The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly altered corporate business structures and changed company culture forever. As we were all thrust into a remote working environment, we learned how to adapt our working styles and means of communication in order to remain productive. Shutdown orders leveled the playing field across many levels of employment, leaving the majority of employees working from home. However, as more people are vaccinated and state restrictions ease, the challenge of mobilizing a return to the office is looming for many employers. Returning to the office does not mean returning to pre-COVID norms. The reality for many businesses is they will be adopting a hybrid working model. Whether the reason for adopting a hybrid model is driven by operating cost savings or accommodating the needs and requests of employees, the playing field will no longer be level. While many employers have been using this time to reconfigure physical office space, the bigger issues will revolve around how organizations evaluate and recalibrate corporate culture in a hybrid workforce to ensure equity and productivity.
At this time, most companies have not established or published their return to work policies. The return dates are constantly shifting, but currently some of the biggest names in our economy are planning to return to the office in some capacity late this summer. Google set a return date of July 2021 and companies like Uber, Slack, and Airbnb have followed suit. The New York Times has cited that 76% of its workers are still worried about the risk and are opting for a post-Labor Day return. Other big names including Netflix, Microsoft, and Ford Motors will take the same approach.
Intentionality is critical as these companies begin to make decisions about the “whens and wheres” of the corporate world’s new normal. Now is the time to outline a strategic plan for the future of work and thoroughly evaluate the necessity of office space, airline travel, and long commutes to work. Historically, physical office space has served as the groundwork for the companies brand and their culture because it was the backdrop for every interaction, belief and behavior. However, COVID forced an instant need for remote work resulting in a virtual culture that tests our ability to work effectively. We’ve seen that some roles can be performed remotely with the assistance of technology, but others undeniably rely on the structure provided by an office. After extended isolation, leaders are struggling to effectively manage productivity, motivate and collaborate with their teams in a remote setting. The unanswered question is how many of the adopted business practices will be sustainable post pandemic and how will they impact the way companies manage productivity in hybrid work settings.
Companies must ask themselves, “Can we onboard new talent in innovative ways?” “Can we mentor our professionals and develop training programs that will thrive in a hybrid setting?” Connectedness is the primary basis for a positive company culture and that sense of community has been proven to evolve into an organization’s success. Effective leaders connect with all team members, at all levels, whether in office or remote, because they understand that their contributions are imperative to achieving overall company objectives. This shared purpose must be communicated frequently while operating in a hybrid environment because collaboration and strategic discussions between team members are less visible online.
In conclusion, a successful paradigm for returning to the office does not yet exist. Companies and their boards must bear the responsibility of navigating this new challenge if they are going to resume operations and rebuild their cultural health after major disruption. Questions like “How are we ensuring employee safety?” or “Are we in alignment with the guidelines set forth by our governing bodies?” will be relatively uncomplicated to answer. However, the critical questions regarding who to bring back to the office, when and how are of greater consequence. “Which roles are dependent on in-house technology?” Which employees succeed at multi-tasking and have the ability to adapt to different workspaces?” “How will we protect proprietary information with a constant shuffling of employees?” “How are we effectively managing and overseeing productivity?” These questions about company structure are merely a strategic starting point, but it is the hope that preparedness will create a transition with ease.
With effort and intention, organizations can set themselves apart and strengthen their company by asking these questions, providing a safe office environment, and setting the precedent for an equitable and collaborative hybrid working model.