Back to the office

In the past six months, companies worldwide have started to grapple with the question of when to return to the office. The unpredictability of the pandemic makes this more difficult, as does the resistance from employees. Back in March, CNBC wrote about ‘giddy executives’ welcoming their employees back to the office, with Apple CEO Tim Cook optimistically outlining their April hybrid back-to-work plan.  Just a few months later, after losing their director of machine learning, Ian Goodfellow, Cook was slightly more cautious, calling the hybrid model the ‘mother of all experiments’. As cases surge around the world, I wanted to take a closer look at the remote/hybrid working model and how companies can find solutions that work for both employer and employee.

Executives vs employees – a mindset clash

The debate around returning to the office differs depending on the country and even regions within countries. The US workforce is generally less willing to return than the workforce of European countries. One thing both regions have in common is the disconnect between the ‘old-school mindset’ of executives and the demand for remote or hybrid models from employees. Executives often fail to fully understand why their employees are in no rush to return to the office – perhaps because they don’t share the same concerns. Employees have become accustomed to a no-commute workday, which saves them precious time that they can spend with their families or friends. Childcare is more accessible, and they aren’t risking catching COVID on their way into work or in the workspace. And after years of being told that working from home isn’t doable, the past two years have shown that in many cases, it really is possible.

Companies that have started moving people back to the office often do so without a clear idea of how to do it, and many are bungling their flexible work plans. There’s got to be a better way than just stumbling into a ‘policy’ and hoping it works. The first thing to ask yourself is – why do you want employees back in the office.

Do we need to go back to the office?

When leaders start talking about getting people back to the office, their reasons often revolve around buzzwords – culture, collaboration, purpose, socialization, connection, creation, and celebration. The problem is that these words are too vague – some of these activities can still take place in the virtual world. And many aren’t enough to convince employees of the necessity of returning to the office.

If we’ve learned anything in these past years, it’s that we can collaborate and connect online. Look at the significant advances in collaboration software in the past two years. Whether it’s creative teams using Miro boards, or college students working together with their professor in OneNote, we’ve broken through a hesitancy barrier.

These buzzwords aren’t going to motivate people to come back to the office. Sometimes it feels like the decision to return to the office is made, and the ‘reasons’ are retrospectively introduced as evidence.

If you give someone a choice between two hours commuting every day and reinforcing a sense of ‘sharing a common mission’, or learning ‘how to navigate a workplace’s culture’, they will start updating their resume.

We need to completely rethink working in the office.

Why does your team need to get together in person?

In my opinion, there are three main reasons why teams and extended teams need to come together physically on a regular basis: Cohesion, Creativity, and Conflict Resolution. Let’s go through them.

Cohesion

The ‘action of forming a united whole’. This brings together many of the buzzwords mentioned above – culture, connection, collaboration, purpose, socialization, and celebration. But we are thinking about the result rather than an activity or task. It’s all about forming a team that works as one. Building trust, fostering relationships, and mentoring new and younger colleagues.

Creativity

Yes, we can be creative in an online session, and we can bounce ideas around, but nothing beats getting together and doing it in person. When the team works well together, you can feel the energy, the spark.

Conflict Resolution

Miscommunication, misunderstanding, misreading of a message – a lot can go wrong with online and particularly written communication. It’s also harder to read the other person properly, interpret their gestures and body language, and sense hurt or anger.

These three reasons interconnect. With greater cohesion comes more creativity and a reduced risk of conflict. The spark of creativity – that leads to a new product or service, an amazing marketing concept, or an improved feature – brings the team together as a cohesive unit.

So, is the office dead?

Probably not. But you may have noticed that I avoided the term ‘office’ when I wrote about being back together in person. Being in an office space doesn’t automatically lead to these three Cs. And you don’t need an office to achieve them. What you do need is an innovative use of space and time.  

There may be times when you want people back in your office, but some of these activities can be done without commuting to a fancy building in the center of a busy metropole. And they certainly don’t all need to be done all day, every day. Co-working spaces might be an option, or regular team retreats.

There’s no one-size-fits-all here. Every company needs to assess their own situation and the needs of its employees and create a hybrid working plan.

This plan starts with an exploration of your work culture, workflows, hierarchy, preferences and commitments of employees and management (such as childcare or commuting distances but also who likes to be in the office and who prefers to work remotely), and available technical and financial resources. This analysis is used to map the time and space that your employees need to work together in person.

Does this sound like a lot of work? I’ll be honest. It is. But it will be worth it to create a holistic and transparent plan that helps you recruit and retain excellent employees. And my team has the experience you need to get this done. Get in touch with us to find out more.

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