How long will it be until we can reopen our offices and get back to normal? A year into the pandemic, we’re all anxious to reestablish our routines and reconnect with our staffs the way we always did.
But as we plan our returns, it’s becoming more and more clear that offices — and work in general — are going to look different than they used to. Many companies, including ours, are converting to “hybrid” models where in-house and virtual work are put on the same plane of measure.
While remote work isn’t brand new by any means, this is uncharted territory for firms like ours that rely on collaboration, integration and interaction to succeed. We’re used to gathering in groups, customizing our office spaces, and aligning our schedules to our daily commutes. But we’ve proven that we can adapt. We’ve learned to communicate as a group, share information, provide engaging client services — all from the comfort of our own homes.
Now, when it comes time to reopen our offices, we’ll face new challenges — to create hybrid models that blend the best elements of at-home and in-office work. This change also gives us a chance to innovate, to re-envision some of the traditional practices we’ve followed for years and years. To compete in the marketplace, most agencies will have to do the same.
Here are five tactics companies can deploy to make hybrid models a success.
Hire Here, There and Everywhere
Throughout our firm’s quarter-century in business, we’ve followed a standard model: Hire in markets where we have a facility. The skilled professionals we recruit have worked alongside colleagues, learning from them and contributing to the firm’s culture.
Going forward, we’re going to change our tactics. We plan to expand our recruiting to accommodate candidates that prefer to work principally — or completely — from home. This does two things. First, it creates new opportunities for people in our five regional employment hubs who want to be close enough to an office to just attend important meetings. Second, it opens up new markets for talent. We can hire a candidate who lives in Minneapolis or Dallas, even though our closest office is more than 1,000 miles away.
Give Remote Work a Little More Credit
This may seem obvious, but it has to be stressed. In operational terms, management should communicate clearly that remote work is encouraged and not considered a less engaged form of activity. Promotions and plum assignments need to be available for employees no matter what work situation they choose. Managers should also set a good example. If a leader never works from home, is an intern or account executive going to feel pressured to come in every day?
In more subtle terms, teams should always ensure that members can connect to meetings using remote collaboration tools. This goes for people in satellite offices, in faraway remote locations, or at home waiting for a repair person to finish a job. It shouldn’t matter where you are.
Your Office Is No Longer an Office — It’s a Hotel
While regional offices will still be important to a firm’s identity, they may change their focus. Workers will likely come into the office less and do more work outside, so there may not be a need for so many desks and chairs. This will give firms an opportunity to reorganize workspaces to make them more flexible. Desks can be spaced out to provide for more social distancing. A couple of work pods could be turned into lounges. Some companies may even be able to save on space.
To accommodate more fluid levels of daily attendance, firms can structure workspaces more as “hotel” slots than long-term, owned chunks of real estate. In other words, grab a workstation on the east end today, then gather with the northside folks tomorrow. It may cut down on some of the creative decorations, but it will improve flexibility for the firm. It may even encourage more collaboration with new neighbors.
Color Outside the Lines: Scratch the 9-to-5 Workday
Onebenefit the year of remote work has provided is the opportunity to escape the 9-to-5 grind. We weren’t chained to a commuting pattern, so if our employer was willing to grant some flexibility, we could customize our days. Maybe a run in the mid-morning. Maybe an early start to the day so we could do errands, play golf or pick up the kids from school in the afternoon.
This will be an important benefit to offer going forward. As long as work gets done and deadlines are met, employees will appreciate the chance to make lifestyle choices. Leaders can set a tone by clearly communicating their own schedules, showing direct reports and the organization at large, that flexibility is encouraged. It’s important, however, to remind employees that this is a benefit and not something that should be taken for granted.
Check the Staff’s Collective Mental Health
The pandemic has been tough on all of us. Being home for so long, being away from colleagues and friends, and struggling to achieve a work/life balance has created a certain amount of burnout in our staffs. That may lessen with a return to work, but it won’t go away. We have to pay more attention to the mental aspect of the job.
Agency leaders have to step up and play a role in reducing the stigma connected to mental health. It could involve making investments in wellness programs that meet the needs of the whole staff. Or it could be as simple as asking employees periodically: “How are you doing?”
Like many people, I can’t wait to return to work. Things may change a bit when we go back and settle into our new hybrid work environments. It’ll be a challenge, but with patience and focus, we can pull it off.