By Turning the Corner Staff
“Every day I hear advice about ‘how to bring people back to the office,’ and it makes me cringe,” Kendra says. “My first question is often, ‘why?’”
We spoke with Kendra Prospero, Turning the Corner Founder & CEO, and Drew Bonder, Head of Sales & Partnerships, to gain their perspective on this pivotal moment for work and company culture.
As vaccination numbers rise in the United States, a return to in-person work is top of mind for many people. But, like almost everything touched by the pandemic, creating a return to office plan will not be a simple task—or a simple transition.
We know that some people have been waiting for this day—they want to dive back in with handshakes and hugs, are ready to delete Zoom, and can’t wait for face-to-face meetings. But, on the contrary, others have adapted to working remotely and feel they have the tools to stay connected—and have fully embraced the flexibility that remote work brings. And, of course, there are people in the middle. Many are still unsure of what they want to do during a still uncertain time, and those who don’t yet feel safe to be around other people while COVID-19 remains present in our communities.
So, how do company leaders, decision-makers, and managers navigate the return to the workplace?
Our answer is to treat your team members like adults, and they will make the right choice.
Right now, staying as flexible as possible will allow you to put your employees first and find the best solution.
How should companies navigate the return to in-person work?
As every organization will have a different set of circumstances to navigate and details to consider, there’s just no one-size-fits-all solution. But, if you’re an experienced leader, you already know that’s the case for all important HR decisions.
While a hybrid in-office work situation will look different for everyone, Kendra and Drew believe it should start from the same place for all companies.
First and foremost, this is a chance to have a conversation with your team and ask them: What do you want going forward? And what would allow you to feel like you’re thriving?
Secondly, there’s question number two: Does it benefit your organization revenue-wise to bring everyone back? If the answer is yes, then deciding to get people back to in-person work will be higher on the list. For a company like ours, we realized that while we need camaraderie and collaboration, we don’t have to have everyone back in the office to make revenue.
“What’s the least amount of structure to get the best results?” asks Kendra. “In a moment like this, when you mandate something and ultimately put a structure in place, it may or may not serve the people in your organization as thoroughly as you think.”
Staying as flexible as possible will allow you to accommodate your employees’ needs and range of experiences.
It’s also critical to see this decision within the bigger picture of your company culture.
“Ask yourself: What are the guardrails we are putting in place for our organization?” Drew says. “What are the things that are going to keep us safe versus what are those governing factors that are going to stifle us?”
While some members of your organization will be looking to their leaders to make these decisions for them, there could also be unintended consequences. “For one, if we tighten the guardrails, we could stifle all the things we’ve working on to create an environment that empowers people to make their own decisions,” says Drew.
The key is figuring out where that line is in your organization—what is that balance? The bottom line is that it must be equitable, and it must keep people safe.
What would it look like to be flexible during this time?
We’ll look to our own company experience for an example of a flexible solution during this time.
“At Turning the Corner, we’ve always had core hours and flexible hours for our team members,” explains Kendra. “We have a set time each week when we’re all working together, and all the other hours of the week are completely flexible to be determined by team members.”
This model allows people to establish what works best for their own lives and schedules and could be adopted as your company navigates a return to the office under COVID-19.
“I truly believe when people receive this level of flexibility, they make great decisions,” Kendra says.
This philosophy has worked exceptionally well for the Turning the Corner team, even before the pandemic. “We all know our shared destination, our goals, and our company values. We trust that our team members have their own way of getting there.”
If you have a strong inclination or reason to bring people back into the office, we recommend trying out core hours and flexible hours to ease the transition.
This is also a time to ease in slowly; while CDC guidelines are evolving in a positive direction and vaccination numbers increase, this is not a time to pack the house. People are still in a transitional mindset, and it will be a considerable change both physically and emotionally to be around colleagues and in an office environment. Create enough space for people to come in and feel safe while still having that in-person connection and be present.
What if my team is not ready to return to in-person work?
One of the many things the pandemic has taught us is not worrying about people getting their jobs done. Over the last year, we’ve witnessed the incredible ways in which people have adapted to working from home. They’ve embraced new tools and tried on new schedules. Some people have even discovered that they’re more productive at home than in the office, and now they don’t want to return.
Another thing that’s come of this time is that people want to come back to the office to be around others—not necessarily just to work; the craving for interaction with team members is there.
“There’s a different level of connectedness, pride, and attachment associated with the office environment than at home,” Drew explains.
If people keep working at home, will they get burnt out?
As the lines between home and work blur, burnout has been a serious issue for first-time remote workers. So, if we continue to work from home, will that worsen?
Last summer, around July, we hosted weekly meetings with people in our Fast-Track Management Training, and this topic was high on everyone’s minds. We shared a philosophy that’s key to the Turning the Corner team.
You’ll often hear people talk about that work-life balance. Well, for us, we call it a work-life focus.
“When you’re working, focus on work. And when you’re ‘home-ing,’ focus on home!” Kendra explains.
When you’re working from home, it’s essential to create boundaries around work time so you can focus the same way you would if you were in the office. That might be deliberately scheduling things, like being clear about your time to start and stop—and doing whatever it takes to make sure you stick with it. If that means creating a “commute” by walking around the block at 5:00 pm, then do it!
A key element here is remembering that leaders set the stage for behavior.
“If you’re grinding yourselves and not setting boundaries, that does affect the company culture,” Drew says. “If you’re on Slack day and night or shooting off emails at all times of day, your employees will take that as an example of what they need to be doing, too.”
There’s a lot to be said about how both managers and employees have grown during this time.
“A lot of this is a skill, and for many people it was new—they did not know how to set these boundaries,” Drew says. “Now, people have learned those skills. Imagine what they could do moving forward now that these skills have turned into habits.”
Will the office or in-person work ever get back to “normal?”
One positive thing the pandemic has brought about is the disruption of old habits and beliefs we have not questioned about the nature of work for some time. And much of that has to do with office spaces. We’re navigating that ourselves as a company right now and thinking about what to do with our office spaces this summer.
The future of the workplace might look like a hybrid of in-person and remote hours. Or it might be setting up the office differently inside to keep people safe and comfortable.
Some companies will struggle with parting from the notion that spaces must be used to their highest capacity, which is understandable because an in-person workspace is a considerable investment. But this is a chance to switch things up and try new things that could ultimately benefit your work culture long-term.
“Just because you’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean it needs to be like that when you return,” Drew says.
What was the reason things were done a certain way in the past? And does that reason still align with your team’s needs today in 2021?
It’s been exciting and encouraging to see companies adapt and evolve.
“Some organizations I would not expect are going fully remote or shifting their thinking about the office space,” Drew says. “I’ve seen self-proclaimed ‘I always go to the office’ folks change their tunes completely after spending a year at home—those leaders think that they’ll never fully return to the office.”
Keep the conversation going
Ultimately, flexibility is key to navigating this moment gracefully—and iteration is paramount.
“I don’t think there is going to be just one answer,” Kendra explains. “Try something out for a week or two and then revisit it to see if it is actually working.”
We will see leaders find the most success with a gradual plan that allows room for iteration.
As a fully outsourced HR department that also offers consulting, training, and recruitment services, Turning the Corner has been in a unique position with a bird’s-eye view of how many different companies and organizations operate.
We understand that navigating the return to the office for leaders and decision-makers will be a nuanced and often challenging conversation—but also an essential one. Seeing the return to work in the big picture of your company’s culture is an opportunity to reflect on what your employees want and need to thrive.
These are precisely the kind of discussions we love to have—so if you’re interested in continuing the conversation, please reach out! We would love to hear about your company’s experience during this momentous time.
At Turning the Corner, we believe that meaningful work that we enjoy is one of life’s greatest rewards—it’s why we do what we do! Our mission is to end suffering in the workplace and empower businesses to thrive through a variety of HR services.