“Do you have legs?”
“Are you a real person or just a very convincing avatar?”
Never could I have imagined a colleague asking me those questions, even in jest. But for the past 18 months it’s been the running joke at work.
I’m one of the millions of people who started a new job, working virtually, during the pandemic. As a result, I’ve met very few of my co-workers in person. If you told me pre-Covid that I could experience any level of success at a new company without actually going to the office I would’ve laughed in your face.
Fortunately, finally, it looks like the era of Covid work restrictions is coming to an end. Offices are reopening and employees long separated or those who’ve never met are getting a chance to come together in person.
Meeting my co-workers in person will put an end to the jokes about my legs, height and sentience. But, of course, learning that I’m not really 6’4” and built like a strong safety doesn’t mean much in the whole discussion about the re-opening of our offices. Collectively as professionals we are faced with an unprecedented, even historic, opportunity to reimagine what work looks like.
Return to work is a very hot topic right now, one you’ve likely thought about a lot. Many companies already have opened or published plans to open shortly. There are an incredible number of factors leaders must consider when deciding what the “new normal” will look like. And no two companies are the same, so speaking in generalities about this topic inevitably risks overlooking critical unique circumstances leaders are confronting.
Caveats aside, I think there are two general principles that must be considered carefully in this discussion.
First and foremost, we need to approach the matter with great humility. None of us expected the pandemic nor the consequences it would impose on our professional lives. As I said previously, prior to Covid I never could’ve imagined my current situation. Yet it’s worked well. Millions of employees proved that they can work effectively, even thrive, during Covid.
Of course, it hasn’t worked well for everyone. Some roles just can’t be done effectively in a remote environment.
But if we flashback to the start of Covid, there weren’t any grand plans for how we will work. There was too little notice, and no one expected the situation to last very long. As a result leaders and employees worked together to determine how to function best when going to the office wasn’t an option.
As we reopen our offices, I think it’s fair to say that none of us know what the future holds. Should your office be open 5 days, 3 days, 2 day or entirely virtual? What’s best for your team and culture? Obviously, I’m in no position to pass judgement on any individual company’s decision. But I think it’s safe to say that no leader can say for sure what the right answer is.
A go-slow approach, giving leaders and employees time to adjust seems to me the best way to start. Leaders should resist the urge to set policy or mandates out of the gate and give themselves, and their teams, an opportunity to work together to determine what’s the optimal approach for their cultures.
This leads to the second principle. My sense is that what employees want as much as anything is more autonomy in terms of how they work. While everyone can point to exceptions, given the overall strong performance of companies and our economy in general it’s clear that remote work did not dampen productivity or performance as some predicted when the pandemic first set in. If anything, people tend to work harder and longer in remote settings because the boundaries between office and home that once separated people from work vanished.
Again, I’m not here to say nothing is lost in a remote environment. Being together in person is important for a host of reasons. And companies don’t operate like democracies, nor should they. But I think it’s clear that employees have proven they can work effectively in this environment and therefore have earned the opportunity to have a real say in what our new normal will be. In fact, I’d argue it’s now an expectation for many employees. Companies that don’t offer more autonomy to employees on these matters may find themselves on the losing end of the talent race.
Beyond that, inviting employees to be part of the solution is a smart strategy for leaders. People are much more likely to respond positively and work harder if they have an opportunity to sign up for a solution as opposed to following a mandate from above.
Personally, I’m excited to work with colleagues around the industry to determine what our new normal looks like. I’m also excited to finally meet my co-workers in person. Spoiler alert: whoever had 5’10” in the “Guess Fred’s Height” office pool is the winner.