During the week of June 14, 2021, the staff at CCI Consulting returned to the office for the first time in 459 days. That is a long time to be away, so it was a much anticipated and somewhat apprehensive event.
After 15 months of working from home and interacting with colleagues and clients on a strictly virtual basis, our return to the office was structured to create a hybrid environment where half the staff is in the office on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other half is in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Everyone will continue to work from home three days a week throughout the rest of the summer. This hybrid approach was designed to allow the continuation of the flexibility and efficiency of working from home that people came to appreciate while reintroducing the opportunity for community and connection that was diminished when everyone was 100% remote.
A few big lessons learned were the importance of planning, the greater importance of contingency planning, and the critical nature of ongoing communication.
When we closed our physical offices in March of 2020 and asked our employees to work from home, we intended to be back in the office in three weeks. As that date came and went, we decided to return two weeks after the state of Pennsylvania moved to the “green phase” of reopening. For those who have forgotten, that occurred on July 3, 2020; we planned to have everyone back in the office on a partial schedule on August 1st. That, too, was delayed, and we shifted to a September target date that quickly evaporated. Rather than being what was clearly overly optimistic, we decided to simply wait and see how things played out before setting any further target dates for our return to the office.
We did, however, work behind the scenes to develop contingency plans based on the latest CDC guidance for various return scenarios, and we consistently communicated the message to employees that we would not rush back and that protecting the health and safety of our staff and clients would be the most important factor on when and how we return. We used our weekly “all hands” meetings to send the consistent message that we would return to the office at some point, in some fashion, but that we would do so in a way that worked best for the needs of our employees, the business, and the clients we serve. It was a clear message that there would be no rush but that we would not stay virtual forever.
In the weeks leading up to our partial return, we worked hard to make sure the office environment was both safe and welcoming. What people missed most during their time away from the office was the ability to interact with their colleagues, so we organized a group lunch on the first day both groups were back. It was great to see people laughing and sharing an experience together as an interactive group rather than separately via Zoom. There were lots of conversations throughout the week that simply would not have happened if we were all working remotely and communicating electronically. This underscored the value and importance of being together as a group. Even more so, since we had onboarded four new colleagues during the pandemic and they had not yet had the opportunity to meet their team in person.
As part of easing people back into the physical workspace, we offered everyone the chance to fill out large post-it notes with their thoughts about this past year of working remotely, including:
These notes were posted on one of the main walls in the office and served as a forum for acknowledging the people and things they are appreciative of, as well as observations on what has changed and what support is needed now and may be needed in the future. Comments ranged from “I will never take getting a haircut for granted again” to “Grateful to be able to be in a place other than my 575 sq. ft. apartment.” Other comments referenced lessons learned, appreciation for in-person interaction with colleagues, and appreciation for a hybrid rather than a full return. It was a great exercise to help everyone articulate and share the range of excitement, trepidation, and anticipation associated with our return to the office. Reading the range of responses was a powerful experience for all.
Most everyone recognized and appreciated the power of connecting live in the office to celebrate and take advantage of the personal interaction and face-to-face communication with a community of colleagues that simply is not as easy or as rich as when we are being personally productive remote from one another.
Returning to the office also highlighted the need for continued flexibility. Our team did an amazing job transitioning to working from home last year and everyone on the team worked hard to remain productive, engaged, and connected during the craziness of the pandemic.
As we return, we want to continue to embrace the individual and organizational flexibility that emerged and seemed to work well. While we are clear that we will not remain 100% virtual, we have also been clear that we do not expect to simply revert back to how we operated pre-pandemic. What that means exactly is yet to be defined as we need to figure out what balance of structure, flexibility, community, and autonomy will best support the needs of our clients, our people, and our business going forward.
What we do know is that a hybrid model seems to make the most sense for where we are right now and two days in the office a week feels like the right balance for employees at this time. After the first week back in the office, we also realized that having half the staff in every Monday and Wednesday and the other half in every Tuesday and Thursday created little opportunity for people in one group to interact with people from the other. We are also learning how to do hybrid meetings which include both participants in the office as well as those remote, which creates different dynamics than when a meeting is 100% virtual or 100% in-person. Working through these issues will be our focus as we move forward. Undoubtedly, other issues and opportunities will arise in the coming weeks, and we will work through those as well.
Our success to date on navigating the return to the office can be credited to planning (and contingency planning), good communication, a focus on celebration, and a commitment to flexibility. While your process and experience will be unique, if you focus on these same areas, you too will have a successful return to whatever your new normal will look like.