To Office or Not to Office? Is This Even the Right Question?
While sometimes I myself find it hard to believe, I started my business 19 years ago. In the early days, Noetic worked in a loft space on the third floor of my house. Then we advanced to above my garage, then to my whole lower level, and only a year or so before COVID, to a shared workspace. We were always hybrid, working usually two days in the office altogether, then from our home offices or on-site at clients. So at Noetic, going 100% remote was not a logistical challenge, nor a particularly difficult financial burden, as a shared workspace’s monthly rent is not a large expense. So in many ways, we were very fortunate in our smooth transition to working from home.
Or were we? Certainly, we did not have the expense of setting people up in home offices for the first time nor shouldering a high rent for a space we were not using. But like so many, we faced the absence of any boundaries around work hours and the juggling of spouses, kids, pets, COVID exposures, client chaos, and isolation. As we emerge with the vaccine, we are seeking to define what “back to the office” should look like now. Let me just put this out there honestly — as a business owner and even just as a team member, it’s downright tricky.
As a business owner, what should I expect and ask of my team? What is fair? What is right for our culture? What are the implications to morale, productivity, safety? What is lost if we are not face-to-face often enough? What IS often enough? What level of productivity is realistic in work from home versus work in an office — should it vary and if so, how do we factor this in?
As an employee, do I want to start commuting again? What do I feel is fair versus punitive? How do I do my best work? How do I feel about staying remote, going hybrid, being 100% in person? What are my boss’s expectations of my productivity if I start commuting again? What are my own expectations? Will my feelings or circumstances change, and change again?
It’s messy, I tell ya. And let’s be real here — these are the “better” set of problems to have, as we are the fortunate workers who were ABLE to stay home to stay safe. According to this article in the Atlantic, between one-third and one-half of American employees worked in-person throughout the pandemic, and some at great personal risk. For the rest of us, being isolated was certainly the easier task, but it has not been without significant cost. Also according to The Atlantic, their poll last year showed almost two-thirds of people working from home felt the cons outweighed the pros, and nearly a third said they had considered quitting their jobs while working from home. A different poll showed that approximately 70% felt the mix of work and other responsibilities was a source of stress and 75% expressed feeling burned out. As WSJ reports, even the CEO of Zoom has Zoom fatigue.
Across these sources and many others, Hybrid seems to be the answer: keep remote for its financial savings, productivity, and lack of commute advantages, and add in-person to ensure human connection, collaboration, and to mitigate isolation and loneliness. But the question remains: how should a company specifically shape Hybrid to ensure the best outcomes for all?
If there is one thing I have learned in all my years as a strategist — when things feel complex, focus on the foundational elements. Use data to get informed, then do a few things very well. If you can get the foundation right, you get a lot of it right. What is the foundation of your business? Primarily it is purpose, vision, values, communication, and financial health. If you are strong in these areas, you will most likely succeed because you will be caring for the people first. When people feel that they matter and resonate with the purpose you set out to achieve, they will do all they can to bring the purpose to life. In other words, if you care for people, you care for culture — and financial strength will most likely (though not in every case) follow. With a strong culture, people who fit will want to come and they will want to stay because they will know they authentically belong.
So, where to start?
Get the data.
If you want to know what your people want in a hybrid work setup, ask them. You will not be able to meet all of their desires (especially because they may want contradictory things) but the very act of asking their opinions and weighing them into your decisions will help them know that they matter and that you are doing your best to build a thoughtful plan.
Tie hybrid to your purpose.
You may have people who will want to stay 100% remote — or perhaps will want 100% in person. Help them know why hybrid will help you accomplish the purpose you have set for your company. For example, at Noetic, our purpose is to be a north star for brand authenticity. To do this best, we need to ensure that we are being authentic with one another, which ultimately requires close teaming and human connection.
Set — or reset — your vision.
Help your team know where you are trying to go, and how hybrid will help you get there. Listen to feedback, create a safe environment for people to ask questions, express concerns, and get the information they need to feel bought in. If you see that someone is not, put this observation on the table and determine, together, what to do about it. Often leaders see dissent in the ranks and use it as a moment to double down on certainty. A better course is to listen to the dissenting opinion and get curious about how this can help you improve your vision. And sometimes it means the person will want to take a different path. This is good too — as you don’t want someone on your team who is not really with you.
Walk the talk of your Values.
At Noetic we have always taken our values very seriously, and in COVID we dialed into them all the more. For example, with Help and Kindness first, we help someone in our network several times per week if not daily, and we practice kindness with one another daily. For Collaborate Without Egos, we behave in a collaborative manner and acknowledge powerful collaborations weekly by discussing our “thank you’s” and “best of’s” for the week. Help your team see that you live the words and expect the same. Help them see how your values will be enhanced in a hybrid if you can make this authentic connection.
Get more data.
As you transition into a hybrid, keep communicating with the team formally and informally. Ask how it is going for them. Listen well. Adjust as needed and as is possible.
If there is one thing we have all learned in the global pandemic, we need to stay flexible and not attach to a specific outcome. This has always been true but came into bright focus as we “let go” of typical expectations of social gatherings, travel, predicting business outcomes, and overall knowing how COVID would, directly and indirectly, affect us. Think of your hybrid approach in the same manner: learn about what will work best, set it up, gauge the progress, adjust as necessary throughout your journey as we all venture into brighter, post-pandemic days.