Perspectives: It's Time To Reunite And Reconnect—In Person

 

Is now the right time to ask employees to return to the office? For my business, the answer is “Yes, for now,” but what comes next is the bigger question.

Without a doubt, this is a controversial subject with valid arguments both for and against.  What’s more, the validity of those arguments can be strengthened or weakened based on geography, company culture, company structure, IT capabilities, team performance, CDC data tracking and much more. Unfortunately, there is no playbook to reference for today’s leaders, most of which have never led remote teams.  

In February, I made the announcement to Quality Resource Group’s 90 Midwest-based employees that we would be returning to the office in May. As you can imagine, that announcement was received with mixed reviews.  

Why migrate back to the office when work-from-home (WFH) is now commonplace? Proponents contend that remote and hybrid work is here to stay and that the market will dictate that businesses eventually must offer this type of flexibility if they wish to remain competitive employers. Employees state that they are equally productive from home and they can better control their health and safety. Additionally, the need to work from home is occasionally fueled by crisis work as employees juggle distance learning, daycare and other family challenges. To that, I say, “I get it.” And I agree with it all, but there are equally strong arguments suggesting that now is time to return to the workplace.  

Each employer will make the decision that is right for her or his business. For ours, we feel the timing is right based on a variety of external and internal factors.  

Externally, with health and safety being priority No. 1, we are monitoring CDC trend data and are very encouraged about the current trajectories. With case counts dropping rapidly, vaccination trajectories rising sharply, and schools and daycare back in session, we believe we can bring employees back confidently and safely. If trends reverse, we will push back the date, but we felt it was important to place a date on the calendar to set expectations while enabling parents to plan for childcare.  

Internally, the biggest factor driving the return to the office is to level-set our culture. The great business thought-leader, Peter Drucker, once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and I firmly believe that team culture is what makes QRG a great place to work. While we are fully capable to continue offering remote work these days, we haven’t quite figured out the secret sauce to build culture with remote employees and teams. Literally and figuratively, our employees are not seeing each other like they used to, and many of the interactions between staff and leadership simply aren’t the same. This has been especially challenging for the 15 new team members that we have onboarded over the past year.            

The second-largest internal factor is to enhance our team performance. Individually, people are high performers, but collectively, we’re less in sync than we once were. We’ve never had more tools to collaborate digitally, but something is missing. In an office environment, you can sense when somebody is struggling or when communication is breaking down, but we’re not picking up on those signals as well these days with most employees working remotely. Email, IM and even video calls are two-dimensional, so many of the tell-tale signs are often overlooked, causing small problems to linger or turn into bigger problems.  

The pandemic has accelerated creative work arrangements and company policy, but we need time together to fine-tune and eventually answer the question, “What comes next?” In the short-term, the value and health of the total team outweighs an individual performance, so it’s time that we reunite in the office to reconnect and fine-tune before we can develop and deploy the next iteration of work arrangements, whether that be WFH, in-office or a hybrid of these. It’s fresh and it’s exciting. Best yet, it will be an opportunity to get employees involved in building a future that is mutually beneficial while also reconnecting the culture that has brought us so much success. 

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If you are working to build or reinforce your company’s culture in a WFH world, we’d love to hear your strategies and progress. Email TinaF@ppai.org.  

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