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The Way Back: A Return to In-Office Work

Editor's note: This article appears in the August 2021 print issue of DS News magazine, available here. 

Last year will be a year none of us will ever forget. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, quick shifts in work environments and the abrupt nature in which our normal, everyday activities came to a screeching halt, there were many lessons we learned across the board, both personally and professionally. According to a global survey conducted by Gartner, 88% of organizations worldwide made it mandatory or encouraged their employees to work from home once COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Now, according to Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work Report, 99% of remote workers would like to continue doing so to some extent. With percentages that high, we as operational and human resource professionals owe it to our employees to take what we’ve learned over the past year and a half and incorporate the best of those lessons moving forward, whether we’re planning hybrid work environments or work location flexibility. 

Over the past year and a half, we’ve learned how to ramp up our technology needs, define what flexibility really means, and even take a different approach to employee engagement and benefits. Not only have we learned more than we could have imagined, but now it’s up to us to determine what’s here to stay and implement what’s important moving forward.  

Technology: Investment and Implementation 

While technology has always been an integral part of the work experience—essentially, the lifeblood of all organizations—it served an even greater purpose throughout 2020 and 2021 as we relied on it more heavily than in years past. When organizations moved to a remote or work-from-home model last year, all eyes were on technological capabilities, pretty much overnight. Some of the questions that came to mind were, “How are we going to maintain connectivity and our culture while not being able to interact face-to-face,” “What does this mean for cybersecurity,” and “What about all of our in-office events and employee recognition programs, how do we replicate that?” Businesses quickly became highly intentional about leveraging other forms of communication to stay connected with their teams and colleagues. We quickly saw a rise in video technology, and those laptop cameras that were once covered by a company-branded sliding door were now open and ready for use.  

Video chats allowed teams to see each other, while not physically in the same room, and feel some sense of togetherness. Granted, usual side conversations that typically take place during meetings had to come to an end so that all team members could clearly hear the person speaking or leading the meeting, but that also encouraged peers to be intentional about connecting with one another outside of the weekly meetings to catch-up, share ideas, and even talk through various problems to reach solutions. Investing in GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, among other platforms, certainly helped facilitate the maintenance of team engagement and connectivity. Additionally, chat messaging has been a staple item in the employee communication toolbox and received its fair share of love. I imagine both types of technology will remain just as popular, if not more so, moving forward. In reference to employee communication, businesses saw a huge need to increase and vary their communication with their people to ensure important updates weren’t lost and all colleagues felt in-the-know of the activities in their business.   

The True Meaning of Flexibility 

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that remote work is possible, and that’s okay. Remote work has allowed employees across all levels of the organization to determine what “flexibility” means to them. It can have different meanings for different people. For some, flexibility means having the ability to nix their commute and jump straight into work without the rush or anxiety that accompanies morning traffic. For others, it means being able to attend every important event in their child’s life, and still for others it may mean that they have autonomy over their schedules and are able to work and produce in a way that is most convenient to their home situation. 

Regardless of how you define flexibility, we’ve learned that it can have many different meanings for different people, but it’s imperative that we understand those various meanings and work to implement what makes sense for employees and the company as a whole. It’s important to note that there’s no way to please every person. However, a balanced approach to navigating the return to the office will help offset some of the anxiety that may come with re-acclimating to a space that was once very familiar.  

Additionally, shifting business priorities a bit to make wellness a core business focus has been a game-changer for many companies. That means truly tapping into what employees were and are feeling, whether that was through one-on-one conversations with managers or company-wide pulse surveys, it allowed business leaders to better understand what their teams were experiencing on an emotional level. The health and wellness of any company’s employee base is critically important to its success and growth. Without your people, your business doesn’t grow, and if you’re in the market of building or maintaining a healthy and engaging company culture, it’s imperative to listen to those who push your business forward. 

The Approach to Employee Engagement and Benefits 

One of the most important lessons that came out of last year’s pandemic was to take stock of existing employee benefits and implement new crisis benefits. The COVD-19 pandemic was something we’ve never seen before, so implementing new crisis benefits to help employees navigate emotionally, personally, and professionally helped make space to deal with the effects of the pandemic. Whether that meant providing paid time off to allow employees to specifically take mental health breaks or supervise their children while learning from home or expanding employee assistance programs to support mental health challenges heightened due to the pandemic, it was created to support employees and help them through such a difficult time. On the flip side, many companies took time to review their current set of employee benefits to ensure it still suited the needs of their employees, and if there were areas for improvement—there wasn’t a more opportune time than 2020. 

With the quick shift to remote work, all the standard employee gatherings, including award recognition programs, in-office happy hours, volunteering, and employee resource group events, were upended because gathering with groups in-person was no longer an option. This presented a unique opportunity for human resource teams and business leaders to re-envision these events so as not to lose that engagement among employees. That meant Zoom happy hours, virtual award ceremonies with various video components, and even vendor-led virtual team building activities were popping up on calendars across each organization. While not the same as in-person celebrations, it still allowed for teams to keep engagement high, just in a different way.     

The Future’s Looking Bright 

Out of all that we’ve learned, there’s no reason not to take certain lessons into the future of work, especially if they’ve proved to be beneficial. Organizations should continue to leverage the various communication tools and plans that helped them get through the pandemic as an added layer of interaction, especially if the organization is planning to implement a hybrid work environment. Also, as noted earlier, the percentage of employees who would like more flexibility in their work location is extremely high and should not be ignored. Whether that looks like a hybrid work environment, 100% remote work, designated in-office days, or employee autonomy of their schedule, every organization must do what makes the most sense for their business, employee population and company culture.  

It’s also critically important to keep the equal playing field that was created during the pandemic with work-from-home and in-office employee engagement in mind. You may have employees that will remain remote and others who may be in the office full-time or part-time, but whatever the case, see to it that you don’t lose that playing field to ensure all employees feel connected and included. 

There were many great lessons that came out of such a challenging time but analyzing those lessons and determining which ones are most important to the future success and growth of your business, and then implementing said lessons, will help you create a stronger and more connected company. 

About Author: Susan Sullivan

Susan Sullivan is the SVP of Human Resources at Enact (formerly Genworth Mortgage Insurance). Sullivan is responsible for all HR accountabilities, which includes driving the overarching people strategy for the business, and leading the Employee Relations, Internal Communications, Learning & Development, and Facilities teams. Sullivan  earned a bachelor’s degree in business and economics from St. Andrews Presbyterian University, holds multiple HR certifications, and has completed executive education programs at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of Virginia Darden Business School, and Duke University. The statements provided are the opinions of Susan Sullivan and do not reflect the views of Enact or its management.  
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