitate interpersonal interactions and physical proximity, and therefore require bringing students and instructors into the same classroom at the same time, versus those that are just instructors’ monologues and best done virtually. Century-old university procedures may not necessarily be the best practices for all learning occasions. Yet universities retain the symbols that facilitate reversion — classrooms, physical handouts, attendance, office hours, etc.

We encourage organizations to unlearn dysfunctional practices by reducing influences of old knowledge structures that can hinder the adoption of new ones. This requires three steps:

  1. Question and reconsider the explicit and implicit criteria by which employees are evaluated — for example, whether they come to the office regularly and on time.

  2. Scrutinize and eliminate activities that were considered a norm previously but are no longer required — for example, daily in-person morning meetings held in a conference room at the office.

  3. Identify and change triggers that make people retrieve old norms — for example, if you had a tradition of having a group pizza lunch on Friday, host it in a video conference­-enabled room so that people working from home can join.

3. Openly discuss and resolve disagreements and misconceptions about the new procedures Even after changes have been implemented, employees continue to carry deeply embedded assumptions about routines and practices from the prior era. As long as these old assumptions are ingrained in individuals’ cognitive framework and there are disagreements about them going forward, the risk of failure remains high.

For example, one of the companies where we’re doing research initiated a dialogue among employees about the work-from-home mandate that was implemented during the pandemic. Now that conditions are becoming conducive to a return to offices, the company is discussing a permanent remote work policy.

We identified three distinct groups of employees based on their perceptions of the original change. One group was enthusiastic about it and demanded that it be sustained. Another group was comfortable with the change given the extraordinary circumstances but believed that it should be reversed once the pandemic is over. The third group never wanted the change and couldn’t wait for a reversion to the old practice. Although the shift to remote work was initially implemented on an organization-wide basis, management didn’t know about the differences in people’s hidden perceptions about them. Unearthing these camps and their different assumptions helped the organization reflect on, transparently discuss, and set uniform expectations for each other, which allowed them to create more nuanced work-from-home policies that balanced the needs of all three groups.

Letting different viewpoints collide after change has been implemented does more harm than good. In order to make change sustainable, everyone must have a similar, if not the same, understanding of the reason, merits, and punishment and rewards associated with new procedures. For example, if physical, in-office meetings shouldn’t be held on days employees are allowed to work from home, make that clear. If an in-person meeting on one of those days is unavoidable, make sure employees understand that they won’t be penalized for participating virtually. Bringing varying opinions and perceptions to the surface, openly discussing divergent assumptions, and settling them will help align those expectations.

4. Turn new practices into habits New practices can be sustained only if they’re turned into habits. In the final step of our framework, organizations must make sure that good practices are cemented into the organizational reality.

The tendency to fall back into established routines creeps in every day. It’s important, therefore, to go beyond initial rollouts and information sessions to regularly reinforce the new practices. This involves reminding people what the new procedures are until they don’t feel new anymore. It’s almost like reminding drivers about new speed bumps and lane changes for a period of time until they get used the new quirks. Instead of hoping that employees will automatically internalize changes as new routines, organizations must repeatedly communicate their benefits while providing incentives for their adoption and potential disincentives for their non-adoption. After several trials, new routines will become the familiar ones, and change will be sustained.

In places where pandemic restrictions are easing, companies must embrace this unique opportunity to retain the beneficial practices they adopted during the crisis. To do so effectively, leaders must be thoughtful about identifying which have been successful and deliberate in ensuring that the changes stick.


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