Back when many companies were considering dipping their toes into the murky waters of office reopening, our company took the plunge. After a one-month “soft launch” in July, by early August the vast majority of our U.S. workforce was in the office at least three days a week.
We were able to reopen earlier than many companies for a variety of reasons. For example, our office areas are spread out and well-ventilated, and because 300 of our employees had already been coming in throughout the pandemic, we had a well-developed set of health and safety protocols. But we didn’t reopen just because we could.
After careful examination and reflection, our executive leadership team concluded that in-person collaboration was an absolutely critical ingredient of our company culture. This recognition fueled our decision-making and made it much easier to make (and explain) difficult calls. We chose a hybrid approach, in which the vast majority of employees spend Monday through Wednesday in the office and Thursday and Friday working from wherever they like.
Over the past three months, we’ve learned a great deal about how to navigate the challenges around returning to the office. Here are five suggestions for companies and business leaders as they approach their own reopenings.
Make space for anxiety, questions and concerns
If you thought the pivot to work-from-home in March 2020 was a big shift, well, the back-to-the-office pivot can be just as significant. Expect the transition to be bumpy and emotional, and make time and space for more conversations than you expect. During our first several weeks back in the office, I held check-in one-on-ones with all 60 of our department team members. Many had feelings of anxiety around the reopening. Some felt social anxiety from being around people all day again, some felt a sense of loss of control over protecting themselves and their families from Covid, and some experienced difficulties related to childcare or schooling arrangements. Naturally, lots of questions and emotions emerged around mask-wearing, vaccination status and meeting room protocols. However, with time and experience, feelings and attitudes seem to have evolved considerably. It’s important to understand that this anxiety and concern is, for the most part, inevitable yet temporary. After three months back in the office, I’d say I am about 75% adjusted to our hybrid schedule. It just takes time.
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Start with a “soft launch”
Our soft launch was a valuable first step. In early July, one month ahead of our formal reopening, we invited people to come into the office as often, and for as long, as they wanted. Most employees took advantage of this “in-between time” in some capacity. Some came in to return equipment like office chairs they’d borrowed. Those who’d switched teams, or were new to the company, got a chance to check out their new workspaces and get oriented to the building. For me, the soft launch was a great opportunity to engage in some of the casual, serendipitous conversations that I really missed while working from home. It was helpful to reconnect in person and begin to feel OK about working around people again. The soft launch helped ease us back in small increments, rather than all at once.
Clarify your reopening rationale
Many employees have relished their work-from-home arrangements and may, understandably, push back on return-to-the-office mandates. At our company, our leadership team thought hard about whether we should accommodate employees who wanted to continue working remotely. We concluded that in-person collaboration was simply too integral to our company culture for this to remain a permanent viable option. We’ve found that articulating our reasoning behind this decision, and clarifying the importance of balancing business and individual needs, has helped people understand and adjust to our new normal. This does not mean everyone will agree, but open discussions about the “why” are important and should not be averted.
Build in some flexibility and be transparent about policy exceptions
Expect that after you have established and communicated a firm return date, you will need to create some flexibility for people who require exceptions. One of our team members, for example, had moved out of state while we were working remotely. When extenuating family issues arose, we made an exception so she could work remotely while she relocated, well after the return date. We have also made team-wide exceptions. Most of our software developers, for example, are coming into the office just one day a week, for a variety of reasons. In cases where we’ve made individual or team-wide exceptions, we’re trying to be forthright and transparent so that team members understand we are all working through the adjustments the best we can, while being reasonable about the inevitable issues that arise.
Encourage teams to maximize the benefits of in-person and WFH days
Our 2022 Global Culture Report found that certain types of work (like troubleshooting and resolving problems) are best suited to office environments, while other types of work (like thinking creatively) may be better suited to remote work. Teams that take this into consideration can craft their schedules to maximize the benefits of each format. Personally, we recently rescheduled my weekly direct reports meeting to an in-office day, to capitalize on the energy and dynamics that in-person gatherings make possible. On my work-from-home days, I’m finding that I’m able to delve into projects that require deep thinking and intense focus—the kind of work that I might otherwise have done in the evenings, when things at the office quiet down.
At its core, reopening can be an incredible opportunity to reconnect to team members, reaffirm our team and company culture, articulate the values that drive our work and break out of old patterns that may have been holding us back. By recognizing this, we can turn “back to the office” into a meaningful step forward into the future of work.