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I had a family member go back to the office for the first time last week. They had to pick up some documents and consult with a couple of team members. No big deal, really. But by the time they got home, it was like they’d run a marathon. After over a year of working from home, the whiplash of back-to-office life was borderline traumatic.
And I’m sure they’re not the only one feeling that way. The initial pandemic lockdown last spring was sudden, reactive, even surreal. Overnight, people everywhere had to begin working from home, without the familiar support network.
But I’m seeing too many employers make the mistake of taking that same knee-jerk approach to reopening — dictating when employees come back and on what terms. As we get ready to plunge back into a now-unfamiliar office environment, in close proximity to people after months of relative isolation, anxieties are mounting.
There’s a better way. As employers, we have an opportunity to be more intentional and consultative with our back-to-work approach. Deeper still, we have an opening to rethink formerly rigid conceptions of what an office and workplace culture should be.
Here are some specific ways we’re working to avoid back-to-work whiplash.
Related: Is Working from Home Here to Stay?
Taking a clubhouse approach to the office
As we reopen our office, we’re adopting a clubhouse mentality.
A clubhouse is a hangout, a spot to connect. It’s a place where people come and go as they please. Most importantly, a clubhouse responds to the needs of its members.
In practical terms, that means a space that’s significantly smaller than our current office, where attendance is optional. All that real estate? It won’t be necessary if just a fraction of our workforce is onsite. Modeled off a co-working blueprint, the office as a clubhouse has unassigned desks, allowing people to float around and work where they please. Emphasis is on flexibility: a comfortable place to pop in and work, whether it’s for a few hours, a few days or longer for those who prefer work-from-office to work-from-home.
Critically, though, this “clubhouse” is no better or more important than any work-from-home set-up. Going forward, we’re ditching outmoded hierarchies where remote workers are stigmatized and alienated. There’s still very much a need for an in-real-life meeting place (more on that below), but the crisis proved that remote and in-person are equally valid ways of working.
Office for inputs, home for outputs
For many, the office-as-clubhouse will be less a space for outputs (getting work done), and more a space for inputs.
By “inputs,” I mean interactive experiences where we gather info, generate ideas and share know-how: brainstorms, big meetings, client check-ins, etc. Research shows that it’s precisely this kind of collaborative ideation that we miss most about work life pre-pandemic.
Equally critical is in-person mentorship and onboarding. This last year has been especially hard on young workers and new hires. A study by Bucknell University found that young people felt they were missing out on the mentorship and soft skills they needed to get ahead, so designating time and space in the office for these functions is key.
But when it comes to outputs — the heads-down process of getting stuff done — lots of people work a whole lot better remotely, and the research bears this out. Overall, lockdown was found to be positive for knowledge worker productivity while over half of executives reported average employee productivity had improved. There were other benefits too. A Stanford study showed employee attrition decreased by half, remote workers took shorter breaks, and they were absent less frequently.
Lots of people just work better remotely, absent the distractions of the modern office. So let’s honor that preference.
Not conflating “office” with “culture”
The grand reopening is also a chance to avoid repeating another mistake: conflating “office” with “culture.” In the past, so much of how we defined our company’s culture was tied to the physical office space: the stocked kitchen, the catered lunches, the in-house yoga classes every Friday.
But these big, showy gestures, nice as they were, didn’t define our culture — this last year has made that abundantly clear at so many organizations. In fact, those trappings can actually obscure what your culture truly is or cover up the lack of one. (That’s not to say we’ll get rid of the perks that made working at our headquarters so enjoyable.)
One of the biggest wins for me this year was hearing from a new hire about his onboarding experience. Honestly, I’d been bracing for the worst. He was brought on just before the pandemic hit and had never stepped foot in our office. He never had a free lunch, never grabbed a beer from the office fridge. But when I met with him on Zoom the other day, he told me he’s never enjoyed another job more.
Why? The respect he had received. The flexibility he was given. The level of communication and support. What work-from-home has shown me is that culture is far deeper and far simpler than physical trappings. It’s how you treat people. It can’t be faked, and it transcends office walls. As we return to the office, let’s not confuse superficial perks and creature comforts for the heart and soul of a company.
Beta-testing the office of the future
But I don’t want to be too prescriptive here. Above all, the office clubhouse is a space for beta-testing and experimentation. I think we all need a trial period after this “Great Reset” to see which ways of working work best. Imposing a single set of rules right now is premature. For the time being, optionality and flexibility have to be the operative terms.
I’m an engineer by training. I love data. Let’s use this time to gather insights on what works and what doesn’t in terms of the post-Covid office, then put a plan into action — not the other way around.
Rather than treating work-from-home as an aberration — something to be corrected and quickly forgotten — take advantage of this moment to innovate. After a year of expecting your employees to be adaptable and resilient, the least you can do is the same for them in return.