As we look forward to the new year ahead, our organization strives to find new ways to help our clients make better, more informed decisions within the real estate realm. We often engage the support and partnership of innovative professionals and consultants, both within and outside of our industry, to expand our toolbox of knowledge.

Along with many of our clients, we are currently exploring the topic of return-to-office and how we can better engage and collaborate in-person with our growing teams. We reached out to our friend Scott McGrath, Principal/Coach/Trainer at Pigeon Hole Consulting, for his insights on the subject:

To Return, or Not Return: That is Not the Question!

As always it is difficult to hold two, seemingly contradictory, truths at the same time. The return-to-work debate is exactly that: two truths that have equal merit and are leading to a debate that is based on a false dichotomy.  

I love a good black and white, yes or no situation as much as the next guy but that’s simply not going to win the day in the return-to-work debate as it takes our focus away from what is important.  

The real discussion is not about whether people should or should not return to their offices. It’s about understanding the benefits and barriers to both in-person and remote work and then responding in ways that create the most optimal outcomes for all (or at least most), regardless of where work happens.  

We know that most employees prefer working from home. They don’t have to commute, they have more flexibility related to when they work allowing for more responsiveness to personal/family needs, they feel like they have more autonomy/are less micromanaged, and they are more productive with their working hours as much of the non-task direct functions of work that occur in shared work settings have been eliminated.  

Unfortunately, here’s what else has been eliminated by working remotely:  

  1. Community.

    Not just the feel-good sense that we’re all in this together but some real tangible aspects of working in the same physical space are missing in the remote model. These include the motivation that comes from a sense of shared mission and what some call “goal contagion” – excitement and enthusiasm are contagious and can be a real boon to creativity, innovation and success itself. As Peter Drucker says: none of us is as smart as all of us and in-person work (when properly designed) creates many more opportunities for us to be smarter together.  

  2. Mental & Physical Health.

    In-person connections are far more likely to produce good brain chemicals (oxytocin) and tamp down more detrimental brain chemicals like cortisol and adrenocorticotropin which are related to high blood pressure, weight gain and heart disease. In-person connections have also been shown to improve mental functioning – they can literally improve our cognitive functioning. With the rise of mental health challenges in the past few years, in-person work might just be one of the antidotes needed to bring this surge under control or help us, in part, to manage some of the negative effects. 

  3. Relationship & Career Development.

    Not only is the workplace where we often learn how to develop relationships as adults, it is also the place where we learn – formally through intentional professional development, coaching and supervision; or informally through mentorship and observation – how to become the kind of professional we hope to be and grow into that next role, wherever we are in our career trajectory.  

So how do we take the best from both worlds and create win-win situations? The obvious answer is a hybrid model but some arbitrary split between working in-person and working remotely on its own is a lazy compromise and not a carefully constructed negotiation that gets us to win-win. So, here’s what I think we need to think about when creating a thoughtful hybrid model that truly capitalizes on the benefits of both.  

  1. When do we schedule in-person workdays? 

  2. What is the structure of these days from a goal/outcome perspective?  

We know that two of the largest concerns around returning to work are the time lost, and stress created, from commuting to the office and the loss of personal flexibility. Both facts lead me to believe that it’s not the in-person office model that has been “broken” by COVID, it’s the notion that we need to be physically present in our offices from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday to get our work done.  

Given this, can we create a hybrid model in which the times employees are required to be at work, in-person, better coincide with easier (non rush-hour) commutes and still give them more flexibility for personal/family commitments? I suspect that, for many, any in-person office commitments between 10am/11am and 2pm/3pm (or a similar) range might actually meet some of these needs and remove two of the most significant barriers to return-to-work. Ask your staff what might work best and plan office-hours based on the collective needs.  

We also know that simply having an office to work out of isn’t enough of an incentive for most people to return to work, even if they understand or appreciate some of the collective benefits of doing so. How do we motivate people then to come back to the office? Changing the hours they’re required to be there will go a long way but we need to do more. We need to ensure that the time they do spend in the office directly corresponds to the known benefits of being there, keeping in mind that working alone at their desks is not on that list.  

Let’s think about the benefits of having staff together and plan accordingly. I think requiring staff to be in the office for meetings (one-on-one, team/department or all staff) is more palatable as the benefit to doing these in person is commonly felt – not, however, if your meetings aren’t productive which is another topic altogether (I’ll save that for later!). I also think that requiring staff to be in-person for training/professional development opportunities is another area where there will be little resistance, assuming the timing guidelines as above are considered, and the content is seen as valuable. And finally, I do think there is a way to create even relatively unstructured yet productive exchanges, brainstorm sessions, and collaboration times that will motivate staff to come to the office, if well-designed.  

If you’ve been thinking through everything above and have created a hybrid model informed by these considerations, I suspect you’ll have a lot of success after the initial challenges of any transition period. If, however, you’ve thrown a dart at a board and decided all staff (or subsets of staff) must be in the office on specific days, from 9am to 5pm for business as usual, I suspect you’ll be met with a fair amount of prolonged resistance and higher than previous employee churn. It’s early days and no one knows for sure yet how this will all play out. What we do know for certain is organizations that invest in their people by creating optimal work environment typically do better than those that don’t.