The Workplace. Who knew that the workplace—the location that used to bring us all together— would become the subject of so many divisive debates, specifically about how and where employees choose to work?
Today, as the return-to-work conversations remain top-of-mind, it’s interesting to reminisce on the days where the workplace was considered to be the gold-standard of socialization, collaboration, and productivity. Was it ever the perfect solution? No. But it’s important to remember that well-configured and hospitable office spaces have always added immense value for the world’s best-performing companies.
In this blog, I’ll spend a little bit of time re-examining the importance of the office. I’ll also discuss a few practical strategies that can help improve the likelihood of hybrid, in-person, and remote work success.
Finding a Happy Medium
Before the pandemic, most of us thought of the workplace as a physical office space, where employees could stack their papers tall, hang their three-year-old’s newest family drawing, and stash their favorite mug they stole from the office kitchen five years ago. But now, our ideas about the workplace have evolved, and today, employers and employees seem reluctant to compromise about when, where, and how employees should do their work.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably quite familiar with the extreme, and definitive, stances companies are taking when it comes to the workplace. Some are advocating for fully-remote, while others are mandating a non-flexible solution of 4-5 days in the office. Somewhere in the middle, there are companies promising flexibility, in what is now known as the hybrid model. However, in the midst of all of this talk of mandatory return-to-work actions, it’s imperative we don’t lose sight of the true beauty and importance of physical office spaces.
Why? Because humans crave socialization, purpose, collaboration, and structure. When you’re working remotely, in isolation, your brain is quite siloed in its thought process and creativity. You’re only listening to your individualistic thoughts; you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of or engage with, and when you do interact with colleagues/clients, you’re either accidentally on mute or your internet cuts out. Employees need a place to collaborate, cultivate relationships and culture, sit down and focus on the task at hand. Employees need a workplace where they can come in and enjoy the social benefits of a creativity-inducing environment, while having the flexibility of finding designated focus-space. Employees need a physical workplace. How often, and for how long employees utilize this space, is an entirely different story, but the importance of utilization is critical.
Using the Workplace to Improve the Employee Experience
That being said, I don’t think that stuffing 100 interns in a bullpen is the answer to anyone’s return-to-work problem. In fact, if that’s still your company office policy, let me speak with your interns so I can help them find a better job. The fact that the bullpen methodology was around for so long, is quite honestly, disappointing for the corporate world. It created a toxic environment of competition and resentment. It also limited the individual workers to a small confined space that they never felt comfortable sitting in, resulting in lack of company loyalty and satisfaction, and ultimately, a decreased sense of self satisfaction and worth.
So why is it that many organizations have been so extremist in their return-to-work plans? Well, just like the rest of the world, everything these days seems to be either left or right, up or down, monochromatic or a sea of color. This one or the other mentality is hurting company culture, and most importantly, it’s hurting employees.
We, as leaders in the corporate world, need to understand that there is always a middle ground to happily play with. Just as a single pair of jeans won’t fit every one of your employees, a one-size-fits-all workplace strategy will only lead to toxicity and erosion of productivity. Ultimately, it could even hurt your ability to attract and retain top talent.
Effective Return-to-Work Strategies
I’m assuming by now, your next question is “Well Palmer, if you have so much to say, then why don’t you tell us how we bring our employees back and make sure 100% of our employees are happy with the decision?”
I’ll tell you right now that I don’t have all the answers. In fact, nobody does.
At the same time, while you will never make a decision that 100% of your employees agree with, it is possible to make return-to-work choices that leave most your workers resentful, angry, unloyal, and not feeling heard. If you force your employees to return full-time, for example, you might provoke that kind of reaction. Same for mandated remote work: if you get rid of all your office space and go 100% remote, you’re likely to upset your employees. However, if you’re flexible, you’re going to ask your employees what they want to see in a return-to-work plan, what technologies/strategies and hybrid models they’d prefer, you will at least be providing your employees with flexibility, and ultimately, choice.
Doesn’t everyone want a choice in life? If you woke up in the morning and were mandated to wear a single outfit, mandated to eat a single meal and perform the same set of monotonous tasks every day of your adult-life, would you not be miserable? So why are companies mandating such strict workplace policies?
To me, the answer is simple: they’re having a hard time bringing employees back to the office. So, instead of looking into a corporate-sized-mirror, they’re putting a band-aid on a broken bone and mandating employees to go back to the office. If companies spent the proper amount of time and resources cultivating a welcoming, creativity-inducing, and engaging workplace environment, they wouldn’t have to mandate anything; employees would simply trickle back into the workplace over time. I can promise you that a workplace that enhances collaboration, high-quality social interaction, and productivity will beat the home office 9.5 times out of 10. However, a toxic work environment where employees don’t feel satisfied or valuable will always lose. That’s why you need to make conscious improvements to the employee experience.
Finding a Right-Sized Approach for Your Company
According to a recent survey by Cisco, Canadian workers are now generally dissatisfied with their hybrid work environments. In fact, 71% of all respondents in the survey said that they think their companies need to “rethink [their company] culture and mindset to make hybrid work more inclusive and productive.” That survey also found that many Canadian employees value the benefits of working from home, and even save money when they’re able to do so (92% of survey respondents said that they saved money on commuting; 61% said that this was significantly important to them). This means that, if you’re going to get your employees back in the physical office, you’ll have to give them a reason to come in.
That’s why we like to ask our clients: “How are you going to earn your employee’s commute?”
This simple, yet powerful, question gives an entirely new perspective on priorities. It breaks down the corporate barriers and humanizes the workplace, as it provokes an image of the employee sitting in traffic, when they could be making their kid’s breakfast; the employee rushing out the door to make it to work, instead of them taking their dog to the park.
As a company, and as a leader in your organization, how are you going to earn your employees’ commutes? And on top of that, when your employees do come into the office, how are you going to ensure their workplace is an interconnected community that supports productivity and creativity?
Returning to Work With Workplace Experience Technology
A growing number of companies are looking to boost their workplace experience by implementing workplace experience software. This new technology is an attractive solution for employers because it removes friction from a typical workday, and creates a heightened level of community that helps boost workplace connections. At HqO, our custom white label workplace experience platform gives employees the power to book a desk; reserve conference rooms; pay for parking; order food and beverage; RSVP to company events; stay up-to-date on new HR training; provide critical feedback on their day-to-day, and many more features.
Not only does the platform remove the frustrations of returning to work, but our back-end data and analytics capabilities also provide organizations with incredibly valuable, actionable data. Employers who use HqO are now able to take the data on how their employees are utilizing the workplace, which content they’re engaging with the most, and which services they’re enjoying, which enables employers to make strategic decisions about the workplace. The employees are the ones who will be in the workplace, so why not parallel path the in-app surveys with the live utilization data to transform the workplace into exactly what your employees want? The companies that are thriving today have given their employees flexibility, and they use workplace experience technology to help them listen to their employees.
We have two ears yet only one mouth for a reason. Rather than enforce mandates—which can result in a severe lack of trust, feelings of resentment, and overall company dissatisfaction—you should consider listening to your employees. I promise you, if you want to keep your best talent, you need to give your employees the tools to succeed and listen to what’s important to them. You won’t always get it 100% right, but that kind of empathetic listening can go a long way toward building lasting trust and success. And at the very least, you’ll be seen as an organization who cares about their people. Workplace experience technology allows you to listen to employee feedback. It also allows you to make serious changes to improve the workplace experience.