It’s rare to hear someone say “COVID was probably the best thing for us” in a conversation about team collaboration. During the pandemic, working remotely eliminated water cooler chats and coffee meetings. Video calls became the new conference room. For many teams, it was a challenge to stay connected and synergized.
That’s why we were so interested in a different perspective from one of our colleagues. Tyler Chisholm is the CEO of Clearmotive Marketing Group, which has offices in Calgary and Toronto. He told us that his team is more aligned than ever thanks to COVID.
“Within probably six weeks of COVID, we came out with one team. No more Calgary/Toronto offices - everyone was just part of the team,” he told us. “All of a sudden, we pivoted and COVID was able to do what I have not been able to do for the last five years - get two offices to actually collaborate as if they were one.”
Makes sense. Now, even though restrictions are lifted and offices are allowed to reopen, Chisholm says it would actually be bad for business to bring everyone back to the office five days a week.
“Right now, it would actually hurt our business significantly if we went back to an office and separated the two teams again,” he said. “We're really debating if we should stay full remote first and use co-working space and find a solution for team events and certain client meetings.”
While some companies are surely gung-ho to get employees back to the office, others are still grappling with what the new normal will look like. This is not a decision to make lightly and requires a thoughtful, measured approach.
People have had a taste of freedom over this last year-and-a-half. Who hasn’t woken up 15 minutes before their work day starts and rushed to their office dressed only from the waist up? Or skipped out a bit early for a golf game? Or enjoyed eating up to three meals a day with their family?
If working remotely had a negative impact on productivity, it may be easier to justify a full return to the office. But that hasn’t been the case. In fact, an April 2021 Statistics Canada report found that 90 per cent of all new teleworkers reported being at least as productive during the pandemic as they were before. A third of them (32 per cent) reported accomplishing more work per hour than pre-COVID.
All of these factors are making it a lot harder for leaders to justify a return to the traditional five-day, eight-hour, in-the-office work week.
This “return to normal” is, or should be, triggering change management protocols in companies and organizations. After a year of communicating through screens, leaders are at risk of being out of touch with their employees. Now is the time to have some good conversations and consider whether there is a role for employees in designing what the future looks like.
Of course, this isn’t easy. While some employees are doing well at home, others are burning to get back into the office. It will be challenging to meet everyone’s expectations. Issues of fairness will likely bubble to the surface: “Why does Claire get to work from home three days a week, and I only get two days at home?”
It’s very likely that conflicts have been simmering while people have been away. The masks of those conflicts will soon be removed when people are once again sitting next to each other. Then there are employees who were hired during the pandemic and have simply never met their teammates in person. These are sweeping changes - and they are all happening at once.
If these changes aren’t handled properly, employees are simply going to quit. Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index revealed that 40 per cent of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year. It indicates that “a thoughtful approach to hybrid work will be critical for attracting and retaining diverse talent.”
So what can you do? Now is the time to have a look at the needs of your organization AND your employees. It’s time for leaders to realize that employees have needs, interests and desires. If they can’t be fulfilled through work, and if they feel like life is short and fleeting, they will opt out.
Figuring out what drives your employees would be a solid start. What are their hopes and dreams, motivators and goals - and how can you help them get there? Does that mean working from home, working in the office, or making other accommodations?
Have more one-on-one meetings and conversations with your teams. Address burnout and exhaustion. Encourage collaboration between teammates.
This is no longer a command-control world where leaders tell their teams what to do and how to do it. Let your teams be part of the solution. We like to say “those that write the plan, support the plan.”
If you aren’t sure how to action this advice, hiring a facilitator is a good place to start. We can help you steer group conversations to ensure you end up with a decision or plan.
The reality is, flexible work is here to stay. Balancing competing priorities between leadership and employees won’t be easy. Each employee will be looking for something a little different.
Tyler Chisholm is still contemplating how to strike the right balance at Clearmotive.
“If we do go back to the office, what does that mean? It might mean some people are in the office, some people are at home,” Chisholm said. “We are not going to be going back to mandatory full five days in the office, we will not be doing that.”
This is not a snap decision. After nearly 18 months of dealing with a global pandemic, it’s OK to take some time to find the right solution… together.
Listen. Engage. Show your employees that you care. And, when in doubt, hire a facilitator.