When it comes to bringing individuals back to the office, organizations are past dipping their toes in the water—they’re diving in.

Executives are inundated with reports, surveys, and articles all claiming to hold the best way to manage the transition. Most offer practical suggestions that focus on the logistics of how to bring people back to the office.

We believe that “how” is not the right question. Instead, ask: why?

What are your organization’s goals for in-person work? What makes it important to show up to the office? When you answer these questions, the “how” will often reveal itself naturally.

 

Disrupt what is habitual

Neuroscientists estimate that 40 to 95 percent of human behavior could be considered some form of habit. The office is no exception. Before the pandemic, people showed up to the office because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

It goes without saying, the pandemic completely disrupted this way of operating. Almost overnight, organizations realized that many jobs could be done remotely, with minimal loss to productivity. The pendulum swung from one end to the other, in-person to virtual.

Mindsets shifted, too, often for the better. Before the pandemic, you might have been judged by how many hours you worked—now, output is paramount. Before, a work from home day was sometimes viewed as an unofficial day off. Over the past year and a half, this negative stigma has disappeared. 

We find ourselves with an opportunity. We have a chance to step back and ask, When we work, what is the outcome we want to produce?, and reconfigure work structures and policies in fulfillment of that end.

In other words, rather than return to the office out of habit, organizations have the chance to act intentionally.

 

Rethink the purpose of bringing people together

Our post-pandemic survey found that in many cases, individuals felt that remote work improved their experience of work and life. Perhaps most importantly, they realized that before the pandemic, work had displaced other priorities—family, friends, wellness—and that they were unwilling to accept previous, inflexible work conditions.

As we enter the post-lockdown era, organizations looking to retain talent are taking heed and offering flexible working options. Google, for example, offers employees two remote days per week, and four weeks a year to work from wherever they like.

For some outcomes, little is lost by working remotely. In fact, some of our survey respondents reported feeling more productive at home, away from the distractions of the office.

Other outcomes can be accomplished remotely—like brainstorming or joint working sessions—but something is lost. We often hear from clients that in a completely virtual work world, relationships can easily devolve into something that feels transactional. Genuine connection is difficult to build through a screen. 

When designing the future of in-person work, these are the cases organizations must take into account. Consider the example of Salesforce. The majority of employees will come in at least some of the time — 8 in 10 miss the connection and creativity unique to working together in-person. But they won’t be returning to the same spaces they left early in 2020. Rather, the company is redesigning workspaces as “community hubs.” Rows of desks are being replaced by breakout spaces designed for collaboration, to cultivate the kinds of relationships that can’t be formed remotely.

These are two companies’ solutions. For every organization, what works will be different. It begins with asking: “What problem are we trying to solve?” When people have flexibility, they are happier—the pandemic made this clear—the question is how to sustain that flexibility moving forward.

 

A new way forward

The pandemic presented the world with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change. Individuals rediscovered the joy of family and life at home, and they don’t want to lose what they’ve gained. Organizations have a unique opportunity to seize the moment and rethink work practices and structures, examining them from the lens of what they are committed to achieving. Ask yourself: what is the outcome we want to produce, who needs to be involved to produce that outcome, and what’s the best medium for achieving it? The future of work puts purpose over habit, and outcome over activity.

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