Welcome to Your Occasional Office (Here are the Rules)
If you could listen in on management meetings, you’d hear just about every company having a conversation about returning to the office. Whether with a hybrid model and a set number of required days or a default work-from-home with rare hoteling, most organizations will not look like they used to. Very few companies are requiring a return to full-time, in-person work any time soon. That means when the fall arrives, workers will all be undertaking a massive experiment (once more) together: the occasional office.
HR executives and corporate leaders are working furiously to figure out what norms will be required to get the collaborative benefits of co-working while maintaining the flexibility people have gotten used to. Even when health conditions allow a packed office, a talent-strapped labor market will pull companies in the other direction. Studies show that as many as 87% of workers want to remain at last partially virtual, with as many as 50% saying they’ll quit if forced back full time.
Companies have also seen their own upsides. After a decade of gnashing over work-from-home policies, this forced Covid experiment showed that productivity went up, and real estate costs could come way down. Plus, recruiters suddenly had an entire world in which to recruit talent.
So now we sit on the precipice of a new paradigm. There’s a risk that we’ll try to replicate the structures of an all in-person office once people start streaming through the doors. That would be a mistake. We have a chance to reshape the culture for the better. As this article in Harvard Business Review put it, the hybrid office can be designed with “individual human concerns in mind, not just institutional ones.” Here are some rules companies may want to consider to maximize this experience, and create positive, enduring change.
1) Don’t meet more, meet better.
After a year of Zoom fatigue, we are all ready for a better way to meet. However, we should resist the urge to have more in-person meetings, especially eagerly filling up our in-the-office days with them. Remember what our lives of back-to-back meetings looked like pre-2020? No, we don’t want that again.
We’re not the same workers who left the building. We have more options than ever about sharing information, and a drastically increased comfort level with virtual tools. Let’s be strategic. If it can be emailed or discussed on Slack, we don’t need to meet about it. If a virtual meeting is more expeditious than schlepping everyone into the office, so be it. In general, have people together when that’s the only, best or most efficient way to solve the issue. We don’t have to use the office just for meetings, so…
2) Let people decide how they’ll use the office.
Corporate leaders are invested in maximizing their sunk costs for real estate, and have deeply held ideas about what an in-person office should look like. Yet energetic collaboration sessions and enthusiastic team buildings may not be what workers are yearning to get back. Instead of forcing a common use of the office, let people decide how they’ll use it.
For some, a quiet place to do individual work whenever they need to might work best, saving routine team meetings for virtual when everyone’s remote at the same time. Others may want their teams in the office on the same days to maximize collaboration and spontaneous discussions. Or a work group may choose to do few required days in the office, but to spend them differently altogether, such as a home base for sales calls.
Rather than forcing a one-size-fits all model for the office, trust people to decide for themselves. The word trust does heavy lifting here: employees have proved for an entire year that they’ll put in the hard work outside the office and expect that to be recognized.
3) Embrace lunch-time laundry.
Gone are the days when we had to sneak out to run an errand during lunch. We’ve seen inside the messiness of everyone’s lives and appreciated that freedom over our time is life changing. Let’s stick with the no-shaming when a colleague is out for a run to take a stress break at 3 p.m. Most workplaces learned to embrace people’s need to take care of their own stuff, and their own mental health, as they see fit. We can judge people on their outcomes, and let them get their laundry done when they need to.
4) Give people control over their travel.
There isn’t an executive I know who hasn’t realized how useless much of their travel schedule was. Days and days were spent flying to places when a virtual meeting solved 90% of the problem. Now that people can travel, let them decide when they actually need to. Yes, in-person meetings will always be necessary at times. And, they can be judiciously scheduled. We may tumble back into business travel faster than we intend if we’re not careful. Pressuring people to “get back on the plane” should be guarded against. Instead, encourage people to travel only when necessary. As a bonus, it’s better for our health and the environment.
5) Replace face time with quality time.
One concern that’s been voiced is that remote workers will miss out on valuable face time, and therefore be at a career disadvantage. While this is a valid concern, it’s a before-times concern. Face time was important to advancement because we said it was. There’s no reason that must continue.
Relationships, on the other hand, will always be critical. Our cultures should be set up to encourage quality connections—working on projects together, mentoring, cross-training, and collaborative meetings. If we create opportunities for true relationships, then we need fewer, shallow touch points. While being in the office concurrently may help with either, it won’t be enough when only partially occupied.
Companies, and workers, need to figure out how to foster new relationships and to make them count. We have a lot to do, and don’t need to be wasting in-person days to show our face around for political points. We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shape the culture of how we work. Let’s embrace the occasional office, and make the commute (and hard pants) truly worth it.
This article can also be found on Forbes.com.
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