Op-Ed: The ‘Right’ Way to RTO Doesn’t Exist, But an Employee-First Approach Does

What do employees need and want in the workplace?

That’s truly the million dollar question right now. In my role as Chief People and Culture Officer, I stay up-to-date on workplace trends and predictions. I pay attention to new approaches and processes that have been successful for companies of all sizes.

One day, I’ll read that stricter Registered Time Off (RTO) policies worked for one company. The next day, I’ll read that similar policies at another company resulted in “loud quitting” among employees. It’s a pendulum swing. And like everyone else, I’m trying to stay focused on what’s best for my organization. 

It feels like employers may be trying to return to pre-pandemic ways — the standard Monday to Friday schedule. But in many ways, this no longer works, especially for employees with learning and thinking differences. 

It’s time for employers to stop trying to find the “right” way to bring employees back into the office. There isn’t a “right” way. But there is a better approach. And it starts by listening. 

Before we implemented our new RTO policy at Understood.org, I went on a fact-finding and listening tour. I spoke to 25% of our employees, and one of the recurring themes I heard was “I want to be empowered. I want to get my work done in the way that works for me, my colleagues, and my manager.”

For the 70 million people in the United States with learning and thinking differences, this kind of empowerment isn’t just something they want. It’s something they need. Understood has always provided accommodations for employees. But listening to employees helped me and my fellow executives design an RTO policy that works for everyone. It was a collaborative effort. Here’s how we did it: 

We aligned with our employees. They deserve to be successful on their own terms.We wanted to embrace a practice that provided flexibility for our employees to make choices about when, where, and how they get their work done, in collaboration with their managers. 

Our policy categorizes each role as either in-office, hybrid, or remote. This was based on what’s needed to get the work done successfully. 

An important add-on, to enable managers to be at the center of planning with their teams, is a planning tool. Each team member and their manager can use it to plan monthly and quarterly activities. This can make it easier for them to have conversations about paid time off, days in the office, meetings outside the office, and how to collaborate with a team that has in-person, remote, and hybrid workers. 

We ask hybrid employees to be in the office at least two days a week. There are no rigid requirements about which two days. The employee and their manager work that out. This is consistent with our prior policy. What’s different is how we talk about it. 

We listened to our employees, including employees who learn and think differently. 

Another theme from the listening tour: manager training. Managers need to know how to listen to team members. 

Understood is dedicated to shaping the world for difference. So we really need to hear from our employees who learn and think differently. And we need to respond to their needs. We’re improving our training so managers will feel confident about having one-on-one conversations with every member of their team. 

I encourage managers to have their own listening tours within their teams. They need to understand how team members who learn and think differently prefer to communicate. They need to ask what each team member needs to be successful.

The bottom line? Listening allows you to ask the right questions.

We’re already seeing progress suggesting that a collaborative approach to an RTO policy was right for our employees, our leaders, and our organization. The answer to the million dollar question is much simpler than we thought. It’s listening to employees and providing flexibility for them to make choices about when, where, and how they get their work done, in collaboration with their managers.

Deb Wilson is the Chief People and Culture Officer of Understood.org.

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Updated: November 7, 2023 — 6:01 pm