Ask The Experts: Back To The Office? Not So Fast!

James Miller, Contributing Editor & Research Analyst, Wealth Solutions Report

The Kelley Group, Prospera Financial And Hightower Advisors Counsel Creative Approaches And Flexibility Rather Than Strict Back-To-Office Approach

An ancient proverb reminds us that “necessity is the mother of invention.” COVID-19 undoubtably left devastation in its wake, but the world adapted with new arrangements and methods for work, education, health and entertainment. 

While some of those adaptations have been reverting back to their previous states, some of them gained such popularity that they permanently altered the landscape, including working from home, hybrid work and remote work. 

The good old days

But not every employer is excited about employees working outside the office, and today’s question for the experts comes from just such a business owner – who believes the firm’s employees are slacking and wants to return to yesteryear’s work-at-the-office approach. 

The Panel Of Experts

We are grateful to this panel of human resources and consulting experts who address the anonymous reader’s situation: 

The reader asked:

Productivity dropping?

My employees are slacking and I want to force them back into the office. Until the pandemic, my firm, which I share with my wife and her brother, was always an in-person operation. All our employees worked with us at the same office in the downtown area of a mid-sized New England city. Including the three of us, we have six total advisors and about $290 million in assets. 

In the past few months, we began to suspect our employees might be goofing off. Productivity measured in different ways has been down across the firm. While we recognize that children, pets and doorbells are unavoidable when working from home, employees’ productivity numbers steadily worsened while our numbers stabilized.

Hard at work!

Then, on a Zoom call about a month ago, my wife noticed an employee playing a game on his phone, likely thinking that his hands were out of the field of vision – yet my wife clearly saw spinning jackpot wheels. On another Zoom call a couple weeks ago, a different employee, this time an advisor, thought her microphone was muted – it was not – and the latest episode of “Westworld” was playing in the background. 

We genuinely care about our employees, many of whom have been with us for years. They’re good people and hard workers – when they’re in the office – and we don’t think it will be productive to call them out and admonish this behavior. We only want to put them back in the office full-time but going back to the office is easier said than done after two years of adjusting to new lifestyle patterns and work habits. 

How do we force our slacking employees back into the office as quickly and painlessly as possible? 

The experts responded:

Sarano Kelley, co-founder, The Kelley Group

Sarano Kelley, co-founder, The Kelley Group

Bringing employees back into the office after they’ve adjusted to COVID-19 quarantines can be a tricky process. Employees have enjoyed the freedom of working how and when they want without a boss looking over their shoulder. However, when productivity drops guidelines must be established. 

At The Kelley Group, we teach advisors to approach challenges as a team effort. Bring the entire team to the office for a meeting. Report how production numbers are dropping and brainstorm solutions with them. Then have members set individual goals. Once the goals have been set and current stats established, it’s easier to track the productivity of each employee, which will help them to see how they’re doing comparatively. 

Reaching the goal?

At a weekly face-to-face meeting, have them report on their progress. Are they reaching their goals? If not, why? If they have, how did they do it? Have those who work in the office outpaced those who work from home? For those who reach their goals, provide an in-office lunch. For those who exceed their monthly goals, provide an additional reward, e.g., a virtual coaching session. 

Reward them

Additionally, create an environment of encouragement for those who are physically present. For example, give points for 100% attendance at morning “kick-start meetings,” that can be exchanged for gifts, e.g., golf merchandise for golfers, complimentary tickets for concert enthusiasts or a winery tour for wine aficionados. 

When engaging team members in the “back to the office” process, they’ll become the initiators who make it happen. 

Wendy Simmons, Managing Director, Human Resources, Prospera Financial

Wendy Simmons, Managing Director, Human Resources, Prospera Financial 

While this may not be what you want to hear, you shouldn’t force them into the office full-time. Have you thought about a hybrid approach? Things will never be the same as they once were –  and that’s OK. We were a firm that was 100% in person (with few exceptions) and never would have thought that we would be a firm today with a flexible remote work policy, setting up hoteling and coaching on best practices around engaging with clients in a virtual world.  

It sounds like you have run a successful, client-focused practice, and one of the most significant aspects of this success is driven by taking care of your staff. And over the past several years, your team has changed – their needs have changed and they are grateful for different things in their work and personal lives. I would venture to say much of this changed valuation centers around a different kind of work-life balance. 

Reframe your thinking

Maybe reframe your thinking – how can you help your staff become more efficient and productive while working remotely and maintaining a quality of life to which they have become accustomed? 

Developing an employee promise for remote work with clear and updated expectations for their remote workspace, virtual meeting etiquette and attendance, and providing upgraded technology to ensure easy collaboration can go a very long way. 

Once we made the decision to allow for a more flexible work schedule, we found that by laying out the ground rules and by putting trust in our staff, they truly knocked the ball out of the park for our clients. Also, offering fun, engaging opportunities they can only do in the office may encourage some to work in the office more than required. 

Sarah Musante, Chief Human Resources Officer, Hightower Advisors

Sarah Musante, Chief Human Resources Officer, Hightower Advisors

At Hightower, we saw some of the same issues. Prior to the pandemic we were all in the office full-time. Over time, through lots of listening and focus groups, we arrived at the conclusion that we had to change our thinking. We would lose many strong employees if we “forced” people to come back full time, and we tried to avoid using any terminology such as “forced.”

Instead, we created a hybrid work model we call “Hightower HIGHFlex” – briefly, employees choose one solid day (Mondays, for instance) and an additional floating day of the week. Most employees match up days to maximize collaboration time and minimize Zooms! 

Good things at the office!

Then, twice a month, we have “Engagement Wednesdays.” For those, we want everyone to come in, and want them to want to come in! We’ve had baristas, ice cream, international lunch and even hosted a charcuterie-making class. 


We’ve also done a couple other things in recognition that the pandemic changed how we all live, and also how we think of each other. We allow one month “work from anywhere!” and encourage our employees to share pics of their whereabouts with hashtags #hightowerhighflex #hifrom___! We recognize that our employees, when engaged, will offer their best work, so we’ve tried to meet them where they are asking for improvement. 

We’ve had great feedback and believe our employees do feel “heard.” We’ve also rolled out a focus on culture called “The Hightower Way” that is all about mutual respect, collaboration and a heavy service model focus. In light of that, we are also focused on accountability – for instance, when on a Zoom call, be present and be engaged … and be on camera! 

Employees recognize that we are taking steps to make Hightower a great place to work, and “mutual respect” means honesty and transparency in being focused on work, during work – with the opportunity to have increased downtime. We call it “living a life of well-th” – thinking of an employees’ entire well-being. 

James Miller, Contributing Editor & Research Analyst at Wealth Solutions Report, can be reached at

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