As vaccination rates rise and restrictions abate, leaders face new decisions and challenges about where and how we work together.
In July 2020, as some organizations first considered reopening workspaces that had closed due to COVID-19, Leading Edge released Reopening Our Workspaces: A Playbook. Its focus was on the human side of reopening: how can organizations ensure that people are supported (and feel supported), and that team culture moves forward instead of backwards during a return to the workplace?
As of this writing (June 2021), public health and regulatory conditions are leading to a much wider variety of organizations considering reopening. As these discussions unfold, it is clear that for many organizations, the status quo pre-pandemic is not the goal. Rather, we have heard leaders and talent professionals say that they are trying to answer the question: What model of a workplace should our organization create?
We recognize that some organizations do need to answer this question. Staff at JCCs, Camps, Day schools, and other service providers, need to work in-person to perform their jobs, and therefore these organizations have fewer options. Other organizations that worked remotely even before the start of the pandemic have no plans to shift away from that.
This article is geared toward organizations that were asking employees to come into a workplace most or all working days, but then shifted to remote work when the pandemic began. Without supplanting Reopening Our Workspaces, which covers many other aspects of reopening, this article addresses more deeply the issues and models at play around what a workplace can be.
As you decide whether to ask your people to return to your workplace, to continue working remotely, or to move to a hybrid model, here are some questions to help frame your decision-making process.
- In creating workspace policies, should you set one policy for all employees (everyone has the same expectations/requirements/options available to them)?
- Or, do you set different policies for different roles/teams/departments (employees have different work location requirements based on predetermined factors)?
- If implementing different policies, how will you ensure fairness and equity?
- What has been gained from shifting to remote work? What are the benefits?
- What has been lost from a lack of in-person work? What are the drawbacks?
- Does what you have gained outweigh or offset what you might have lost?
- Has the shift to remote work had a noticeable impact on outcomes or on quality of work?
- Can the organization continue to fulfill its mission with everyone working remotely?
- Has there been a decrease in innovation or creativity?
- How has the organizational culture been impacted by the shift to remote work?
- What would help build a stronger organizational culture moving forward?
- Are people feeling overwhelmed or burned out?
- If so, what type of work model will best address this?
- Are people able to connect and communicate sufficiently while working remotely?
- Does your workplace meet new safety standards?
- Do people feel safe about the idea of being back in the workplace?
- Do people feel safe commuting to and from the workplace?
- If you were to ask all employees to come in, even for one day, how would your staff react?
- Is your space shared with other companies/organizations?
- If so, will employees feel safe sharing common spaces, lobbies, elevators, etc. with others?
- Are there employees who may need special accommodations or conditions in order to feel safe?
- Do you (or did you) rent, lease, or own an office space?
- Do you need a space for in-person meetings with external stakeholders?
- Is there a flexible space to use when needed to hold in-person meetings (e.g. hourly space rental, office of another organization, etc.)?
- Which model—in-person, hybrid, or remote—best suits the various types of work requirements?
- Are there organizational processes, programs, or activities that need to happen in-person?
- What type of work do most of your employees do on a daily basis?
- Does the work require consistent collaboration, or is it mostly individual work?
- Do certain roles, functions, or departments require more face-to-face interaction than others?
- Do certain roles, functions, or departments require more collaboration than others?
- Is there a desire to return to in-person work or to remain remote? (One way to gather feedback from your team about this is through a Pulse Survey).
- Will returning to the workplace help establish boundaries and routines that your people want?
- What do the leaders prefer and what do the rest of the employees prefer?
- How can you balance the needs of all your stakeholders (leadership, funders, staff)?
- How many employees have caregiving duties and/or needs?
- What is the impact of caregiving responsibilities on potential commutes to the workplace?
- Are employees able to connect to the internet as needed at home?
- Are they able to set up an appropriate space to work at home?
- What are the financial implications of returning to a workplace?
- What are the financial implications of remaining remote or moving to a hybrid work model?
- What supplies/equipment (technology, chairs, desks, etc.) are needed to accommodate employees who return to the workplace?
- What supplies/equipment are needed to accommodate employees working remotely?
- Think by department. If some departments require more in-person collaboration in order to accomplish their work effectively, consider asking only employees in those departments to return to the office a few days a week. Other employees who can complete their work individually without in-person meetings can continue to work remotely if they prefer.
- Consider time zones. If several team members live in different time zones, asking them to come to the workplace may not be reasonable or fair. In these situations, think about setting a few time slots each week where Zooms or video conferences can happen.
- Fairness and perception. One issue with organizations that have both in-person and remote employees is that one group may feel like “second-class citizens” based on their location status. This can cut in either or both directions. Fully in-person workers may resent that remote workers are able to work from anywhere. Remote workers may be perceived—or may fear being perceived—as working less hard or as being less dedicated. Rightly or wrongly, remote employees may also worry about unconscious biases in which leaders and managers prefer in-person workers for promotions or raises. Logistical moves such as ensuring that remote employees come into the workplace one day a week (or one week per quarter) can help mitigate these dynamics. But fair and transparent policies, communicated well, are the most important factor in preventing and mitigating harmful dynamics. Staff will be less likely to feel undervalued or mistreated if they understand the rules or circumstances driving the differences between who works remotely and who works in person.
- Potential culture divide. Except on very small teams, team cultures are plural to some extent; individual departments/teams will inevitably develop subcultures. Adopting a hybrid work model may introduce another element of plurality into the workplace culture: remote culture vs. in-person culture. This split may affect not only different employees’ interpersonal dynamics, but also the dynamics between the same employees interacting digitally vs. face-to-face, as people often behave differently in a group chat or in emails than they do in person. This need not be seen as necessarily negative. Some extent of cultural division is inevitable in a hybrid workplace, but leaders and managers who are aware of this tendency can guide both types of team culture in supportive directions, while recognizing that they are bound to differ.
- Equity issues. Not everyone has a home situation conducive to remote work. Those with roommates and/or those who lack an adequate workspace at home may be at a disadvantage and may not be able to be as productive or engaged while working remotely. At the same time, those with health issues or various pre-existing conditions may be anxious about COVID-19 even after they and all (or most) of their coworkers are vaccinated, and may not be comfortable being in the workplace. To address this concern, consider having one-on-one conversation with team members that might require certain accommodations. Consider providing stipends for employees to work remotely from a co-working space or funding for employees to set up a more comfortable workspace in their homes (if you haven’t done this already).
- Ask your team. If you feel that you don’t have a good sense of what your staff is thinking or feeling about possibly coming back to the workplace—or even if you do have a good sense but want to check in a structured way— consider using a Pulse Survey to gather feedback.
- Reboarding. If you do plan to bring all or some of your staff back to the workplace, either full-time or part-time, consider whether a reboarding process might be worthwhile. Use the return to the office as a chance to reinforce organizational philosophies, values, or norms, or as an opportunity to reset the organizational culture and start off strong.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. During your decision-making process as well as after it, maintaining clear, sensitive, and ongoing two-way communication with employees is vital. Communicate what you know, what you don't yet know, and when you expect to know what you don't know. Sometimes it helps to plainly state what's unknown because your staff are likely wondering about it. For ten principles of excellent communications around reopening, see pages 21–22 of Reopening Our Workspaces: A Playbook.
- Be clear about timeframes. What CEOs and leaders determine is best for now does not have to be a permanent decision. Employees want answers and certainty around where they can live and what will be expected of them. And yet, a decision made now does not need to be the way things will be for the long-term. Some organizations may choose to return to the workplace in phases, or may shift from one model to another over time to see which one works best. Best to be clear about these timeframes and when you will review these decisions.
- Vaccines. There are a variety of legal and medical issues complicating what organizations can and cannot do around vaccines. We encourage you to check with a legal professional before taking action. More information on vaccines can be found in the "Additional Resources" section below.
When determining how your organization will move forward regarding remote work versus in-person work, it is not necessarily an either/or decision; there are a variety of approaches that fit somewhere in between a fully remote organization and the traditional in-person 9-to-5 model. All options are not right for every organization, depending on the answers to the questions above as well as an organization’s size, type, and needs. However, they may provide an appropriate or sufficient compromise. We have summarized some of these options below.
- Regional hubs. If employees are more spread out across the country than they were pre-pandemic, consider having multiple in-person workplaces in different locations. This allows staff the freedom to continue living in the same place while also providing them with a space to connect with coworkers who are nearby or to work somewhere other than their home.
- Satellite offices. Similar to having regional hubs, you might consider having one main office for some (or most) of your staff, with an additional satellite office (or multiple satellite offices) in other locations. Organizations might use the main office for weekly or monthly all-staff meetings, but employees can commute to a more convenient satellite office on other work days.
- 4-and-1. If you believe in the importance of having everybody together in the workplace but want to provide some flexibility, consider a 4-and-1 model in which employees come into the office Monday–Thursday and are encouraged to work from home or remotely on Friday. The CEO of Netflix, who said in a September 2020 interview that not being able to connect in-person has been a “pure negative” for the company, anticipates that many companies will shift to a four-day-office and one-day-remote schedule eventually. An analogous 3-and-2 variation (3 days in the office and 2 remote) could also fit some organizations’ needs.
- One week every quarter. If your people prefer remote work, and you do not want to rush into asking employees to return to the workplace regularly, it may still be worth having everyone meet face-to-face at some point. Consider having a week out of every quarter where all employees are asked to come into the workplace. This can help to maintain strong relationships among your staff and provide crucial time to brainstorm new ideas or discuss important strategies for upcoming projects or programs. These weeks should be set in advance so that employees who live elsewhere can plan travel or caregiving needs.
- One day together every week. Similar to the option described above, this model allows employees the flexibility to work remotely four out of the five days of the week. On one day, all employees will be asked to come into the office for meetings, discussion, updates, etc. For some organizations, this solution can offer the best of both worlds in terms of providing employees with the freedom to set their own schedules the majority of the time while also having some in-person time each week.
- 50-50. In this model, half of the staff is expected to come into the office on certain days and work remotely the other days. The other half of the staff is generally on the opposite schedule, meaning that they work at the office when the other half is remote. For example, you might have half of your departments come to the office on Monday and Wednesday, and the other half come in on Tuesday and Thursday. Friday could be an everyone-works-remotely day or a flex day where employees can choose to come to the workplace if they would like. These options often work well for organizations that want to save a bit of money on office real estate, or those that are simply unable to supply enough space for everyone. It could be a useful solution if people feel safer being able to maintain a degree of physical distance when together in person.
- Hoteling. Already a growing trend in office management even before the pandemic, hoteling is a system of shared office space that eliminates assigned seats or assigned desks. Typically, employees reserve a seat or a desk online on a daily or weekly basis, with availability changing depending on which employees are traveling or working remotely at that time. The advantage of hoteling is that it allows the company or organization to cut costs by not needing to have an assigned space for every employee. The downside is that employees cannot create their own personalized workspace with their items, photos, etc. because they likely will be working in a different room each day or each week.
- Semi-flexible. If employees want to be at the workplace only some of the time, and you want to provide flexibility for them to determine what works best for them, consider requiring employees to spend at least two or at least three days per week in the office, but without deciding which days. That way, people whose schedules change from week-to-week can plan as they go and still be trusted to get their work done. Google announced they will be testing a new policy where employees will be required to spend at least three days in the office for “collaboration days”, but can work remotely the other two days, if they prefer. Microsoft has a similar new policy allowing employees to work remotely up to half of their required hours.
- Completely flexible. Many companies and organizations are shifting to a model in which they will still maintain a centralized workplace, but employees have the freedom to choose when, how often, and for how long they are at the office. Some companies, such as Ford, have instituted systems that require employees to have conversations with their managers to set a schedule for how much time they need to spend in the office.
Toolkits & Guides
- Reopening Our Workspaces: A Playbook. Leading Edge
- “Virtual-First Toolkit.” Dropbox
- The Hybrid & Remote Work Playbook. LifeLabs Learning
- “Dealbook: How to Navigate the Postpandemic Office.” The New York Times
- The Nonprofit Return to the Workplace Advisory. NYLPI
- SHRM COVID-19 Resources
Asking Employees About Vaccines
- “When Employers Can Require COVID-19 Vaccinations.” Allen Smith, SHRM
- “Can I Ask My Employees If They Have Been Vaccinated?” SmithAmundsen
- “Explaining HIPAA: No, it doesn’t ban questions about your vaccination status.” Allyson Chiu, The Washington Post
- “Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People.“ CDC Vaccination Guidance
- “Work From Home Has the Power to Advance Equality—or Set It Back.” Rebecca Greenfield, Bloomberg News
- “Hybrid Work Is the New Remote Work.” Christoph Hilberath, Julie Kilmann, Deborah Lovich, Thalia Tzanetti, Allison Bailey, Stefanie Beck, Elizabeth Kaufman, Bharat Khandelwal, Felix Schuler, and Kristi Woolsey, Boston Consulting Group
- “28 Surprising Working From Home Statistics.” Maddie Shepherd, Fundera
- “WFH Doesn’t Have to Dilute Your Corporate Culture.” Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliott, Harvard Business Review
- “What Is Your Organization’s Long-Term Remote Work Strategy?” Erin E. Makarius, Barbara Z. Larson, and Susan R. Vroman, Harvard Business Review
David Goott is Program Manager at Leading Edge.
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