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Going Back to Work in the Office: It Has to Be Worth It
Workplace

Going Back to Work in the Office: It Has to Be Worth It

by Kristin Barry and Ben Wigert

Story Highlights

  • Some employees aren't sure they ever want to go back to work in an office
  • Enhance and communicate the benefits of working on-site
  • Focus on the four C's to shape a compelling workplace value proposition

After an entire year of completely reimagining work structures, overcoming hardships and worrying about wellbeing, asking employees to return to the workplace can feel like yet another challenge for leaders to overcome.

But what if leaders look at it differently? What if this is an opportunity for your organization to define a "workplace value proposition" that actually enhances the engagement of your workforce?

A workplace value proposition represents the organizational culture, benefits and interactions employees experience when working on-site. For the organization, it's "why we come to the workplace."

Before bringing employees back to the office, leaders need to address three key questions:

  • How can we bring people back safely?
    • Have we established procedures and protocols for everything -- group interactions, cleaning, quarantine after travel, sick leave policies, etc.?
  • What is our hybrid work strategy?
    • Who will stay remote? Who will be back on-site full time? And who will adopt a hybrid schedule -- working remotely on some days, and in the office on the others?
  • What is our workplace value proposition?
    • How do we get people to want to work on-site? What does our workplace offer that enhances the employee experience?

A workplace value proposition represents the organizational culture, benefits and interactions employees experience when working on-site. For the organization, it's "why we come to the workplace."

While leaders have many decisions and challenges to juggle in preparation for a return to the workplace, one thing is clear -- pointing to "job requirements" as the primary reason employees must return to the office will not work.

Many people who never worked from home before 2020 had to quickly figure out how to do so with little warning or preparation -- and they've miraculously made it work amid a pandemic. Citing demands of the role as the reason why employees must now adjust again and come back to the office will ring inauthentic at best. Worse, it could come across as dismissive of and ungrateful for the efforts these employees made to adapt and keep the organization running.

Instead, leaders must create a compelling environment that gives employees a reason to return to their workplace and sells them on the benefits of being together in a shared physical space.

Shape Your Workplace Value Proposition by Focusing on the Four C's

Once COVID-19 safety restrictions are eased, all signs point to employees returning to a "hybrid" work environment where they have the flexibility to spend some of their week in the office and some of it working from home. The key will be to create disciplined intentionality and new norms that help employees work differently when they are in the office than they do at home. Each work environment offers distinct opportunities and challenges.

Crafting an inspiring workplace value proposition is all about taking advantage of the opportunities your organization affords while creating new norms that prevent remote workers from feeling isolated or neglected.

To start developing your workplace value proposition, consider four key advantages of working on-site and what they might look like for your team and organization:

1. Connection

The opportunity: Likely the biggest change for workers who started working remotely full time in 2020 was the sharp decrease in hours spent engaging socially with work friends and colleagues. Human beings are social creatures and rely on positive relationships with others for encouragement, development and support. In fact, Americans report the highest levels of happiness when they spend six to seven hours per day socializing, according to Gallup.

Videoconferencing software enabled teams and colleagues to continue meeting and interacting while working remotely, but for many people, the charm of working via video calls was soon replaced with feelings of exhaustion and disconnection. Working from home increased productivity for many people, but it also eliminated opportunities for quick connects, hallway chats, and in-person time with colleagues, clients and managers.

While leaders have many decisions and challenges to juggle in preparation for a return to the workplace, one thing is clear -- pointing to "job requirements" as the primary reason employees must return to the office will not work.

On-site work offers an environment rich with options for interpersonal interaction, and that socialization recharge is likely what your teams are needing. There's even a business case for encouraging your employees to spend more time socializing -- people who have a best friend at work, Gallup research shows, are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers and produce higher-quality work.

The challenge: Creating a workplace that provides opportunities for social interaction is not difficult, but sustaining a culture of connection can be, especially in the world of increased hybrid work. It requires more intentionality on the part of the manager to ensure that organizational culture, values and expectations foster relationship-building. Employees need connection with their manager, other team members, cross-functional networks and, of course, their best friends at work.

Balancing productivity and connection for a hybrid team requires communication and effective facilitation from the manager. Make a point to help your teams maximize the relational return on the days they spend at the workplace.

Tips for taking action:

  • Foster team connection by providing opportunities for teammates to engage, share and discuss work -- and topics unrelated to the workplace. The goal for some meetings or connects can be interaction-related versus just production-related.
  • Remember that your employees still need time with you -- focused, intentional time where you can provide your undivided attention to listen, learn and coach. Consider creative ways to enhance your one-on-one conversations: Have walking meetings, do check-ins on in-person days even if longer connects have to happen virtually, hold open time slots for "office hours" when you're available for drop-in conversations.
  • Encourage team members to communicate with each other about their hybrid schedules. Find a day or two when the majority of people's schedules overlap, and encourage others to prioritize on-site work for that day.
  • Be intentional about eating lunch together and having coffee when people are in the office.
  • Create an environment that encourages connection. Plan social events on-site to encourage people to engage with colleagues and friends. Ensure policies and practices demonstrate that your organization values productive friendships in the workplace.

2. Collaboration

The opportunity: Very few jobs today exist in a silo, and employees, organizations and customers alike benefit from the fruits of collaboration. Collaborating at work allows teams to capitalize on the strengths and contributions of each person in a way that results in better performance or higher levels of productivity than is possible from the sum of individual efforts.

While collaboration didn't stop when the world shifted to remote work, it certainly changed. For those with existing working relationships, technology allowed for moments when collaboration resumed among team members who were stationed miles apart. For many teams, however, the prolonged period of remote work shed light on the challenges of virtual-only collaboration: restrictions on the free flow of communication, the inability to sustain focus and energy, and the limitations of screen sharing and interaction.

Remote work makes the coordination of highly interdependent tasks more difficult, while creating a heavier cognitive load for each individual team member.

Returning to the office will improve teamwork and efficiency in situations that require highly interdependent or complex interactions.

Working together effectively does more than just increase productivity; it fosters and sustains trust. When working collaboratively in person, there is visibility around each person's performance and contribution that sustains the team's confidence in each other, even at times when the team is not together.

The challenge: As employees get comfortable with collaboration technology and as more teams return to the workplace, some challenges related to collaboration will resolve; however, a new potential issue emerges for hybrid teams. Employees working remotely will be "out of sight" and could be forgotten about during important moments.

This accidental neglect may create problems with inclusivity and equity. It's easy for on-site workers to schedule time to work together in a shared space, spontaneously visit each other to ask for assistance, and provide feedback and support when they see team members in need.

Remote workers may find themselves missing key opportunities for participation and development, which could ultimately impede their career advancement.

And if certain demographics of employees -- such as working mothers -- spend more time at home than other coworkers who prefer spending more time on-site, the hybrid environment has the potential to foster systemic unfairness that could hinder careers and be difficult to reverse if new norms for equitable remote work practices are not formed.

Leaders and team members must create new "virtual first" norms that ensure remote workers are intentionally brought into key moments of collaboration.

Tips for taking action:

  • Schedule with intentionality. Consider which tasks would benefit from team collaboration and interdependent work while the team is on-site. Prioritize collaborative whiteboarding sessions when most or all team members are in the office.
  • Listen to hybrid and remote workers to understand which platforms and support systems provide the most engaging experience and facilitate more authentic collaborative interactions with the team.
  • Learn to use new collaboration technology platforms and techniques together as a team.
  • Involve remote members in the discussion and decision-making when in collaborative meetings. Ask for input from people who have joined via phone or video, and ensure any materials or documentation is available or visible to everyone in the meeting.
  • Review development and mentorship practices to ensure remote workers get a similar level of investment, because development (and therefore advancement) often happens more naturally and quickly when mentors and mentees are working together -- especially in person.

When working collaboratively in person, there is visibility around each person's performance and contribution that sustains the team's confidence in each other, even at times when the team is not together.

3. Creativity

The opportunity: Creativity and innovation drive continual improvement in the workplace. Unfortunately, the challenges employees are experiencing in building meaningful connections and collaborating with coworkers have also left a void in everyday creativity at work.

Creativity at work often arises from both spontaneous discoveries and planned collaboration. Remote work and social distancing have made spontaneous creativity -- found in impromptu hallway conversations, lunches and coffee breaks -- difficult, if not obsolete. The five-minute impromptu conversations between meetings are very difficult to recreate in a world of back-to-back videoconferencing marathons.

Creativity resulting from planned collaboration has been challenging to cultivate in a different way while working remotely. Team creativity often benefits from shared collaboration spaces and experiences. On-site meetings make it easier to wildly brainstorm ideas onto whiteboards and organize them into something new and useful.

In-person team interactions allow for fluid and simultaneous idea sharing and collaboration. Even the ability to move about the room and easily break into subgroups and side conversations are hallmarks of effective creative processes that can be difficult to replicate virtually.

Returning to the office fuels both spontaneous creative moments and intentional creative collaboration.

The challenge: Pre-COVID-19, most employees already lacked the expectations, opportunities and autonomy to be creative and innovate at work. Transitioning teamwork and the creative processes back to "normal" won't help you improve an environment that was previously lacking innovation.

In a hybrid work environment, creativity must be approached differently so that the creative contributions of remote workers aren't lost due to a lack of opportunity to voice their ideas. Intentional, strategic opportunities to ideate with those who are off-site can be used to replace spontaneous brainstorming conversations.

Tips for taking action:

  • Encourage people to take their work breaks together, and ask what everyone is most excited about. Discuss the biggest discovery or lesson you've learned lately. Invite remote workers to join you.
  • Plan unplanned creative time. Schedule team meetings dedicated to discussing interesting topics and sharing ideas and experiences. No need for a strict agenda or required action items. Forget practicality for 60 minutes a month.
  • Rethink your innovation spaces. Are they inviting and comfortable to collaborate in while making everyone feel safe from COVID-19? Do they include videoconferencing and virtual collaboration tools so remote workers aren't left out? Do you provide education and techniques for sparking creativity?

4. Culture

The opportunity: An organization's culture is a reflection of "how we do things around here." Culture is the unique way that your organization lives out its purpose (why it exists) and delivers on its brand promise (how it's known to the world). Culture creates a shared experience for employees that is reflected in their collective values and behaviors.

By bringing people back into the office under one banner, employees can more intimately experience the environment, touchpoints, messaging, values and rituals that signal who you are as an organization.

Physical proximity and uniting in a shared space bring teams a sense of deepened belonging and connectedness that is missing when working remotely. When working together on-site, it's easier to see how contributions and collaboration impact the organization and, ultimately, customers.

Being together, in person, strengthens "how we do things around here … as a team" and helps employees feel like they're part of something important.

The challenge: Culture solidifies when employees are aligned on what they stand for and how they work together. This sense of unity can be a challenge for hybrid work teams when individuals are on different schedules, have different expectations and are not clear on how to best work together.

By bringing people back into the office under one banner, employees can more intimately experience the environment, touchpoints, messaging, values and rituals that signal who you are as an organization.

The huge upside of hybrid work is that it enhances flexibility and autonomy. The inherent challenge is these benefits can also breed unclear expectations, coordination challenges and inequality. Teams will need to be intentional about why and how they spend their time on-site versus at home.

Tips for taking action:

  • Identify what makes your culture unique. Make a list of attributes that describe your culture.
  • Discuss how remote work affects your culture. What are the opportunities and challenges presented by spending at least part of your week on-site?
  • Create your team's "return to the workplace road map." Define your credo for how you're going to work together. Start with your shared purpose and goals. What are the behaviors and outcomes you expect from one another? How can you be more intentional about how you spend your time in the office versus at home?

The Role of Leaders and Managers in Crafting Your Workplace Value Proposition

Leaders are ultimately accountable for ensuring the organization has and delivers on a compelling workplace value proposition. To do so, leaders should:

  1. Craft policies and procedures that foster the four C's.
  2. Role model the beliefs and behaviors prescribed by the workplace value proposition.
  3. Empower managers to individualize it to the needs of their teams.

Managers bring the workplace value proposition to life by talking with their team members about what returning to work will look like for each individual and the team as a whole. These conversations aren't easy -- they require managers to acknowledge the difficulties faced and contributions made over the past year-plus all while being authentic and tailoring each conversation to the individual's situation.

To engage in effective, open, validating conversations with team members about returning to work, managers need to:

Acknowledge each employee's experiences: Honor the challenges of the past year of work and thank them for their contributions. For many, keeping up with business as usual has meant sacrifice and a significant blurring of the line between home and work life.

Be authentic: Make sure your conversations are genuine and grounded in tangible advantages of working on-site. Don't tout the benefits of coming to the office unless they actually exist.

Individualize to the person: Consider each employee's unique work responsibilities and life circumstances. Ask them what they liked most and least about working remotely. Remind employees why they, specifically, enjoyed being in the office before. Making a point to individualize plans and expectations allows employees to feel understood and acknowledged, which builds trust.

Managers bring the workplace value proposition to life by talking with their team members about what returning to work will look like for each individual and the team as a whole.

After working remotely for the past year, employees can easily make compelling logistical arguments to continue working from home.

By following the above framework and leaning on the four C's, managers can support their organization's workplace value proposition and help each employee find what works best for them.

If your organization wants people back on-site, ask managers to engage in meaningful conversations about the transition and explain the advantages to be gained -- specifically, framed around how each employee will have the opportunity to better experience the four C's and achieve even higher levels of engagement.

Author(s)

Ben Wigert is Director of Research and Strategy, Workplace Management, at Gallup.

Kristin Barry is Director of Hiring Analytics at Gallup.

Jessica Schatz contributed to this article.


Gallup https://www.gallup.com/workplace/349772/going-back-work-office-worth.aspx
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