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What's the Best Way to Return to Work? It All Depends

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Colorful origami swans float above the cafeteria in the atrium.

Offering enclosed and open spaces in a variety of scales helps give employees the option to choose where they feel most comfortable and productive.

Even before the pandemic, companies were taking closer, more objective looks at how to improve employee engagement within the workplace. Now, this topic is magnified as leaders determine next steps for their businesses. As new territory for most businesses, many are still formulating plans for their work environments and fortunately or unfortunately, there is no evidence-based strategy or prescriptive solution. Companies must be thoroughly aware of their unique business needs, goals and desired employee workflows. While critical to take employee input into account throughout the process, it's important to keep in mind that rarely does a decision make everyone happy. Here are a few suggestions to help determine what modality of work - in office, work or hybrid - will be the most effective for your company and lead to the highest level of employee satisfaction:

People first - start with your employees. One of the best places to start when discussing a potential return to the office is to survey employees and gauge comfort level for working in person. Create a list of challenges and opportunities for employees working remotely vs. in the office, focusing on operational, as well as future employees. Leadership likely will have a different perspective from employees on how departments operate. Internal surveys allow the employee perspective to be factored into discussions. You never know, your own people may just surprise you with their unique perspectives and preferences.

Colorful glass rooms allow for private work but transparency to team members.

For companies and organizations that operate best under in-person circumstances, some creativity may be required to enhance efficiency while ensuring employees feel safe and heard.

After taking an honest look at the information you've gathered, you may decide a hybrid approach is the best option for your company. In this case, you need to further decide how much flexibility will be offered and to whom. For example, are managers expected to be in the office five days a week while more junior positions are only three? Will desks be designated for people who aren't in the office full-time? No matter what leadership decides, employees need to have a clear understanding of what the expectations are related to their role.

Employees relax on the social stairs during a break.

It's critical to understand the perspective and comfort levels of departments and individuals to avoid making assumptions about employee work styles and preferences that could be detrimental to a successful return to work.

One of the biggest conundrums for remote and even hybrid work is how to build culture virtually. Essentially all industries have seen unprecedented turnover rates throughout the pandemic. For many companies, this reality has brought a heightened awareness of the importance of the interpersonal relationship to a company's success. As someone who joined the firm remotely during the pandemic, I understand this challenge. Many organizations have chosen to incorporate intentional social integration for new employees. Despite being scheduled, these social interactions provided employees with ownership in keeping the culture alive while helping new team members experience it. In my experience, this approach allowed me to meet a broader cross section of co-workers sooner than I might have otherwise.

A variety of work stations from a walking desk, lounge seating and bar height gives employees choice throughout the work day.

Developing an effective return-to-work policy requires examining company values and aligning them with employee workstyles and preferences.

Determine how your company works best. For some industries, ongoing remote work is simply is not an option as it may hinder innovation, productivity and speed to market; for others, it's a matter of balance, aligning employees' roles and tasks with work style. Additionally, some roles may be suited to remote work, but employees may not have the ideal remote work setup. There's also a likelihood that what a company initially chooses for a return-to-work policy may shift. Employees and employers need to have tools in place to re-evaluate as time goes on, as well as clear lines of communication. At our firm, for example, we rely heavily on collaboration to advance our designs and create inspired solutions, which often is most productive in person. At the same time, we want our people to have some autonomy, especially as they've spent so much time working remotely. Therefore, while we brought our teams back to the office, we've also increased some measures of flexibility for their schedules and work locations. This approach embraces our corporate beliefs in the importance of well-being, knowledge sharing and mentorship, as well as trust in our employees.

Graphic of all different people wearing masks

One of the biggest potential pitfalls during a transition is leadership making assumptions about departments and employees. Internal surveys allow the employee perspective to be factored into discussions.

The right technology is essential to success. For many companies, the only way they've been able to continue to operate during the shut-down was via technology. However, companies must take an honest look at what technology people need to do their jobs effectively, as well as ensuring everyone has the same access and opportunities. There's a good chance that not everyone in your company is on equal ground in terms of technology, be it that they can't afford it, don't have great access, a less than ideal remote work environment, etc. If you're asking remote and in-person employees to do the same type of work, they need to be given comparable resources, or those with less will be at an automatic disadvantage, and potentially set up to fail or have their career hindered.

The importance of pilots. Work modalities can be theorized all day long, but eventually must be put into practice. For most companies, "normal" will not look the same as it did pre-pandemic. Therefore, I suggest just trying out what you think will work best and be willing to adapt. Pilot programs are a great way to gauge success and tweak where needed. Have a control group try a proposed plan for three months or so and then re-evaluate.

Ultimately, issues and opportunities will present themselves over time as people continue to migrate back to the office and settle into new ways of working. In any transition, communication is key. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions, listen to what may be challenging answers and set expectations. Follow up on conversations and ask for additional input periodically. These steps will help to progress things forward in the immediate future. Next, it will be crucial to consider more long-term aspects of workplace strategy, such as how workplace design can positively enhance the employee experience, culture and business goals. 

This article was originally published in the December issue of CREJ's Building Dialogue.

Susan Kohuth, ASID, LEED AP
Senior Interior Designer

Susan will play an integral role developing relationships and helping EUA deliver on clients’ visions in design for workplace and other markets. Outside of the office, Susan enjoys sewing, spending time with her daughter and driving around in her '66 Mustang.

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