In their plans to “get back to the office,” companies continue to be thwarted by runaway Omicron, the ease of remote working and the demands of employees in the wake of the pandemic. Through it all, company leaders are trying to fashion plans for the future of proximity that can stand up to whatever twists and turns may be next.
Their approaches include squeezing the most out of virtual meeting technology, overhauling space utilization in offices and innovating new ways of interacting with customers. Most of their moves tie into a variety of “hybrid” solutions.
“How you bring the digital and physical together is still coming,” said Jonathan Pearce, a principal for Deloitte Consulting. “A big part is that ‘hybrid’ for most organizations hasn’t arrived in earnest because timelines keep getting pushed back. It becomes much more about vaccinations and testing for Covid, while the workforce remains virtual.”
The mainstreaming of hybrid solutions is occurring despite determined approaches by companies on the extremities of the issue. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has championed a determination to get everyone back to the office, for instance, while Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said his workforce is “not all going back” despite the company’s huge recent investments in buildings.
“Companies are employing different models as they return to the office,” said David Cocchiara, CEO of OfficeSpace Software, which provides workspace plans. “Some are traditionalists, and that’s not a bad thing; they’ll have more assigned seats. On the other end of the spectrum, pioneers are redefining how space is used.”
A poll by Talker Research found that 87% want to go back to their physical workplaces this year. Yet 30% of those polled by Gallup in December said they never want to return to work.
“It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle in terms of the sheer number of employees who’ve experienced the benefits and flexibility of working from home—the lifestyle component,” said Brad Hintze, executive vice president of global marketing for Crestron Electronics, a workplace-technology provider based in Rockleigh, New Jersey. “But a lot of businesses are also concerned about collaboration and innovation. Can they sustain and build momentum with a hybrid workforce?”
This dilemma basically doesn’t apply to manufacturing plants, trucking fleets, restaurant kitchens, fishing boats, warehouses and other enterprises that require workers’ physical presence. Even in a service economy, that covers a lot of workers. At the same time, CEOs and other leaders also must consider proximity issues not just for employees but also for their customers, suppliers and other business partners.
Here are some ways they can tackle the dilemma:
Give both modes their due. Take advantage of the inherent strengths of both in-person and virtual work, advised Keith Ferrazzi, founder and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, an expert on business-team building. “People who feel physical is better will pull people together and host the meeting, but they’ll make people think, Why did you pull me in for this? There’s no reason this couldn’t have been virtual,” he said. “If you’re going to be personal, then do stuff that’s uniquely done well, personally, such as conflict management, team bonding, handling controversial issues—things that rely on the freedom of time to talk with one another, and serendipity.
“The flip side is that you can’t use remote in the same way as physical, like for a 3,000-person town hall meeting. Instead of just doing a virtual town hall, why not do a two-way meeting virtually? Have 3,000 people go into online breakout rooms and answer questions that would be good inputs for the company, such as growth opportunities and risks that top executives may not be seeing. If you’re going to use remote, use it to its fullest capability, which is two-way.”
But many offices still lack the technology and ability to conduct virtual meetings at scale. “Right now, everyone is used to remote collaboration and getting equal presence on a video call,” Hintze said. “But if a business is trying to build innovation momentum, they need more people in the office. And traditional video can’t give you” equal platforms for presentation and meeting access for everyone.
Scale up equitably. Establishing all-remote work “could make for better D&I because you have a more diverse workforce geographically, and you can offer better work-life balance for a more inclusive workforce,” Pearce said. “But if it becomes ‘haves and have nots’ in terms of who shows up and who doesn’t, and that leads to better career opportunities for those in the office, there could be a big downside.”
Consider all-virtual. Even with a significant number of people in the office, completely virtual meetings might be the way to go. “It’s simple but not trivial: creating a level playing field for how to engage people in meetings,” said Ravin Jesuthasan, global leader for transformation services for Mercer consultants. “Literally, the people in the office may not get to go into a conference room and sit there in person—they can all connect digitally like the remote workers are, all use Zoom, and all turn the cameras on and all be individual participants in the meeting.”
Don’t stop at meetings. Consider restructuring everything, including jobs. “Progressive companies have been saying, ‘Let’s analyze your work activity and figure out how that lends itself to different flexible work options,’” Jesuthasan said. For example, he said, some Mercer clients have deconstructed the work of their lab technicians and figured out that about 30% of the role involves reviewing reports and research studies—work that’s not location-specific, doesn’t require collaboration and is done independently. So that part of their role could be done remotely.
Chiefs can also build philosophically on shifts in proximity and job definitions. “More companies are looking at how this can decentralize decision-making and put it more in the hands of teams of managers and workers,” Pearce said. “What’s pushing the change is leaders are still struggling with the shift and over-pushing the construct of ‘office first.’ What’s changed is the talent market and the Great Resignation. Workers are voting with their feet if they don’t get the flexibility they want.”
And, of course, proximity decisions have tremendous impacts on office real estate. Google just acquired a big building in New York City, but other companies are pivoting to leave behind urban offices in favor of smaller physical workplaces and those more scattered in the suburbs where many of their workers have moved.
Elevate trust. Making any allowance to remote work requires more trust between managers and employees than before. “Trust was at a pretty low premium when I could walk around the office and see who was still here at 5 p.m., and who was in meetings,” Jesuthasan said. “Now, I’ve got to put a premium on trust—and a premium on output, instead of inputs or activities.”
Don’t forget new employees. Staffers who have joined during the pandemic may need particular attention, so they’re anchored to something other than a Microsoft Teams window. Auth0, for instance, onboards employees once or twice a month and makes each of them part of a cohort rather than have them join incidentally.
“They go through an immersion process of practicalities like how to submit expense reports, how we do things here,” said Eugenio Pace, CEO of the crypto-security firm. Then they go through a cultural immersion, more about the mission of the company and what we stand for. We want them to know exactly how we work here and what’s most important to us.”
StrategicCHRO360.com talked with a dozen CEOs and other top executives about how they’re approaching this challenging time for the workplace. Here are their takes.
DON’T FORSAKE THE WHITEBOARD
First Choice Health
We’re a self-funded administrator for small- to medium-sized employers and are now working with health systems to create their own branded insurance programs. We’ve got about $30 million to $40 million in revenues a year and about 200 employees.
Pre-Covid about 30% of our workforce was permanently at home; Covid sent 90% home. Now, 60% of the company is working permanently at home. But 10% to 20%, maybe as high as one-third of the workforce, are in the office on a regular basis. And we rely on our ability to create alignment, a clear set of directions and goals.
So we talk—a lot. Also, throughout Covid, we have had smaller, outdoor, informal meetings, loosely termed an “office day.” We have a meeting that’s mostly in person on Wednesday, demanding one day a week where we can bring most of our leadership together. People schedule one-offs and do things in person on that one day. It’s super-important.
I don’t know how companies do it being 100% remote; that would be really awkward for anything that requires collaboration. “I’d love to be drawing on the white board, but I can’t.” Have you used remote white boards? They’re not very good. In person, you can draw and step back, and someone else can come up and draw over it. Document-sharing is brilliant, but there’s something about drawing on a whiteboard and the spontaneity of it that, to me, needs to be in person.
PROVIDE ALTERNATIVES FOR CUSTOMERS
Senior Manager, Global Customer Insights Center
We long have led our industry in helping our retailer customers understand the evolution of the category and keep up with advances in distribution and merchandising. In 2006, we built a Global Customer Insights Center on our campus to serve these relationships with the trade.
With Covid, we closed the center temporarily and decided to use the time to transform the ways that we bring insights to our customers, using digital technology. Now our newly branded Hershey Insights Centers offer three distinct ways for partners to engage, in a very futuristic way to connect with customers.
At GCIC itself, we added 5,000 square feet and extensively renovated the entire premises before reopening in October 2021. The improvements include a 16-foot seasonal aisle, a 12-foot-long candy aisle where our reps can explain merchandising strategies, and a fictitious retailer, “Milton’s, which has adopted all the fulfillment methods that were popularized by Covid.
Second, we built a newsroom-style setup where we use Microsoft Teams to bring customers into the center virtually, utilizing a multi-camera studio and green-screen capabilities. We developed the studio to be able to present the same insights and merchandising tactics to customers but in a virtual environment, using high-resolution cameras and professional lighting.
We put subject-matter experts in front of a live set or a candy aisle and have them talk with customers, not just have it be a PowerPoint slide show. They’re gesturing to an actual set and looking at actual products and sharing data and insights virtually to the comfort of [customers’] own offices.
Third, we renovated our 53-foot trailer that we had used since 2018 mostly to bring candy-merchandising mockups to about 100 c-store chains and associated distributors around the United States. The Mobile Customer Insights Center is aimed at all classes of trade, with overhauled stations inside. We have added more self-checkout options and more about merchandising near checkouts, and foodservice bundling in large and small formats, as well as a robust section to be able to talk about the impact of our four core seasons as well as “micro-occasions.”
REMEMBER THE OAT MILK
E-commerce platform provider
We have about $200 million in annual revenues, and ultimately we’re looking at a public-company exit. We have about 480 employees in the U.S., about 400 of them in Minnesota, and about 150 in Taipei, Cologne, and Shannon, Ireland.
A lot of the time and effort we’ve spent in the past on office space is being rechanneled. We’re redesigning our offices with something that’s more conducive to collaboration than the desk-and-office model. It looks more like a Starbucks. The furniture is different. We spent some money to do that and make it more of a collaborative space versus, “Here is where you go to sit at your computer.”
We’re getting together more frequently for social events, and we commit the time and money to do them. For our office re-launch, we brought back one of our traditions, which is a food-truck “rodeo.” Employees also can come in and have breakfast in the office every day—and then leave if they want.
ESCALATE COMMUNICATIONS WITH PURPOSE
Provides crypto security
We embraced a distributed workforce many years ago, so we knew how to do it before Covid started. We don’t prioritize location, but time zone, which is very critical for the sustainability of working relationships. If you find someone great in Spain, but they’re required to support someone in Australia, that’s not sustainable.
We’re also very deliberate about how we communicate. In an office, communications happen naturally, and you don’t really need to think about it because people are just around. You don’t have to wait for an answer; you don’t even have to think deeply about the question.
But if someone is far away, you have to be comfortable with the notion of asynchronous communications, not in real time. You must be deliberate about the urgency and importance of communications. Can it wait until tomorrow? Have you thought deeply about the question you’re going to be asking? Because if you miss the chance, you have to ask again, and that takes another day.
We’re also conscious of different means. Or with a call, you need to know when to upgrade to chat or a Zoom call or written communications, with more content. After 30 minutes of exchanges on Slack, which are costly, maybe you’re not in agreement, so you say now you’re going to jump on a call. Use the right venue for the right moment for the right type of communications.
Maybe, in the extreme, the discussion belongs in an off-site where you can meet face-to-face. It’s not like you’re always working from a cabin in the mountains.
MAKE THE OFFICE MORE WELCOMING
Asheville, North Carolina
Two years ago, we had 50 employees, and now we have 180, about 60% to 70% of whom are working remotely. But we’re right in the midst of bringing a good number back to the office, where we mostly staff back-office functions while our sales representatives work remotely and pretty independently.
We’ve spent a lot of time remodeling the corporate office here. It’s about 10,000 square feet, and we can fit around 70 people in there. Because people were out of the office, we took the opportunity to do a little facelift for the company. We felt the offices needed a bit of an update. We completely gutted the upstairs of the main office, floor to ceiling, and renovated it, with old-brick walls, and beams. There’s a modern, updated approach to it all.
We believed at least a portion of us could come back to the office. And all the while there has been a core group of us leaders behind the scenes who kept coming in. We realized something that people don’t always think about: We spend a lot of time at the office, maybe more than at home. So we wanted a place that we and all our people could feel good to come to. We tried to match the same kind of energy people would put into their own homes.
We also have a chef who provides lunches for our employees, which is a big part of people’s day. We have a big text thread that goes around each morning with people putting in their orders; there is community around it.
DEVELOP HYBRID ETIQUETTE
Chief Information Officer
Hospital and clinic operator
Salt Lake City
With rare exceptions, all our [administrative] workers came into the office every day. Now we are as much as 70% remote three days a week. The challenge has been how to provide all employees with an engaging and collaborative experience when they’re mixed between in-office and remote.
For example, in the office, you hear two to four sidebar conversations happening after those in the meeting room, but that’s really challenging for remote employees to do.
So we are establishing hybrid etiquette. We have been testing conference-room technologies in support so that people down at one end of the room can be heard, and everyone can see everyone. In pilots, we retrofitted four or five of our rooms to test camera and mic angles and placements, so that remote attendees can physically see things on the whiteboard and see everyone in the room and also zoom in on the active speaker in the room. We don’t have all the answers yet, but it is exciting work to make sure everything is equitable.
If we required everyone to be in the office again, it would limit the geography we can source our employees from, or require people to relocate, and that’s a challenge; the western talent market is one of the tightest in the country. Feedback from our employees is that they want to make that choice.
So we have to be more creative about some of these work arrangements and expectations. One of the leaders on our executive IT team lives permanently in Chicago and came on during the pandemic without having to move physically to this market. But he needs to come in every so often, to fly in and be here for at least a couple days a month.
ATOMIZE YOUR OFFICE SPACE
We were about to build a 60,000-square-foot new headquarters here in our suburb of Detroit, and were within days of signing the deal, when Covid hit. That idea had to be unwound as a lack of clarity built around how people were going to need to be in offices.
We had to say that we were going to be hiring people from all over now. We weren’t going to be so focused on building up our employee base in Michigan anymore or directly in Rochester. We are refurbishing an old church to be our new headquarters in [nearby] Birmingham [Michigan].
But we decided we needed to have a OneWork approach and actually, instead of having one big monolithic headquarters, open more offices around the world—while trying to be thoughtful about the culture we created here.
That means how our offices look and feel and have consistency and technology similarity around the world. We just opened an office in Golden, Colorado. It’s not massive. We think of our offices as collaboration centers. As the hybrid work model evolves, we feel we need more high-quality offices with a consistent feel and culture to them, in more places rather than one giant office.
We aren’t making a policy that says OneStream is going to work three days a week remote, but it’s about what is right for individual departments. We’re emphasizing the need for in-person collaboration. But what is the cadence by which we can get people back together? If the whole company shows up at the office on Tuesdays only, we can’t have empty space all over the world.
We had an all-hands meeting where we brought in a guest speaker to talk about proximity bias. We don’t want people to feel alienated. But we can’t impart our culture and a sense of belonging without having togetherness. So we’ll be using technology to facilitate this with our managers to make sure they’re aware of the potential bias of someone who’s always here—but don’t forget about the person on the video at the same time you’re giving them some autonomy.
RE-SET EXPECTATIONS WITH CLIENTS
The pandemic forced us to work with our salespeople to accommodate a new era. I’m in my early 60s, and I can imagine someone of my era—always engaged with clients face-to-face as financial advisors—pooh-poohing the notion of having a digital relationship with clients. But they’ve been forced to learn that and do it, and now most salespeople love it.
Covid accelerated this more from a change-management perspective. We had to do it, and get used to it, and build that muscle and get good at it. Once our advisors have done it, it’s not so bad.
I also think our clients like it better. One of the crosses our representative has had to bear is “meetings not held.” The number of cancellations went down dramatically once it was all virtual. Clients like it because there is a set time for the appointment. Also, they don’t have to make coffee for someone, or greet them, or go somewhere. They don’t have to leave their home or their office.
Another cool thing is it has opened up the marketplace. Our representatives now talk about having a national practice, with clients they get referred to who don’t live in the city where they operate physically. They can deal with people across the country.
And even in digital relationships, people still want a trusted advisor. The notion that they’re going to do all this [investing] themselves using just digital tools, and not have a representative or advisor—it’s just the opposite. People have reached out. They want someone to talk things out with. The best relationships are a mix of digital and human.
OPTIMIZE BOTH MODES
Santa Clara, California
We hired almost 100 people in each of the last two years, and our policies are one reason we’ve grown so successfully. Our model is flexibility first: Let employees be as productive as they can no matter where they are.
Some remote-work techniques have become pretty powerful. Though they’ll never be the same as a conference room and brainstorming and problem-solving on a whiteboard, you can feel like you’re almost there with other people.
Also, we’ve operationalized remote work with certain codes of conduct, such as for working hours during which you’re expected to be responsive—especially because so much depends on how someone else does their job. Please make sure no one else is waiting on you for stuff that you need to do before they can do their job.
We have rules for email, Slack, texting and meetings. You can have a lot of one-hour meetings on Calendar, but actually many of those don’t need to be more than five-minute standups. We try to make meetings at most 25 minutes.
Our leadership team meets once a quarter for several hours and hashes hard things out in person. We have a half-day or a day-long session of problem-solving and reward ourselves with a nice dinner or an evening out. It won’t be like 90 days of being together and sitting across the hall from each other, but if we plan our agenda right, and people do their homework, and we build in the required interaction and getting to know people, it works.
We also have a budget for helping maintain our culture, which we give to each manager. They decide what the best outing for their team is, maybe playing bocci. Maybe it’s getting everyone into the office once a month and doing a bit of brainstorming, with buying a Friday lunch for people. We give our leaders the flexibility to get the job done in the most productive way but also actively take care of the culture by planning events.
STAY OPEN AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS
Supply-chain software provider
Ann Arbor, Michigan
We were the first company in town to send employees home when Covid hit, and we’re very proud of that. We have completely changed our work culture and are remote-first, although our headquarters office does fill up on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays a bit. That’s when people come in—I don’t know why.
We’re keeping our offices. We see our three office spaces around the country as shared resources as opposed to assigned desks. We use them for our own events and for community events, such as engineering meet-ups. And when it comes to the [rent] carry on it, it’s not significant for us.
We see the offices as open areas that you can use or not use. People come in for meetings and collaboration. We bring senior and engineering teams in here at least quarterly. We go out to bars and restaurants and meet and strategize. But most work is done remotely: We’re a data-science and engineering organization, and they work late at night or whatever.
But it’s a real challenge to maintain a company culture remotely. It’s a work in progress. The blurring of work and home life is something that’s significant. We’ve opened a program for unlimited paid time off, but we also need to provide our employees with more guidance around when they can turn off. Engineers and software developers generally just don’t know when to stop working. I think there’s a cost—and we all pay for that.
We’ll evaluate what’s best for the company as the environment changes. You never know when people will want to come back, or if they will. But the tech industry is forever changed.
INDIVIDUALIZE YOUR APPROACH
Chief People Officer
We wanted to push the boundaries of flexible working and let our participants work their standard hours in fewer actual workdays in the way that worked best for them. The pandemic helped accelerate these ideas.
It inspired our alternative work-week program, where we encourage our people to make work “work for them.” Giving them choice in which days and hours they work, and urging them to utilize rest periods to rest and recoup.
Avanade has been operating as a “hybrid” organization for years, with our employees reporting to different sites, working remotely from home and using the office, depending on the task at hand and the requirements on any given day. We’ve been utilizing hot desking or hotelling, and while we will continue to do so, we also recognize that the office itself has evolved. Work is no longer somewhere you go, but something you do.
There will not be a one-size-fits all approach to hybrid that works for everyone. Autonomy is crucial. Each function, role and task will dictate the best working location or arrangement that is best suited for accomplishing it. To design the future of working, we need to engage with our employees, get their inputs into drafting ways of working that actually suit their needs. This is going to be an ongoing experiment, one that will require adaptation, resiliency and ingenuity.
SEE THE LIMITATIONS OF VIRTUAL
Provider of office-planning software
What we do is help companies figure out how to use their office space, so we’ve actually tripled in size ourselves since 2020, to about 200 employees. We work with clients to understand what they’re dealing with and trying to accomplish.
As much as our customers are trying to figure out what the new normal might be for them, our own employees are, too. With our team, we’re not mandating that people come back to our [headquarters] office. You can if you’re vaccinated.
People are recognizing the benefits of being in-person again. There’s the opportunity to poke your head around the corner to another executive and take three minutes. You can sit at a whiteboard and make notes together. It’s much harder to do that virtually. Employees who want to be virtual might realize in six to nine months that they’re missing out on certain opportunities to bond with the team, to get things done efficiently, to collaborate on big ideas and big problems. That’s hard to do virtually because you get burnt out.