Nearly every week you read new stories about how some of the biggest brands and their employees are planning their future work lives – where, when, and how. Over the past year, those early “return to the office” plans were continually being recalibrated as the uncertain COVID path took many twists and turns. As they say, “old habits die hard,” but it turns out, new habits – those we’ve acquired in the last 18 months – are pretty tough, too.
Recent McKinsey research shows that 68% of executives have no official plan for their organization to return to the office, and having no plan is linked to anxiety. Employee anxiety leads to loss of productivity, increased burnout and lowered engagement, so it’s an important topic to tackle head-on. Employees have proven they can work remotely and find that practice to be both comfortable and convenient. What will it take to change behavior? Establishing and communicating a well-designed plan is a great place to start. It provides a sense of security, which bolsters employee wellbeing — plus, open dialogue about the topic ensures that everyone knows that iterations will likely occur.
As an organization whose business it is to help people gather and build meaningful connections, we knew we needed to have a smart plan for how we would all gather again in our various offices, as the pandemic recedes. As we set about exploring ideas, our culture helped inform our policy. To remain true to our culture, our plan needed to be collaborative, flexible and client-centric.
The Return to the Office Framework
Local Focus, Client-Centric
With offices across North America, we had to ensure each region had appropriate plans based on the local situation, with different governing bodies and restrictions. And of course, our client needs and their expectations of us was front and center. We asked our employees to be mindful of two things when planning for their weeks ahead. They were asked to consider their week not just through the lens of their weekly tasks, but also through the client lens (where can I best support my client this week) and the team lens (where can I best support my team this week).
Give Everyone a Voice
Having our front-line employees deeply involved – those closest to client work – was especially important to ensure we would consistently meet service-level expectations. With that approach, those employees tackled this initiative, debated the options, had tough conversations, and made recommendations to leadership. Psychological safety is what allowed everyone to voice their opinions and challenge other positions successfully. The process wasn’t easy, but in the end, the outcome felt like it was right for our culture.
Our tech-enabled communication tools were in place, allowing the right infrastructure for collaboration and networking. But, with a fully remote workforce during the bulk of the pandemic, we layered in some additional “stay connected” initiatives to build camaraderie and togetherness.
Our Ongoing Experiment
Our return to the office initiative is called Right Place, Best Work and it’s designed around a “one-day plus” framework. Each employee takes into consideration their upcoming week’s needs and works in the office one or more preset (but flexible) days, especially when collaboration or social exchange is most needed. Remote days are excellent for deep focus/solo work projects that require planning, analysis or creative thinking.
Creative Group’s culture was at the heart of designing this initiative. The main tenets of flexibility, appreciation, doing the right thing and including many voices helped inform the strategy that would best support our clients and employees. With a plan in place, leadership has set expectations and employees can begin building back their muscle memory for operating in a group office environment again. Even though there’s a path forward, we recognize the need to remain nimble and will continue to measure employee engagement in six and 12-month pulse surveys and will evolve our plans as the COVID environment changes or client and employee needs shift. If ever an agile approach is required, this is it!