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The 3 ‘biggest mistakes’ companies make with return to office, according to Google’s head of Workspace

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The Google office on the King's Cross Central development in London, U.K., on Monday, July 12, 2021.
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Google employees returned to the office this week after more than two years of remote work and changing plans about when – and how – to bring people back.  

The tech behemoth joins a growing list of companies bringing workers back on-site this spring that includes Meta, American Express and Apple. Google's new hybrid work arrangement requires most employees to be in the office at least three days per week, with the other two days spent working remotely. 

Javier Soltero, the vice president and general manager of Google Workspace, has been looking forward to the return for months. "I've missed working alongside people," he tells CNBC Make It. "There's a certain joy and sense of optimism I feel coming back." 

There's the practical benefits of returning to the office, too: Soltero joined Google in October 2019, five months before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Between the holidays and business travel, I didn't have the chance to really meet and build strong connections with the people on my team," he says. "I hardly even know where the bathroom was!" 

Soltero is planning to be in the office at least two days a week – and while he's excited about Google's hybrid work arrangement, he notes that companies can get "a lot wrong" while initiating their return to the office. 

Here are the three "biggest mistakes" Soltero recommends leaders avoid: 

Taking a 'one size fits all' approach

While some jobs need to be done in person, others can be accomplished anywhere with a strong internet connection – and companies' return-to-office strategies should take these nuances into serious consideration. 

Conversations about hybrid work so often focus on where people are working instead of when or how, often leaving front-line workers, whose jobs largely require in-person work, out of the equation.

"Managers should think more about how they can provide flexible, hybrid work arrangements even to people whose jobs require them to be on-site," Soltero says. 

That means empowering on-site employees with flexible hours and tools like apps that help them see schedule changes in real-time, connect faster with corporate headquarters and meet with customers over video. 

Soltero adds that his team is constantly working to improve the functionalities of the Google Workplace products including Gmail, Google Meet and Google Calendar to meet these needs.

Not using the right technology 

Some companies are quick to blame failed experiments of working from home on tech problems whether it's a slow internet connection, outdated software or a lack of in-person IT support. 

"A lot of people are still uncomfortable with video conferencing and other tech programs, and neglecting to learn how to use it to their advantage until it becomes a serious problem," he adds. 

Instead of throwing their hands up and forcing employees to return to the familiar routine of being in an office 5 days a week, Soltero says companies need to embrace technology and include clear instructions as to how it fits into their return-to-office plans. 

Managers should communicate with employees about which methods work best for communication, video meetings and sharing documents and establish guidelines for how to use each.

Focusing too much on meetings

As more companies adopt hybrid work models, managers and HR leaders have raised concerns about proximity bias, or leaders favoring employees who are in the office more often for promotions and pay raises. 

In an effort to solve this problem, some companies have become fixated on how to better engage employees through meetings, often adding more, or longer, meetings onto employees' calendars, so people get equal opportunities for face time with their bosses no matter where they're located.

While Soltero recognizes that proximity bias is a "real, pertinent issue" that companies will have to grapple with in the months ahead, "there's a lot more to work than meetings and client calls," he says. 

Leaders should instead focus on re-vamping the social contracts, or expectations, within their organization: keeping meetings shorter, setting clear "off-hours" for communication and being deliberate about where, and how, creative brainstorms take place.

Check out:

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Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt on why in-office work is better: 'I don't know how you build great management' virtually

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