A Successful Return-to-Office Strategy Accounts for Culture and Collaboration

In December, I went into the Argus office to wrap a few things up for the year. I was the only one there. I took a few moments to notice the quiet, the empty cubicles, the dark offices, the announcements on our bulletin board dated March 2020. I suddenly felt slightly disconnected to the company I’ve spent 25 years helping to build. And I thought to myself…“Have we lost that Argus feeling? Do we still have those important connections? Is our culture still alive?”

After all, we’re a company made up of people, and our work is based on the relationships that we foster with our clients. Culture is important to us. It’s our foundation. After an abrupt transition to remote work last spring, we’ve strived to keep our culture top of mind. We have a Teams channel dedicated to celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and sharing photos of new babies. We’ve had virtual happy hours and outdoor small group luncheons. Our department and office leaders have stepped up and become extraordinary people leaders, sustaining engagement from their teams and keeping a real pulse on the individual and group dynamics and needs of our organization.

While there is not a perfect replacement for face-to-face human interaction, what I have learned is this:

  • The trust and flexibility you give people to do their jobs and thrive in their personal lives is much more important to your culture than having donuts together in the break room on Fridays. 
  • But that doesn’t mean you abandon the essential need to collaborate. It’s the collective intelligence of Argus as a whole that delivers best-in-class solutions for our clients. Whether together in person, or behind computer screens, our company prospers, and we do our best work when we have every brain in the game.

So how do you make connections and collaboration happen while also managing the varying working arrangements that your people have come to prefer over the last year? This is a question that so many leaders are grappling with as they determine their office reopening plans. As engineers, we like to answer questions with data.

Earlier this year, we conducted an employee survey to help inform our return-to-office strategy. I couldn’t help but hope for unanimous results… obvious data points directing us to a clear path forward. But what it demonstrated (and what we all sort of already knew) is that there isn’t a one-size fits all approach for returning to “normal.” Everyone has a different definition of normal today than they did a year ago, and that’s okay. The year 2020 allowed us all to re-prioritize. As the dust begins to settle, we’re coming out of survival mode and into an opportunity to unwind how this last year has impacted every part of our lives. In this unwinding process, you’ll find out how your people’s priorities have changed.

Let’s not fight that change. Let’s embrace it. If we don’t, we’ll lose talent to a company that does. Sometimes you need an eye-opening moment to know that you can do something different. Part of being an inclusive leader is understanding and valuing everyone’s unique perspectives, struggles, strengths, weaknesses and experiences. As someone who strives to be an inclusive leader, I cannot ignore how 2020 has changed what matters to people. We have some team members who can’t wait to get back to the office, and we have some who have learned a remote work approach works best for their lives. Our phased approach to return to the office allows people to see a timeline and make arrangements in their personal lives and provides flexibility for continued remote work options. I know it will not meet 100% of everyone’s needs; that’s an impossible task. But it will be consistent, support our strong culture and allow for the collaboration that is essential in the engineering field.

As I think back to one of our internal presentations at the onset of the pandemic, I can vividly remember a slide that said, “We’ll get through this, even if it lasts days, weeks or months.” It’s humorous to think about that knowing what we know now, but it also brings me great pride in our team for continuing to persevere through all the unknowns. We did it while building capabilities, expanding services, and growing our team. Our commitment to each other and our clients has never been stronger. Our culture is still vibrant. 

Originally published at LinkedIn.